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EU à la Carte

EU à la Carte

To endure and thrive, the European Union needs less centralization, not more, argues Dalibor Roháč in his new book.

Thibault Muzergues
Governing the EU in an Age of Division
by Dalibor Roháč (Edward Elgar Publishing, 174 pp., for sale November 30)

Thibault Muzergues and Dalibor Roháč, two Europeans working for US think tanks, have published books recently that address Europe’s pressing predicaments. In this article, Muzurgues reviews Roháč's book, with Roháč offering a response. See here for Roháč’s review of Thibault Muzergue’s War in Europe? From Impossible War to Improbable Peace.

Most books about the European Union are boring. This partly reflects the functionalism of the European project, which lacks the ambition to inspire the fanaticism that had previously dragged the Continent into two world wars. But it is also the result of the deeply technocratic nature of the Brussels machine, which focuses on expertise and technocracy, while leaving politics and implementation to the national capitals.

Any out-of-the-box book discussing the future of the EU therefore warrants enthusiasm. Dalibor Roháč’s Governing the EU in an Age of Division is just such a book. It is concise, accessible, and well-written, and it gets the reader to think beyond the Brussels bubble. By taking a contrarian view to the idea of an “ever-closer Union” while simultaneously maintaining a sanguine view of the European Union, Roháč brings a breath of fresh air into the current debate. Far from the doom and gloom of the Eurosceptics who announce—regularly and rejoicingly—the decadence and future fall of the European project, Roháč nonetheless remains equally distant from the dogma that Europe is the only answer to every policy question.

Roháč’s main argument is that the latter mindset has led the EU toward a dead-end. The elite illusion that a great European Leviathan knows what is best for all Europeans, he argues, is turning citizens away from the European project and closer to the nation-state—the Leviathan that they know and depend on.

He calls for a more balanced approach between Brussels and the member-states—even for a polycentric European Union, where coalitions of the willing would be able to move at different paces by choosing to increase their co-operation, without being hindered by a paralyzing unanimity or by potentially destructive qualified majority voting. In the refugee crisis of 2015, in fact, the use of qualified majority voting has worsened relations between member states, without providing a long-term solution to the ongoing problem.

Roháč breaks many of the taboos of European politics. The idea of some inexorable drive toward centralization is not only fueling the fears that prop up anti-European populism, but it also comes in direct conflict with another founding principle of the European Union: subsidiarity. An obscure, Brussels-bubble catchword, it may look indecipherable to the outsider. Yet subsidiarity encapsulates a remarkably simple concept according to which political decisions should be taken at the level that is the closest to the citizen. In other words, the EU should not take action unless it is more effective than action taken at the national, regional, or local level.

Using this argument, Roháč makes the case for a more decentralized EU where flexible coalitions would be able to move forward in certain (usually more liberal) directions should they wish to, leaving others to preserve the status quo. Nobody should be anxious about such mille-feuilles of asymmetric integration and competing sovereignties. It is already a reality in the EU. The Eurozone, for example, does not include all EU members. Most non-Eurozone countries are not rushing to join it anytime soon. In the same vein, the Schengen system, even though it is one of the EU’s main accomplishments, still excludes some EU members such as Romania and Bulgaria, while also including non-EU members such as Switzerland, Liechtenstein, and Norway. An à la carte EU is actually the norm. It has also proven successful.

Roháč is a Slovak-American. To hear praise for a “multi-speed” Europe is extremely unusual in Central Europe, where any discussion about clusters of the EU moving ahead raises fears of being marginalized and left behind. By turning the argument on its head, Roháč argues that the region does not have much to fear about polycentric governance. Quite the contrary. If they are to save their specificity and protect their national sovereignty, which they seem to cherish more dearly than their Western European counterparts, maybe Central European states want the ability to opt-out from some European initiatives while going along with some others.

Clearly, opt-outs would have been preferable in the case of the migration crisis. When Central Europe was strong-armed into giving in to Northern Europe’s need to dispatch refugees across the continent, national governments in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia simply decided to ignore such decisions and got away with it, precipitating another crisis of European governance.

For all its merits, in the end Roháč’s book falls short of breaking European orthodoxy for the better. This is clearly on display in the case of Europe’s “f-word”: federalism. Applying the federalist ideal to the EU would imply—at least in the short term—strengthening a center in Brussels, which remains very weak. Roháč’s point is that a weak center is not necessarily a bad thing. But federalism is not simply about building a strong center—it is about finding the right balance between a central government and the states, between the need for efficiency and the reality of diversity in a vast geographical ensemble. It is unfortunate that the author does not go one step further. To paraphrase Georges Clemenceau, federalism is too important an issue to be left to the sole harsh-integrationists inside the EU.

One difficulty here is that most Europeans (including Roháč and myself) take U.S. federalism as the principal model for EU integration. And while it is true that Europe’s Founding Fathers have always looked up to America in the pursuit of their “ever-closer union,” this leads to the idea that an atrophied federal capital is necessarily a danger to the unity of the whole. The United States, however, is not the only example of federalism that the EU can draw from—if only because Europe is much more diverse politically and culturally than North America, as Roháč reminds us repeatedly in his book.

Switzerland offers an alternative model, and one much more decentralized than the United States. India is another example of a territory that is united under a federation affirming its common identity as a civilization, while recognizing the great diversity of languages as well as political and ethnic traditions contained therein. One of the more interesting features of Indian (but also Canadian) federalism is that it is asymmetric. Due to historical specificities or their more peripheral positions in these respective unions, some states (provinces) have specific powers that others may not have. Yet, that does not preclude the presence of a strong federal state with exclusive competence on key issues, notably in defense and foreign affairs.

Contrary to Roháč’s claims, the EU does indeed need more centralization, not less. In many domains, the Union needs to get its act together. Having a strong central authority helps. Whatever the merits and flaws of the EU’s joint procurement of the COVID vaccine—which Dalibor discusses in the book—simply dismissing bulk purchases also seems wrongheaded, particularly when those could provide an alternative to Russian oil and gas. True, centralization and more Europe are not always the solution. But sometimes —they are.

Thibault Muzergues is the Regional Program Director for Europe and Euro-Med at the International Republican Institute. Twitter: @TMuzergues.

Author Dalibor Roháč Responds:

Thibault Muzergues’ review of my book touches on two important questions, both noticeably absent in conversations in Brussels. First, what should European federalism look like? Second, given our answer to the former question, how do we get there?

There is no question that “federalism is a too important issue to be left to the sole harsh-integrationists inside the EU.” These are the ones who imagine that giving more power to Brussels is always to be celebrated as progress on Europe’s path towards an ever-closer union.

Muzergues is exactly right. In its proper understanding, federalism is about dividing political authority between different levels of government, with those more distant from the individual playing a role that is subsidiary to institutions closer to the people. However, the spectrum of federal models of governance, from more centralistic to almost confederal, is vast. Even the United States evolved in the practice of its federalism toward an ever-greater role for the federal government. As a result, reasonable people can disagree about where on that spectrum they would like the EU to land.

As a rule of thumb, the greater the external effects of a policy, the stronger the case for coordination—or centralization. There is an argument to be made for global, and not just European, cooperation on issues such as climate change or nuclear proliferation. Even a relatively decentralized form of federalism, Muzergues rightly notes, “does not preclude the presence of a strong federal state with exclusive competence on key issues, notably in defense and foreign affairs.”

By that token, the EU would benefit both from greater centralization in some policy areas (foreign and defense policy, single market, trade) and devolution in others (think agriculture, social affairs, or justice). Here’s the catch though: In many of those policy domains where the “externalities” argument for centralization holds, there is no agreement on what common policies should look like. Should a common defense policy prioritize deterring Russia, or the policing of the Mediterranean and fighting terrorism? Should the single market in services be pursued by harmonizing labor and service regulations, or merely through mutual recognition?

There is no way to wish away the deep-seated heterogeneity of policy preferences across European nations on issues that seem to merit common responses. It would be equally hard to overcome Europeans’ differences over the EU’s appropriate federal design. Following the fiasco of the 500-page Constitution for Europe and the frictions caused by the Lisbon Treaty—an equally unwieldy and unsatisfying “constitutional” document—there is little appetite for an institutional reset that would bring the EU more closely in line with any desirable form of federalism.

That observation, pessimistic perhaps, is the starting point of my book. Yet, instead of giving into despair, it is worth noting that Europeans can still do much together within the confines of existing institutional arrangements—just not by trying to remake Europe into something it is not.

Dalibor Roháč is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC and a contributing editor at American Purpose. Twitter: @DaliborRohac.

Image: Gerard Richter, "1024 Colors," 1973 (Wikiart)

DemocracyEastern EuropeEuropePolitical Philosophy