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We have theories of integration but not of disintegration which is a problem, argues Jan Zielonka.

In the early 1990s Europe experienced three great revolutions: geopolitical, economic and digital. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the single market project and the advent of the internet have changed Europe beyond recognition, but the EU has not properly adjusted to this dramatic change.

Europe lost trust, imagination and sex appeal

Subsequently it lost its sex appeal for both Europe’s citizens and external observers. For many decades the EU was as a model of successful integration: an efficient market with welfare protection for its citizens and ability to pacify unstable neighbors. This is history however. At present, the EU is clearly in disarray.

A crisis of cohesion: divergence

Divergences between Member States have risen in recent years. It is now more obvious than ever that there are policy-makers and policy-takers in the EU: the former exemplified by creditor states and the latter by debtor states. The euro crisis, moreover, has generated fear and mutual distrust between member states, thus cooperation has become more difficult.

A crisis of trust: no democratic legitimacy

Until recently the rationale of the integration process has relied on efficiency, not on democracy. Now however, more citizens across the continent are skeptical about the European project and the suspicion that institutions are dysfunctional is making the political debate more polarized. In the EU, technocrats dominate policy-making while populists dominate politics.

As a consequence a fever of referenda madness is spreading in Europe. Several months ago we had a referendum asking Greek citizens to support a deal negotiated by their government with European creditors. In April a referendum asked Dutch citizens whether they approve the Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine. In June a referendum will ask British citizens whether they want to stay or leave the EU. A referendum will also be held in Hungary on whether to accept mandatory EU quotas for relocating migrants. In all these referenda only a fraction of the European electorate is able to cast a vote on matters concerning Europe as a whole. In other words, a few million partisan national voters can dictate the course of a European plane with 500 million passengers on board. Is this not a ‘tyranny of the minority’?

Also, in the current hierarchical system every policy-change has to pass through Berlin, which has reluctantly become an empire. Coalitions need to be made with German support, in which its government, as all the others in Europe, has to focus on the national political implication of each European policy-shift. Furthermore, as the Eurogroup showed during the crisis, member states in these coalitions decide on important decisions outside the EU legal framework and without public deliberation.

A crisis of imagination: Intergovernmentalism and supranationalism outdated
How to continue? Member states do not speak about the future of the EU while it is clear that integration by default in a centralized manner would probably see several countries withdraw, resulting eventually in disintegration.

There is no idea on how to reshape the EU: no plan B is on the table, exacerbating the divide between Eurosceptic and promoters of the status quo, portrayed as the only possible way to govern the Union. New visions would have to be embraced by the European electorate. At present the public however has little trust in politicians, both national and European.


European policy making has always been slow and complex, but today the EU lacks democratic means to legitimate its policies and has still to develop mechanisms to manage the economic, political and institutional domains in which the crisis is being played out. The dismantlement of the Union would have tremendous economic and geopolitical consequences. Muddling through the crisis without taking action will exacerbate mistrust and divergences between member states, because rather than trying to look for European solutions to emerging problems, member states will increasingly try to solve problems on their own or within a non-European framework.

Reintegraton under a new framework

The EU will not be abandoned, for a variety of rational and irrational calculations. The EU still performs some important functions, and policy-makers fear the possible implications of disintegration, those known and unknown. The question is whether it can be repaired. Three solutions can be proposed in order to save the integration process.

The EU needs to work more via social and functional networks

First, there is the need to abolish the State monopoly on integration; cities, regions, professional associations and NGOs should get access to the European decision-making and resources.

Secondly, we need to move from territorial to functional integration. Different networks could integrate in different policy fields such as trade, energy, human rights, immigration or security. The current emphasis on territory rather than tasks lumps together states regardless of their actual needs and circumstances.

Thirdly, a polycentric structure should characterize the EU instead of a hierarchical one. Decentralization and devolution of power would reinforce the legitimacy and efficiency of policies. Depending on the issue agencies, private network or subnational entities should guide integration. Citizens’ involvement should be strengthened taking advantage of (digital) technological innovations.

The first step towards the proposed vision would be to give the existing EU regulatory agencies more powers and resources. The power and resources of central EU institutions can be redesigned and diminished.

Europe in the future: an EU of social networks

Europe and its nation states have changed as a result of the revolutions mentioned earlier: physical borders are an outdated concept, made obsolete by interdependence and transnational networks already in place. There is hence a need for pragmatism in order to bring power back where things are actually done.

In some fields, such as defense, states may well remain the principal actors, but in other fields, such as market regulation, social policy or internal security, numerous local or transnational actors, private or public or mixed, will have a chance to gain in importance.

Integration that recognizes local conditions and rejects rigid hierarchical blueprints may prove more effective in coping with problems of complex interdependence. Effective governance would be more about bargaining and networking among multiple actors and less about implementation of commands coming from a European centre.

The networks emerging from this type of integration would be organizations established to address specific needs instead of fully fledged polities. It is precisely these kinds of honed and diverse networks that Europe so badly needs.

This article originally appeared at EUforum.



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