The EU’s complexity is a strength, not a weakness

By Dalibor Rohac, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C., a research associate at the Martens Centre in Brussels and a Senior Research Fellow at the Humanities Research Institute, University of Buckingham.

Has the European project reached a dead end? The answer hinges on what one believes the purpose of the EU is. For many, integration was meant to usher in a qualitatively new form of governance in Europe and serve, more broadly, as a vehicle of progress.

The past decade has not been kind to such aspirations. The EU is struggling to speak with a unified voice in the face of the Kremlin’s aggression against Ukraine – being held back both by Viktor Orbán’s subservience and by Germany’s deep-seated (and self-serving) illusions about Russia.

Earlier, the debt crisis did not lead to the emergence of a fiscal union, complementing the common European currency – contrary to the hopes of some federalists. The pandemic response led to the creation of a common European debt instrument but only at the cost of great controversy. Scaling its use up is bound to be a source of further European disunion, much like the recent efforts at EU-wide industrial policy and ‘strategic autonomy’ in economic policy, which are jeopardizing some of the EU’s foundational principles.

A defensive attitude

The hopes of ever-closer union might not have disappeared completely, but it is clear that the bloc is experiencing a break with what the Italian political scientist Giandomenico Majone once called “a political culture of total optimism,” in which deeper integration was always on the horizon – and always seen as an unalloyed good.

As of later, this shift has often manifested itself as a growing fear – of the outside world, unfettered capitalism and economic dependence on others, or threats to the ‘European Way of Life’ (to quote the job title of one of the European Commission’s vice-presidents). Gone is the time when European institutions and elites thought, self-confidently, that they had something to teach others. Today, they lead the way of the continent’s defensive crouch.

Reframing the EU as a platform, not a state-building project  

Neither fear and introspection, nor despair, are good guides to action. Instead, I argue in a new book, what Europeans need is a reframing of the EU not as a state-building project but simply as a platform, necessarily flawed, for managing relationships between European countries and for exploiting gains from cooperation and trade.

The integration project does not exist to lead Europeans to any promised land or ‘ever closer union’. Yet its institutions, rules, and relationships linking together and constraining national governments have been eminently useful – and have something to teach the wider world – particularly by creating a space for economic competition, bargaining, and political cooperation.

In practical terms, such a reframing is based on the recognition that the EU is not a single, monolithic entity but rather a number of functionally separate integration projects running in parallel. There is no inherent reason why membership in the EU’s single market has to overlap with membership in the Schengen Area, with participation in the Common Agricultural Policy, or in the monetary union. And, indeed, those integration projects do not always overlap. Numerous EU members show no intention of joining the euro. EU non-members, such as Norway or Switzerland, are in the single market, while Ireland is not in the Schengen Area.

‘Unbundling’ the EU does not necessitate dramatic changes to European treaties. More importantly, it requires a change in the habits of mind of European leaders and Brussels institutions themselves. Instead of seeing new policy initiatives by default as one-size-fits-all, European policies can emerge from horizontally organised coalitions of members (and non-members) under the ‘enhanced cooperation’ clause, with European institutions playing primarily a supportive rather than a leading role.

Protecting the four freedoms

This approach to European integration is not meant as a free-for-all. Rather, it needs to take place within a context of binding rules, particularly those protecting the four freedoms: movement of goods, services, capital, and people.

Such agenda, which chimes well with both classical liberal and conservative conceptions of international economic integration, is not ‘anti-European’ or ‘Eurosceptic’ – quite the contrary. It is unabashedly pro-European, both in the sense that it wishes prosperity and peace for the European continent and in the sense that it sees the EU and much of its institutional architecture as important components of its success.

In contrast to the hyper-ambitious, teleological view of European integration, it is time to embrace Europe as it exists – not as an abstraction or as some hypothetical end state. Europe’s unwieldy, pluralistic complexity is not a bug, but a feature which needs proper management, not denial.

Dalibor Rohac’s most recent book, ‘Governing the EU in Age of Division’ has been published by Edward Elgar Publishing in November 2022.