Posted by: Judy Dempsey
Every week, a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Rosa BalfourSenior fellow in the Europe Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States
Rarely has Europe been in such dire need of more integration and cooperation, but rarely have Europeans been so far apart from each other. It was refreshing, after years of stale debates on (non)treaty reform, to hear French Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron on August 31 make brave proposals for a new economic government within the eurozone.
But political union will not work without addressing underlying problems of democratic representation and deliberation in contemporary advanced societies. Those problems show just how great the distance is between Europeans and their governing elites, and how difficult the relationship is between the competence to govern a complex polity and democratic representation. Creating a eurozone parliament will not be enough to counter a fragmenting social, political, and economic Europe in which interests are splintering, states are renationalizing, and events are driving Europeans apart.
The risk that political union may backfire to underscore existing fractures is possibly greater than the benefits that such a union aims to bring. The elite-led integration of the past two decades has been the source of the EU’s discontent, yet it continues to be seen as the solution to Europe’s ills. Reforming the EU will not be sufficient either to give governing elites legitimacy or for Europeans to patch up Europe—or parts of it—together.
Carl BildtFormer foreign minister of Sweden
Strange indeed to ask whether this is the time for a political union. The fact is that Europe is supposed to have one already, and instead of theological discussions without obvious relevance, Europeans should concentrate their efforts on making it work.
All the member states of the EU are committed to a common foreign and security policy, and if this is not a political union, then I don’t know what is.
Some people more inclined to theological debates seem to dream of abolishing all national political structures and of just transferring everything lock, stock, and barrel to Brussels. Keep dreaming!
The EU will have to live with roughly the political union it has now—all these treaties!—for the foreseeable future. And the key task for the politicians of today is to make it actually work in the face of the challenges confronting Europe.
Some are worried that governments are no longer inspired by some Charlemagne-type vision of an ever-closer union encompassing everything, and it’s certainly true that this is hardly the flavor of the month in the debates around Europe.
But what there is, and what is even more powerful, is a reluctant but strong conviction that it is only by working and acting together that Europe has any chance of meeting its different challenges. With Europe divided, Russian President Vladimir Putin will have a field day. With Europe divided, its economies will languish. With Europe divided, the refugee crisis can never be tackled.
Divided we fall, but by acting together we might succeed. That’s Europe’s political union, and it has strong support from everyone who has contemplated the alternative.
Kris BledowskiDirector of economic studies at the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation
No, the time is inopportune and the goal is unrealistic under present political conditions.
To be sure, a federated or even a confederated union of European states would create a milestone in world history. It could upend the balance of military power globally and, through fiscal federalism, help manage business cycles on a massive scale. In just these two dimensions—military and economic—the European Union would be catapulted to superpower status, rivaling China and the United States.
Alas, the foundations for such a leap are nonexistent. In recent opinion polls, few Europeans declared themselves ready to fight for other Europeans, even within NATO—a sine qua non for a political union that requires a centralized military force. Likewise, the Greek debt crisis exposed fissures in basic economic solidarity among disparate European taxpayers. Fiscal federalism is meaningless without the willingness to spread wealth across the union’s parts, and a political union is meaningless without fiscal federalism.
Now is not the time to repeat past mistakes, like sneaking in the EU’s failed 2004 Constitutional Treaty as the rebranded 2007 Lisbon Treaty. Opening up a grand debate is a sure way to lower the already diminished goodwill of the EU in the eyes of its citizens.
Krzysztof BluszPresident of demosEUROPA—Centre for European Strategy
No doubt it is time for Europe to at least act like a political union.
Europe has hardly any other option if it is to tackle the most pressing crises of migration, security on its Eastern and Southern flanks, and the eurozone, for which it seeks the benefits of economic integration without systemic political structures. That is not to mention Europe’s pathetic lack of foreign policy ambition.
For the EU—a hybrid caught between the rock of an international organization and the hard place of a federal system—the more political the challenges are, the more politically distressing is the union’s deficit of supranational instruments and inability to act accordingly. Yet in past decades, this hybrid has frequently dared to behave not only as a mere economic organization but also as a successful political community. This was the case with the EU’s so-called big-bang enlargement in 2004, the establishment of passport-free Schengen Area, and the creation of the euro.
Today, the EU needs to exercise the same kind of political union entrepreneurship on crucial issues. No matter the exact motivation behind calls for unity, it all comes down to political will. European leaders must not shy away from facing up to their own constituencies if needed, and they must stand up for European political interests and values.
As seen from Warsaw, that was what the Poles voted for in their 2003 EU accession referendum: the promise of a political community. It would be an irony if Europe’s appetite for such a community were too little or came too late.
Caroline de GruyterVienna correspondent for NRC Handelsblad
It is. Hungary and Austria this week allowed refugees to board normal trains across Europe, instead of making them rely on smugglers to cross each national border for thousands of euros. This is good news: it means European governments are finally realizing that border controls and walls will not keep anyone out.
Push and pull factors such as war and job opportunities are too strong; Europe’s borders are too long and porous. Sealing off cities, countries, or entire continents never works. It only encourages smuggling and causes human suffering and political chaos.
That is why the recent collapse of the EU’s asylum system is so welcome: it forces Europe to accept a complete rethink of migration. Europeans have to stop resisting mobility and start organizing and regulating it—together. The EU needs to welcome genuine refugees and open up legal ways for migrant workers to come to Europe. EU ministers have to formulate what kind of workers Europe needs and set up proper ways for people to apply—not on their irregular arrival in Europe but at EU embassies or offices all over the world.
If the EU gives people legal ways to come to Europe, they will think twice about risking their lives in dangerous boats or trucks. Most importantly, it will put the political initiative back where it belongs: with politicians instead of smugglers.
Andrew DuffVisiting fellow at the European Policy Centre
Of course: the time is ripe. As the then German chancellor Helmut Kohl said in 1991, “the idea of sustaining economic and monetary union over time without political union is fallacy.” Everything depends in the first instance on the European Commission, which must accelerate its (fairly leisurely) plans to consolidate the EU’s Economic and Monetary Union, drop euphemism, and oblige the European Council to abandon its habit of kicking the can down the road.
Only European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, supported by the head of the European Central Bank (ECB), Mario Draghi, can trigger this process. Donald Tusk, who chairs the European Council, won’t. And this European Parliament is a tinkering parliament, suffocated by a dysfunctional coalition of conservatives and socialists, seemingly incapable of bold strategy.
The next step is to have ready for signature in December 2017 a eurozone treaty that introduces the necessary elements of fiscal federalism: completion of the EU’s banking union, a treasury in the European Commission, full reserve powers for the ECB, a relaxation of the rules on the progressive mutualization of debt, and the capacity for the eurozone to have its own budget equal in size to the overall EU budget and raised by eurozone-level taxation. The European Commission (with help) should draft this treaty and publish it. It will be a best seller.
Agata GostyńskaResearch fellow at the Centre for European Reform
There is no better time for a debate about political union than in the midst of a crisis. European crises reveal flaws in the way the EU works and provoke questions about whether the solution is more or less Europe.
The EU last debated political union in the early years of the Greek sovereign debt crisis. The result was cacophony: Northern member states wanted budgetary discipline for everyone, while Southerners wanted fiscal transfers from the North to offset the consequences of austerity. Leaders from both sides realized that compromising would cost them domestic popularity, so they left the discussion about political union for better days and muddled through the crisis instead.
But better times are still not on the political horizon. Now the EU also faces the biggest refugee crisis of our time. And once again, there is no consensus that political union is the answer. Germany argues that the crisis could stimulate the next great European project; Central European leaders are deaf to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s calls. They fear her ideas amount to empowering the European Commission to force member states to accept refugees.
The EU will probably muddle through again, leaving the debate on political union for later. But if European leaders continue prioritizing national over shared European interests, the European project is unlikely to see better times in the near future.
Stephen SzaboExecutive director of the Transatlantic Academy
Yes, this is the time for European political union, but there are no signs of where the leadership (and followership) required for this will come from.
European integration often seems to take leaps forward when Europe is confronted with crisis. If that is the case, this should be an optimal time to deepen European integration, as the EU is facing a confluence of crises from the confrontation with Russia through the Greek debt saga to the new challenge of uncontrolled migration. This latest challenge is the most serious as it is directly visible to citizens of the EU member states at a time of slow economic growth and high unemployment.
It is also clear that only a European response will have any chance of succeeding, but the reaction has been just the opposite. In Brussels, the European Commission and the European Council are at loggerheads, while some member states are pushing the problem onto others, especially Germany and Sweden. The humane responses in these two countries and elsewhere only seems to encourage European versions of U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump—but with a deeper political base than Trump enjoys in the United States.
Paul TaylorEuropean affairs editor for Thomson Reuters
It may seem counterintuitive to suggest the time has come for closer European political union when Euroskeptic populist parties are riding high on public anger over unemployment, immigration, and a perceived loss of national identity. Yet Europe keeps being mugged by problems that cannot be solved at a national level.
The eurozone debt crisis has shown that in the long run, the EU can’t have a single currency and monetary policy while maintaining nineteen different economic and fiscal policies and exercising democratic control at the national level.
Likewise, the flood of migrants from war zones in the Middle East and Africa shows Europeans can’t go on playing beggar thy neighbor with 28 different asylum and immigration policies. As with the fight against climate change, cross-border problems require European solutions.
On both issues, the EU faces a choice between risking a big step backward with uncertain but damaging consequences—the collapse of the single currency or of the passport-free Schengen zone—and taking a bold step forward. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is showing leadership on the migration issue in pushing Europe to open its doors to refugees and resist bigotry. The eurozone needs a new deal between economic and fiscal integration and greater joint risk sharing with joint debt issuance and a eurozone budget, all subject to pan-European parliamentary scrutiny.
It’s a tough political challenge, but not mission impossible.
Pierre VimontSenior associate at Carnegie Europe
The concept of political union is ripe, but it seems too early to hope that progress will be made toward it soon.
Observers have very little hesitation in stating that Europe needs a new push forward on many issues: better governance for the eurozone, a genuine common policy on migration, reinforced European cooperation on fighting terrorism, and a beefed-up foreign and security policy. If all these elements came to fruition, together they would represent the core of an enhanced political union.
Yet there is not much hope that these different strands will be implemented in the near future. Public opinion in most EU member states is not ready to support such an ambitious goal, and political leaders will not risk their credibility when the European ideal is so unpopular.
The UK, on its way to renegotiating its relationship with the EU, is also part of the problem and doesn’t seem eager to be part of a solution that could be conducive to a two- (or three‑)speed Europe in which Britain lags behind. In addition, each of the issues that would need to be tackled to shape a genuine political union requires from member states some difficult homework that they haven’t even started yet. Finally, reform of the EU institutional framework should also be part of this overall effort if the new political union is to be less cumbersome and more capable of reacting to events efficiently and swiftly.
So it is going to be a long and bumpy road to political union, and the outcome—as all too often—will probably be some half-baked compromise. If only for this reason, it would be better for those member states that support more European integration to move forward without further delay.
Richard YoungsSenior associate in Carnegie’s Democracy and Rule of Law Program
No. With the foundations of the European project more fragile than they have been for many decades, the EU’s challenge is to conceive of more flexible means of cooperation as a way to rebuild solidarity from the ground up.
The EU needs to manage growing divergences between different governments, as well as between elites and citizens. The key question is whether it is at all possible to have a looser and more flexible model of European integration that does not dilute solidarity and harmony.
Today’s debate is unhealthily polarized between Euroskeptics and advocates of full political union. Both these camps present false solutions, as they pose the challenge in terms of more versus less EU integration. Neither of the two routes proceeds from any vision for a qualitatively different process of European integration.
At the current juncture, a dramatic leap forward toward a single EU polity could worsen the very problems that have wreaked such calamity since 2008. Conversely, a major undoing of European integration would not empower national governments in the way that Euroskeptics assume.
The EU needs fundamentally new thinking on how to go back to basics and reconstruct the badly damaged sense of partnership and solidarity. It may well need to build a form of solidarity that looks very different from the foundations that have borne the weight of European integration since the end of World War II.
The EU’s rethink must include new voices and involve a fully participative process of consultation. Hasty political union would merely preempt the outcomes of such a process.