How Did Europe Lose Its Way?


The EU’s problems have been widely commented on. From the rise of the far right to the problems of the Eurozone and the challenges of the fourth industrial revolution, many have argued that the union is under strain like never before. As the first ever decision of a member-state to leave the EU, Brexit has brought these issues into sharper focus.

Yet, in itself, Brexit is strangely peculiar to the cultural and political assumptions of the British Isles. Unlike most other EU states, the British elite never exhibited a permissive consensus in favour of the project of European integration. While the timing of the 2016 referendum, coming amidst the on-going fallout from the Eurozone and migration crises, was undoubtedly unhelpful to the Remain side, undermining as these events did the reputation for competency the EU had previously enjoyed, there would have nonetheless always have been a large vote to Leave. This means that to understand the real crisis of legitimacy facing the European project we must extend our gaze away from the Brexit process, which has occupied so much of the attention of diplomats, civil servants and politicians over the last three years. 

Europe’s deep legitimacy problem is most clearly expressed in the current state of the union’s support in traditionally highly Europhile polities. Italy provides one of the most striking illustrations of this trauma. In 1989, Italians voted by a large majority (some 88 per cent) in a national referendum to take immediate steps to a politically united Europe (turnout also exceeded 80 per cent). The question voters were asked was emphatic in its commitment to creating a federal European structure:

Do you believe that we should proceed in transforming the European Community into a true Union, that has a government that answers to Parliament, and that provides European Parliament with the mandate to draw up a draft European Constitution that will be ratified by the organisms of the Community Member States?

Three decades later and the Italian context could hardly be more different. In August 2018, the far right leader of the Lega party, Matteo Salvini, riding high in opinion polls despite only being the junior partner in the country’s coalition government, launched one of many tirades against the European project, which have been characteristic of his political ascent. ‘Europe has demonstrated once again to be unprecedented filth that doesn’t deserve our money’, he said, amidst a bitter standoff between Italy and other EU member states over the destination of a ship holding 150 Eritrean migrants. Italy may be notable in the apparent volte-face of its population over the European question. But it is hardly alone in witnessing the political rise of radically eurosceptic, nationalist parties strongly opposed to greater European cooperation. Hungary and Poland both have far-right governments that consciously, indeed quite openly, reject liberal democracy tout court. They claim the minority and individual rights enshrined by liberal systems of governance are undemocratic, undermining the capacity of national majorities to assert their will and providing a means for interference by foreign, hostile powers in the country’s political affairs. Austria too has a recent history of coalition with the far right. Even Germany, a country with a strong anti-fascist and democratic consciousness, now has a political landscape in which the far right constitutes the third largest force in national elections. 

These trends represent a historic challenge to the European project. The growth in support for the far right is illustrative of a general decline of the political centre, which has also been manifested in strong support for the radical left in some countries, notably Greece. Where the left and centre-left have benefited politically from the crises besetting Europe’s union, they have not, however, brought the existence of a cooperative, supranational project into question. Even in Greece, whose radical populist government led the country into a historic confrontation with the EU over its austerity policy in the summer of 2015, the government’s actual proposals entailed greater integration, not less, while there was never support amongst the Greek population for an exit from the Eurozone, let alone from the EU as a whole. Criticisms of European monetary and fiscal policy similar to those made, albeit in unparalleled economic circumstances, by the Greek government in 2015 are in fact rather mainstream in a number of European states, notably Italy, Spain and Portugal. 

Nonetheless, while left and centre-left critiques of the current state of the EU may, in principle, be more compatible to the project’s continuation in a democratic and multilateral form, they do provide a similar indication of prevalent dissatisfaction to the growing strength of the far right. Above all, a clear desire for political change is the common thread binding together these points of polarisation in the new Europe. 
Power without hegemony: a paradigm for the EU’s travails? 

In the research I have undertaken for the Europe’s Futures programme, I argue the lack of agreement in the late 1980s and early 1990s on what the move to greater integration should look like in practice stored up the problems the EU faces today. At the heart of this dynamic is the traditional view of European integration known as the ‘Monnet Method’. Named after one of the founding fathers of the union, the French economist, diplomat and European civil servant, Jean Monnet, it promoted the belief that the basis for political integration would precede by a series of technical steps. Once taken these steps posited the need for greater political integration, which would, so the argument goes, eventually follow. The Monnet method was very successful at creating the single market, which bound the states of Europe together in a powerful regional system. The Monnet method failed, however, the moment the EU took a more decisive step towards political union with the passage of the Maastricht Treaty.

There are several key ways that this historical moment, which came after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the democratic spring that reunited Europe, established a foundation for greater integration that would always be beset with problems. The fall of state socialism brought many new democracies into the European system. As a result, Europe was reunited but it was also more pluralistic than ever before. To make this work the new European order either needed more flexibility or a more decisive sharing of sovereignty. But the system created by the Maastricht and Amsterdam treaties, which both anticipated expansion, and latter the Lisbon Treaty, was neither. Instead it was a messy compromise that meant the EU took on elements of a state (notably a single currency) but without the institutions needed to make it work. The design of the system at the time of the Washington Consensus also had negative long-term effects. Free market policies became, in essence, constitutionalised, i.e., difficult to change without winning a consensus in the EU as a whole, for states that joined the single-currency area. Similarly, for newly democratising states in the east national sovereignty and democracy were won, but at the price of an often damaging economic restructuring. Disappointment in the economic promise of European integration would become important to the nationalist backlash in the post-Maastricht era. But most of all the problem of the 1990s lay in a simple premise: huge constitutional changes were introduced but without sufficient political legitimacy. Cloaking these political changes in the language of technical efficiency summed up a simple fact: that European integrationists lacked a shared story about where they were going and why.    

This is a problem I refer to as power without hegemony. European governance enjoys considerable sovereignty over many areas of life across the continent. But it does not enjoy hegemony: a common set of ideas and values binding together rulers with the peoples over whom they rule. This has created an unstable situation, which, while tending to advantage nationalist movements and parties, primarily leads to political polarisation along ideological lines. Indeed, one of the effects of this today is a steep politicisation of European issues across EU states. European institutions and their future have become central to debates in many countries. This change is not entirely negative,[1] as Europeans may finally be facing up to their shared destiny. For, while nationalists have undoubtedly thrown the future of the union into question, many Europeans simply want a different, better EU. Europe is, thus, divided between a series of different visions and standpoints. The effect of this plurality may well, however, prove to be paralysis in the institutions. Reform is likely to be harder now than it was in the ‘liberal moment’ of the 90s when European societies were less ideologically polarised. Indeed, the difficult, messy compromise struck at Maastricht, which many accepted would lead to problems, was indicative of an underlying fact: that even when states agreed in principle to the liberal unification of Europe they often had very different conceptions of what this meant in practice. 

This could all be read as tragedy and the EU as a well-intentioned, but ill-fated and ultimately impossible project. However, this is also the EU’s opportunity and historical novelty. Uniquely it aims to unite in a common system a series of peoples with their own sense of history, identities, languages and cultures. As a vast political space it remains a continent of huge diversity, but also conflicting interests and worldviews. A key conclusion of my research is that Europe needs to accept this diversity and build a new political consensus, which draws upon the continent’s strength as societies with generally low, by global standards, levels of inequality. But that’s not all. Europe also needs to rethink its role in terms of greater democracy and participation. Sharing sovereignty at the European level should, in principle, enable greater democracy at the national and sub-national levels, thus giving citizens more control over the myriad of social forces that affect their daily lives. For the EU to survive and thrive more of its citizens need to share in the benefits of this project and be aware of how they do so. If the EU is seen as essential to making things better then it can win greater hegemony and turn back the recent rise of nationalist movements.

[1] An overly generous reading may even see it as a delayed activation of the Monnet method. This would, however, be mistaken take on events. For Monnet it was political elites who would rise to the challenge of greater integration - not movements or insurgent parties. The closest we came to a ‘Monnet moment’ for the Eurozone was in 2012 when the ‘proposal of the three presidents’ and the European Commission to radically reform the Eurozone’s architecture was rejected by member states.

The article gives the views of the author, not the position of the "Europe’s Futures–Ideas for Action" project or the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM).