The direct cause of the loss of faith in European project in its current from lies in the destructive pressure of globalised markets and the awareness of the global sources of European instability and insecurity. Financial and migration crises contributed decisively to the sort of anxiety and sense of threat that have substantively undermined societies’ trust in the effectiveness and honesty of their governments and European institutions, and that are often misleadingly described in terms of “populism”.
The dynamics of institutional change that dominated the EU before and after enlargement were mainly centred on the balance between the old member states and the European institutions, and between the old member states and the new. They were channelled chiefly into treaty changes concluded in the framework of the intergovernmental conference or in the innovative form of the European convention. The latter refers to the constitutional treaty for the UE and the Lisbon treaty, and the former to the Nice treaty. Differing in method, these treaty changes aimed to achieve the same goal – to reinvigorate the core of the EU (mainly Germany and France) around the new balance within the decision-making system in the Council, which it was hoped the new formula of the qualified majority voting (QMV) would provide. At core these changes were an expression of the aims of governments and EU institutions that were trying to seize the enlargement as an opportunity to centralise their power. Thus, the logic of European integration was determined by the paradigm of both widening and deepening the EU, which also functioned as a prism through which the future of the European unity was judged and foreseen.
New division lines
This seems now to be completely in the past, while the crises of the last decade have changed utterly the situation in the Union and the way that the integration project is evolving. After the last decade, the Union seems to be extremely unbalanced, weakened and divided. The financial crisis has exacerbated the divide between the north and south within the Eurozone. The migration crisis contributed largely to the revival of the old east–west divide, which was, more than 15 years after the enlargement, perceived to have in principle been overcome. And instead of further rounds of enlargement, which would prove the EU’s unchangeable strategic capacity to grow, we are now, with Brexit, witnessing the first case of a reverse tendency that could lead the EU to further reduction. Obviously, the mode of integration based on the effective interrelation between deepening and widening has been questioned entirely and replaced by a new one modelled on integration through crisis management. The Lisbon treaty marks here the end of that particular period in the history of integration that was opened by the Maastricht treaty and that was then characterised by enlargements, institutional design through treaty changes, and German and French leadership cemented by the QMV decision-making system.
The situation of the EU facing multiple different crises would normally require new attempts to institutionally strengthen the European project, to regain control and to centralise power. But exactly the opposite seems to be happening, as if the previous developments aimed at establishing the constitutional treaty and Lisbon treaty had completely exhausted the EU’s capacity to make any new treaty changes. There is clearly no political appetite for repeating such an endeavour. However, this does not mean that the EU can remain static in the face of new challenges and new forms of crisis, for fear that it will completely fall apart, which is barely imaginable and surely not desirable. It will move forward; it will evolve, but in line with a quite different mode of changes more appropriate to the complex and diverse character of the crises. Less centred on institutions and more policy-oriented, the further evolution of the EU will have to be capable of grasping the true nature of the current crisis. It is often repeated that European integration was, in the past, constantly lurching from one crisis to another. This observation is essentially true, but there is also a need to understand the unique character of the current state of crisis in Europe, which is different. It is related to the very essence of the system, of a model of integration based on the trust and confidence that European societies bestowed on their political representatives and European institutions, and this trust has now disappeared. The direct cause of this loss of faith lies in the destructive pressure of globalised markets and the awareness of the global sources of European instability and insecurity. Financial and migration crises contributed decisively to the sort of anxiety and sense of threat that have substantively undermined societies’ trust in the effectiveness and honesty of their governments and European institutions, and that are often misleadingly described in terms of “populism”.
Honesty is the best policy, which means that the future of the EU should no longer belong to institutional changes, especially if we understand them as a result of a top-down design conducted by governments and Brussels elites in a struggle for power. In times of mistrust and disillusionment, any institutional changes in the EU have to result strictly from a policy-oriented approach, which is the only way to regain reliability and confidence and to stay closely in touch with the reality of the crisis. The general nature of the crisis within the member states, which is determined by the pressure of global markets and global insecurity, requires a proper response from the EU in the form of reforms with social and political potential.
The EU and the triangle of power
Therefore, the real battlefield of the EU’s future is presently the triangle between: governments (let us say, the national and European elites that still have regulatory legislative power in their hands); European societies, which are increasingly suffering from financial, labour and cultural instability and uncertainty in their countries; and finally business, which is increasingly pressured by global competition, and whose identity and interests are increasingly transnational and decoupled from the needs of the societies and elected governments. The EU as a supranational institutional arrangement, a set of mechanisms, and a system of regulations, is placed right in the middle of this triangle, and its future depends on how this trilemma of democratic and free societies, elected governments and globalised business will be resolved. From the point of view of European societies and in the context of their electoral democracies, the question most decisive for the future is: whose interests will the EU serve most, and whose interests will it most protect? Will it be the interests of European citizens or the interests of global corporations and external major powers? The credibility of European integration is at stake here. However, whatever the solutions will be that enable the EU to better protect the interests of the people, the following guiding principles should be recognised as foundational to European integration for the post-crisis future.
The first principle is a tight and sound relation between democratic society and member state, which has to be protected by the EU in the integration process as the nucleus of political input legitimacy. Any actions at the EU level aiming to replace or undermine it – as we could regrettably observe in the case of the euro crisis and the migration crisis – will result in backlashes and will weaken European integration. A well-functioning relationship between democratic society and member state is key to the success of the European project. The EU makes sense and has a future only as a facilitator and guider of policies fostered within member states. The reverse would mean pure hegemony.
Secondly, the integrative power of the EU lies in its capability for cohesion. The competing social and economic models of the member states have to be acknowledged within the EU. But the most explosive problem the EU is now facing internally, besides the issue of external security in Europe’s neighbourhood and the changing constellation of global international politics, is growing internal inequalities. These inequalities affect the inner stability of European societies and states, and they disturb the relations among them, causing conflicts and blame games. This negative development undermines the very essence of European integration, which from the very beginning aimed at social and political cohesion as a foundation for peace, prosperity, security and trust. Thus, the EU has to regain its ability to calm inequalities; otherwise it will lose all credibility.
Thirdly, the EU is not about how to construct one European polity. Instead of trying to perpetuate the nonsense of “ever closer Union”, it has to be abandoned. In turn, the EU should produce a common European political mind in the form of a consensus among member states. This is vital to the future of the EU as the only reasonable and political recipe for coping with the diverging positions and interests that are emerging among the states as a result of crises. Such a common European political mind should concentrate its efforts first and foremost on two issues: what is the European way of life that the EU should protect and guard as fundamental to European societies? And how, within in the EU, can we come to a relatively shared perception of internal and external threats? Obviously, the two questions are interconnected and they both constitute the necessary starting point for any discussion about the revision and reform of particular European policies, including possible institutional adjustments. The EU, composed now of 27 countries, has to work out a broad consensus on who we are and what we should be afraid of. This is important not only as a condition for how to remain fit to jointly and effectively respond to crises, but it also derives from the very nature of an enlarged and widened Europe. It is the diversity of groupings of countries, rather than a top-down federalisation centred on a French–German leadership, that is nowadays responsible for the high complexity of the European project. The Mediterranean group, the Hanseatic group, the Scandinavian group, the Central European group, the Danube group and the Benelux group, but, foremost, coalitions of the willing and “issue groupings” such as the euro group, the cohesion funds group, the Russia friends group and many others – all these different interests, experiences, needs and expectations have to be reunited and transformed into an effective European multilateralism based mainly on a mechanism of balance between all different groupings.
The future of Europe
It is now worth looking from the perspective of these three guiding principles at the idea of the Conference on the Future of Europe, which will shape the political discussion in the EU for the next three years. It is the brainchild of French president Emmanuel Macron, introduced by the new European Commission, and directly fastened to his philosophy of Sovereign Europe. Apart from the first phase of the conference (which is planned to cover such problems of the EU’s democratic functioning as transnational lists in the European election and the lead candidate system), the Conference’s second phase – devoted to policy priorities – seems to be key. It is hard to judge at this stage whether the Conference is being thought of as a mean to enable a new way of reforming the EU by avoiding the existing mechanisms of change enshrined in the treaty and to reanimate the old custom of French–German pre-cooking for Europe. The thinking behind the timing of the Conference appears to be somehow in that direction. However, of greater interest is the approach to how changes to particular EU policies should be worked out and implemented. According to Macron’s political narrative, EU policies should be revisited and changed in line with his concept of Europe’s sovereignty, which combines both a French leadership position and a response to the new global challenges (which are mainly America and China). Such an approach, in summary, encompasses strengthened European defence and foreign policies, the creation of a strong European digital and technology policy, the Europeanisation of migration policy, a single European climate policy, and an EU-centred approach to rule of law. The institutional output of these policy priorities will probably mean some sort of combination of new coordinative appeal competences for EU institutions (Commission and Court of Justice) and the extension of QMV voting in the Council.
Taking into account the character of Macron’s political leadership and his eagerness to push for policy changes with huge social, political and geopolitical potential, it is possible that the Conference will contribute to deepening the internal conflicts within the EU instead of creating a common European mind. Germany, still convinced of its indispensable partnership with France and interested in some of the French proposals such as digital or financial European Sovereignty, sees its own role in being a moderator calming French eagerness to shake the foundations of the entire European project. However, this strategy is based on the assumption that the political leadership in Germany will remain stable and predictable in the coming two years, which is hard to believe.
Still, the way that the Conference is designed is proof that the complex and diverse character of today’s EU has not fully been recognised and the character of the current crises not sufficiently understood. This all leads to rather moderate expectations regarding the real outcome of the Conference and its impact on the post-crisis Union.
The project covering publication of this article is co-financed by the Governments of Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia through Visegrad Grants from International Visegrad Fund. The mission of the fund is to advance ideas for sustainable regional cooperation in Central Europe.