Time for a Change: The EU Must Embrace Less Union to Save Itself

By David Wemer

Last month, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Parliament President Martin Schulz sat down for a live television "debate" on the future of Europe. Instead of providing a serious two-sided discourse on the challenges facing Europe, however, Juncker and Schulz used the opportunity to assign blame for Europe's recent ills on the European Union's member states. On issues including transparency, refugees, and Brexit, Juncker and Schulz seemed assured that the cause of the Union's recent malaise is not inaction by Brussels, but member state intransigence.

In reality, it is the Union's institutions, not the member states, that have been ineffective in crafting policies to confront major challenges such as revitalizing Europe's battered financial market, managing the arrival of more than one million refugees, and protecting Europeans from a growing security threats. Despite the need for collective action, these crises have been met with muddled policy and gridlock within the Union's decision-making bodies. Union insiders like Juncker and Schultz have responded by arguing for Brussels to take more political control from the member states. Trust in European institutions, however, is at all time lows, and, as Brexit demonstrated, the pursuit of new political integration could push skeptical member states towards the exit. Juncker, Schulz, and the Brussels elite should pause their pursuit of deeper political integration, which is not only out-of-touch with much of the European electorate, but also provides no clear possibility of producing more effective or timely policymaking for Europe.

For too long, the idea that the European Union should pause integration has been blasphemy in Brussels. Educated with the idea that the European Union's transformation to a full-fledged state was all but inevitable, EU bureaucrats have developed a reflex to answer every policy problem with a European-level solution and blame every policy failure on insufficient integration. For decades, these elites have argued that deeper integration would create a "European" political identity, which would facilitate decision-making as national loyalties disappeared and the Union began operating like a unified state. However, this identity has not emerged as promised, as evidenced by recent votes in Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, and Denmark. Rather, competing national priorities and gridlock, rather than efficacy, continue to characterize decision-making in the Union.

Despite the sharp rebuke of Brexit, European leaders have responded to growing Euroskepticism by advocating for even more dramatic steps towards integration, especially in political and fiscal areas. The idea of a fiscal union for the Eurozone, which would remove substantial budgetary powers from member states, is still supported by Italy and France. And with Brexit having removed the obstacle of a British veto, some have advocated for new integration in security and defense policy, which could potentially lead to the establishment of a European army. European leaders, assured of the ultimate success of integration policies, seem determined to push these policies through while simply ignoring Euroskepticism.

What makes Brussels believe that these new integration steps will improve policy? Eurocrats consistently argue that deeper political integration will foster the collective action needed to confront Europe's internal and external threats, but they fail to explain how consensus on concrete policy decisions would be achieved. The European Union has witnessed how difficult it has been for member states to come to an agreement on how to manage the refugee crisis. How will unanimous decisions be able to be made in a timely manner for other controversial decisions such as the deployment of European soldiers abroad or a tax code for a fiscal union? Unless member states choose to embrace majority voting rules and abandon a preference for consensus decision-making, can anything more be expected from Brussels than continued gridlock and watered down policies?

Not only does further integration appear misguided, but a determined pursuit of further centralization of power in Brussels could have grave consequences. The Union has already lost one of its most important member states, and Euroskeptic parties that seek to take down the entire Union are looking to expand their gains in France, Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands. Pressure from large member states such as Germany and France for deeper integration in politically controversial areas such as national security could lead to backlash from other members, causing individual member states to ignore or withdraw from certain Union policies. In addition, time-consuming debates over new integration policies threaten to pull Brussels' focus away from actionable Union policies that would benefit the continent and improve its image among Europeans, such as concluding trade deals with Canada and the United States, expanding the single market to cover digital services, and providing funding to youth employment programs.

In their debate, Juncker and Schulz downplayed the danger the Union is in. If anything is to be learned from Brexit, however, it is that integration is reversible. Should European elites continue to insist that integration is the silver bullet to tackle the continent's malaise, the backlash could very well cause the Union to unravel and become a relic of the past. While the dream of integration may still be alive, a pause is needed, and attention should be given to policies at all levels - European, national, and local - that provide actionable policy responses to the many challenges facing the Continent.

David Wemer received an MA in European Union Politics from the London School of Economics and is the Washington D.C. Program Coordinator for the Eisenhower Institute at Gettysburg College. David is also a Europe Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.