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A Fork in the Road of the EU

A Fork in the Road of the EU

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In case you hadn’t noticed, we just celebrated “Europe Day” on Thursday, May 9th, marking the 74th anniversary of the Schuman Declaration. This declaration, presented by French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman on 9th May 1950, paved the way for the formation of a European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), constituted in 1952 by France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. The ECSC was the first serious attempt to institutionalise supranational European cooperation in the post-war era, and eventually evolved into the monetary, political, and economic union that we now call the European Union. 

As the European Union has expanded and translated greater power to European organs of governance and policymaking, most notably the European Commission, it has had to contend with significant growing pains: the wide cultural, political, and economic diversity contained within the union has made it exceedingly difficult to develop and maintain a vision of Europe that is broadly shared across the union.

A Fundamental Rift in Europe

The exit of Britain from the EU, combined with the intervening electoral successes of Euroskeptical parties and leaders in countries like Sweden, Italy, France, Poland, and the Netherlands, is symptomatic of a fundamental rift between the “official” vision of Europe, espoused by the current Commission and many of the traditional leftist and centre-right parties, a Europe of “pooled sovereignty,” shared social ideals, and centrally coordinated taxing, climate, pandemic, and refugee policies, and the vision of dissenting parties, which envisions Europe as a union of independent, sovereign nations, who cooperate for economic interests but have broad discretion to set their own policies across a broad range of domains, from immigration and taxation to climate, agriculture, health, and welfare. 

The Drive for Political Consolidation

Although the European Union was born fundamentally as a vehicle of economic cooperation, the seeds of a more consolidated and integrated political union have been present from the very beginning, since the post-war ideal of peace, human rights, and solidarity upon which the European Union was built could, potentially, be interpreted to entail increasingly integrated foreign policies, taxation policies, and social policies across the Union, as well as a more expansive role for the European Court of Human Rights – which is precisely what came to pass.

But it was arguably the introduction of monetary union in 1992 that served as a powerful catalyst for greater political harmonisation. For monetary union is only sustainable with a relatively high level of control by EU institutions over public finance and spending, requiring a significant renunciation of political and economic sovereignty by member states.

An Unresolved Tension

One of the most iconic representatives of the more demanding approach to European integration is French President Emmanuel Macron. In numerous public interventions, including a speech given in the Hague on 11th April 2023, he called for “a stronger and a better European integration,” even a more “sovereign” Europe, on a range of issues, from defence and industrial regulation to the regulation of social media and climate policy. 

Agree or not with Macron’s proposal to “pool” European sovereignty across a range of policy domains, at least this much seems clear: the ideal of Europe as a union of sovereign nations cooperating along certain limited policy domains, which seems to fit the earliest models of EU integration, has been steadily ceding ground to the ideal of Europe as a sovereign union of citizens with taxes, finances, defence, climate policy, immigration, and foreign policy controlled from the centre.

EU leaders have been unable to resolve the tensions between these two irreconcilable visions of Europe, because there is no political or cultural consensus among and within member states on the future of the European Union. These unresolved tensions have laid the groundwork for the steady polarisation of Europe into two factions: one favouring a concentration of a wide range of political and economic functions in European institutions, and the other favouring a looser, more decentralised union of independent states.

The Rise of Nationalist Populism

Up to Brexit, EU leaders more or less fudged these tensions. But as public finances got tighter, welfare got scarcer, and the EU came under ever greater pressure from migration from developing countries, nationalist discourses with a populist, anti-establishment tone steadily gained momentum. Indeed, we have reached a point at which parties skeptical about the current direction of travel toward ever-greater integration, even if not always leading in the polls, are now big enough in most EU countries to have a real impact on national policy. If current electoral trends and opinion polls are anything to go by, this June’s European elections will shift the balance of power in the European Parliament closer to parties that are deeply critical of European integration on issues like immigration and climate policy. 

Tough Choices Ahead

All of these developments suggest that we are in for a showdown between advocates of further integration and consolidation, such as the current European Commission and its centrist and leftist allies in the European Parliament, and the path of a “slimmer” and less politically ambitious Europe, pushed by nationalist and Euroskeptical parties on the right.

Both options entail significant risks. An attempt to drive forward the integration process may contribute to an even greater sense of powerlessness on the part of citizens as they see critical political functions effectively removed from their national parliaments, fueling Eurosceptical parties even further. At a time when nationalism and discontent over what is perceived as unchecked immigration appears to be gaining momentum, a move toward further political consolidation may potentially tear the European Union apart.

Any attempt, on the other hand, to restore the economic and political sovereignty of member states would likely destabilise Europe’s current economic system, at least in the short term. A viable monetary union may be put in jeopardy if European institutions renounce their control over the public spending and finances of member states.

Sooner or later, EU citizens and political leaders will have to decide which Europe they wish to back: a highly integrated political union with major policies decided from Brussels, or an economic union of sovereign nations with central coordination reserved primarily for issues of mutual economic interest. Neither of these two options is guaranteed to succeed. But trundling along in a political and institutional halfway house, with policies that upset a lot of people but no serious attempt to articulate a shared vision of where Europe is headed or what it stands for, is a recipe for political mediocrity, disillusionment, and chronic instability. 

Republished from the author’s Substack



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Author

  • David Thunder

    David Thunder is a researcher and lecturer at the University of Navarra’s Institute for Culture and Society in Pamplona, Spain, and a recipient of the prestigious Ramón y Cajal research grant (2017-2021, extended through 2023), awarded by the Spanish government to support outstanding research activities. Prior to his appointment to the University of Navarra, he held several research and teaching positions in the United States, including visiting assistant professor at Bucknell and Villanova, and Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Princeton University’s James Madison Program. Dr Thunder earned his BA and MA in philosophy at University College Dublin, and his Ph.D. in political science at the University of Notre Dame.

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