There’s a prevalent storyline about the European Union in the air: After the refugee crisis, Brexit, the toxic hissing by renegade members Hungary and Poland, and a sluggish vaccine rollout, it is only a matter of time before the European Union comes undone.
So far, the gloom-and-doom crowd has been wrong. With the United Kingdom finally gone, the bloc’s borders strengthened, the East European rebels placated by new EU spending, and vaccination rates picking up, the EU looks like it is here to stay.
What’s more, in the navel-gazing Brussels bubble, this is not only an occasion for a sigh of relief but a vindication of the EU’s overarching culture of historic optimism.
As a result, the usual suspects are at it again. Less than two decades after the Convention on the Future of Europe, which was supposed to deliver a constitutional document acceptable to popular majorities in member states (which it didn’t), and seven years after another attempt to “democratize” the EU’s functioning through the system of Spitzenkandidaten (which was supposed to provide more accountability and transparency to the process of electing the president of the European Commission but was abandoned after the 2019 elections), the Commission, the European Council, and the European Parliament are convening a new Conference on the Future of Europe.
The event, running until the spring of 2022, is being held mostly online. Its goal is to provide an opportunity for Europeans to offer their views of what the EU’s priorities should be and what future reforms it needs. Meanwhile, the “three institutions” promise that they will “examine swiftly how to follow up effectively.”
According to Politico.eu’s Paul Taylor, this is indeed a “unique opportunity to set an agenda for post-pandemic Europe” and get the integration machine “moving” again. If Europe is lucky, says Taylor, it could get an “elected European president, a minimum income for citizens, an EU-wide minimum corporate tax level,” and a “European emergency stockpile of essential medicines and medical equipment.” These are just a few of the items on Taylor’s list.
The obsession with “moving the European project forward” is not just an oddity that sets the EU apart from other economic integration projects around the world—like Mercosur, ASEAN, or the African Union. Still, while the EU’s constant overreach and underdelivery might not lead to the EU’s unraveling, it definitely risks making the bloc irrelevant.
In the past, EU officialdom has placed many risky bets whose scope exceeds the means actually available for their achievement. Here is one example: the idea of a common European currency, despite the absence of sufficiently flexible labor markets to cushion country-specific shocks or a willingness to use fiscal transfers to smooth business cycle asymmetries—and with parochially national and thus vulnerable banking sectors. Here is another: the Schengen Area of passport-free travel, without common border protections or asylum policies. Here is yet a third: the successive enlargements of the Schengen Area to include more countries, without substantial consideration of the robustness of democracy and rule of law in these countries.
Such moves need not be characterized as unambiguous mistakes, but they do suggest that EU leaders have repeatedly sold the bloc’s citizens a bill of goods.
As the legal scholar Joseph Weiler has noted, the legitimacy of European integration has not been and cannot be justified through traditional input-output or process-result arguments. The deficiencies of the EU as a democratic polity and its failure to deliver some essential Europe-wide public goods—including the recent bungled vaccine rollout—are apparent. Instead, the justification for “moving the project forward” is based, in Weiler’s words, on the “ideal pursued, the destiny to be achieved, the promised land waiting at the end of the road.”
Yet the past decade should have made it clear that there is no Whig inevitability to European integration. A member state, the United Kingdom, has left without facing either financial ruin or political instability. Both the refugee crisis and European governments’ closing of their borders in response to the pandemic have reminded us that, even within the EU, national governments can take things into their hands, rolling back fundamental European integration tenets like freedom of movement. Beyond such setbacks, some elements of the European project stand exactly zero chance of being translated into reality—like a European army, a European social safety net, or even the unconditional deference of national judiciaries to the European Court of Justice.
Can European leaders recalibrate? Since the Schuman Declaration—which established the European Coal and Steel Community in 1950—and the Treaty of Rome, which founded the European Economic Community in 1957, the European project has been defined by a messianic sense of direction toward a unitary state. Hence the efforts toward a common European currency, a directly elected parliament, a flag, a border patrol—and the frequent allusions to “European sovereignty” by political leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron. This last term is particularly arresting, since “sovereignty” has traditionally referred to “indivisible, supreme and absolute” forms of political power rather than federal associations of self-governing political entities, like the EU.
There are alternatives to such messianism. The EU does not have to be a project in the making. One can recognize the EU’s many achievements while being agnostic about its political future, its size, or its desirable institutional set-up on the spectrum from its current, loosely confederal arrangements to a more centralized state. The former president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, understood that well. “Sometimes less is more,” he told the European Parliament in 2017. “We should not make people believe that we can deliver the sun and the moon if we are only able to deliver a telescope.”
Even if the EU is an effective setter of international standards or an economic powerhouse, it does not have the means or capacity to be an effective geopolitical player. Notwithstanding the calls, including calls by this author, for Europe to take things into its own hands during the Trump era, the bloc struggles to reach agreement on pressing geopolitical issues—from China to Russia to the conflict between Israel and Hamas and even engagement in its immediate neighborhood. This impotence is illustrated by the succession of mediocrities in the post of EU “foreign minister,” created with great fanfare in 2008. The job has been occupied by a former Soviet-funded peacenik, an Italian with a tenure of eight months as Italian foreign minister, and a semi-retired veteran of the lower echelons of Spanish politics who was notable mainly for his inoffensiveness.
That is not to say that Europeans cannot throw their weight around on the global stage. But when they do, it will be European powers or their ad hoc coalitions that do it, not the EU as a whole.
Still, unless differences among EU countries pull them into conflicts with one another, that’s just fine. It is time to recognize that the tension between unity and diversity and the persistence of disagreements between countries are not problems to be overcome by deeper integration but essential features of the European condition. The same holds for a rejection of the “bicycle” view of European politics as a process that must be constantly propelled forward to prevent it from collapsing under the weight of Euroskepticism.
The European project has delivered many significant achievements, including the prosperity facilitated by the single market and the tour de force of making armed conflict between European powers unthinkable. Yet, in order to survive the 21st century without further swings between triumphalism and existential crises, the EU has to temper its messianic zeal with a dose of prudence and an acceptance of Europe’s complexity, diversity, and contradictions.
Dalibor Roháč is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor of American Purpose. Twitter: @DaliborRohac
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