Pragmatic cooperation should be the way forward for the EU

By Dr. Adriaan Schout, Senior Research Fellow at Dutch think tank Clingendael.

The European Parliament elections in June are about European ambitions and deeper integration. However, recognition of diversity and pragmatic cooperation will remain cornerstones of the EU. This very choice is missing from the debates on whether we need “more” or instead “less” EU.

The EU Treaty states the goal of European integration: an ever closer ‘Union’. Given everything the EU now faces from geopolitical dangers to the lost balance between economy and ecology, is that ‘Ever Closer Union’ needed now more than ever? This is the key question for the upcoming European Parliament elections in June.

Given all of the problems with a cross-border nature, this election year is the time for the EU to prove its added value. The first big challenge is defence because hiding behind the back of the United States is no longer possible. The second task is to stop degradation of natural areas and to be CO2 neutral by 2050. Other priorities include digitalisation, improving rail and energy infrastructure, and responding to Chinese and US investments in their competitiveness. Migration also remains a headache.

The official European narrative is that all this calls for more European powers, a higher EU budget, common debt (eurobonds), and forms of European taxation. Defence, eurobonds, and climate policy are about recognising common European tasks and, according to federalists, call for transfer of sovereignty. Behind the European motto of closer unity are frustrations about member states creating waste through fragmentation, delays through disagreement, and lack of money through missing solidarity.

Popular support

This European decisiveness, however, is encountering strong dissent among voters. Sustainability is suffering with the rise of protest parties and the rise of the right. When it comes to military aid to Ukraine, Eastern European countries are far removed from Spain and France. Poland is not buying German tanks because old wounds have not healed sufficiently. On Israel, Germany stands opposite Ireland and Spain. Also, hardly any extra money is available because national budgets are already stretched and then the rule is: Own budget first. Besides differences between member states, visions of the EU also differ within countries between generations and between strata in the population.

Despite shared concerns about security and the environment, our populations are not rooted Europeans. In the Netherlands, citizens are still most in favour of the EU but even then, the European flag may not be displayed in the Lower House.

Germans and French, for example, support the EU considerably less. With lack of support, European nice-weather goals quickly start to pinch, right-wingers emerge, and Ukraine ‘gets’ only a paltry €50 billion for four years while it is mostly loans. The state of the Union is like a marriage of convenience with fine promises, many squabbles and mistrust. Ignoring this and going full steam ahead will not work.

The question of EU enlargement

Wide differences between member states and poor popular support are not good starting points for the potential upcoming EU enlargement with possibly nine new member states, from the Western Balkans to Georgia. To keep the Union governable, many Europeans think the expanding European Commission should be transformed into a European government, and the EP should become a real parliament that can overrule stubborn national parliaments. Looking at Europe’s past then this will not happen.

The official reading is that this enlargement ensures geopolitical stability. However, the risks are that greater European diversity further complicates climate action, defence cooperation, budget reforms, and a host of other issues.  The risks include the euro.

New EU member states are in principle obliged to adopt the euro. Will they develop like Poland with a strong economy but no enthusiasm to adopt the euro? Or like Greece and Italy, where high sovereign debts threaten the sustainability of the euro and impose a high cost upon other member states? If the new member states stay out of the euro, then the ‘Union’ is split into an inner and outer ring. This is a recipe for frustration from second-class citizens. If they do adopt the euro, then their economic risks are a threat to the eurozone. Enlargement increases tensions within the Union.


The heavier the agenda, the sharper the differences between them. The paradox of the Ever Closer Union is that it falters at times when you need it. To assume that unity is a given is naive and dangerous. Even when EU member states adopt grand European ambitions, they still cooperate only sparsely in fleshing it out. Parliaments mainly serve their own voters and European promises are therefore compromised.

Europeans must accept and respect diversity. In practice, the EU is built on pragmatism and flexibility. That generally works out fine. Defence cooperation within coalitions of the willing is gaining importance as seen with the ambitious F16 coalition for Ukraine. Getting member states to set shorter-term environmental targets can be more realistic than policies like the Green Deal for 2050, from which the Commission is already backtracking. In different compositions and at different paces, member states will continue to find answers to common problems, as in the past.

Previous EP elections were full of decisiveness and federalisation. The traditional European parties also maintain that desire for decisiveness, while trading sustainability for defence and competitiveness. We also see the strengthening of parties that are mainly critical of the EU but offer no alternative. Meanwhile, most citizens want to continue with pragmatic cooperation. Precisely that option is heavily underexposed in European politics. Time for the EP to wake up.

Originally published in Dutch by De Telegraaf