Elections to the European Parliament in May will have a special significance. They will either help the EU regain public trust or let it sink further: it’s a “make it or break it” game.
Europhiles want to stick to the EU because the end of European integration is likely to hamper businesses and take Europe back to old style geopolitics with numerous destabilizing implications. They want to reform the EU, but they cannot imagine integration without it.
Eurosceptics have little trust in the EU’s ability to reform itself. They want to bring power back home from Brussels and replace European integration by inter-state cooperation.
Both groups are right and wrong on some issues, which means that neither Plan A nor Plan B is ideal. Eurosceptics are right to argue that reforming the EU is a hopeless exercise. In today’s huge and multi-layered Union, bold reforms are contentious while timid ones are useless. Would people rush to the ballot box in May if they were told that the European Parliament is no longer to travel between Strasbourg and Brussels? And does anybody believe that a president of the European Commission elected by a popular vote will be able to bridge differences between creditor and debtor states within the EU?
However, Eurosceptics are wrong on two other crucial issues. First, there is less power in Brussels than is usually assumed. At present, power lies chiefly in Berlin and New York, though New York is merely a symbol of the financial markets’ power which is not tied to any territory. Second, bringing power back from Brussels to national capitals may well increase the policy options of national governments; but more power implies more responsibility. The EU was never as effective as it claimed to be, but it has helped its members generate growth through its single market and enlargement projects; it has also offered a comfortable excuse for numerous policy failures. With no EU to help or blame, national governments will find it more difficult to justify their shortcomings.
British, Dutch or French firms do most business with other European ones and these firms can hardly function without clear rules on competition and without regional institutions able to enforce these rules. Europe’s citizens need effective means for coping with challenges generated in other states in the region such as migration, pollution or contamination of food. In short, a highly integrated European environment demands adequate integrative solutions.
Sticking to an increasingly dysfunctional and unpopular EU is fatal, but reverting to a nostalgic vision of Europe as it was in the 19th century is naïve. European citizens and firms need to be offered a plan C that will envisage European integration but with less or no EU.
Plan C should envisage integration along functional rather than territorial lines. The current emphasis on territory, rather than tasks, lumps together states regardless of their actual needs and situations. In reality, different tasks are of concern to different countries, and so require diversified spacial arrangements: some parts of Europe are more concerned with maritime traffic than others, for instance. The ability of individual actors to join a given integrative network also varies: Ukraine may not be able to join a European network dealing with immigration, but it could join a network involved with energy or environment.
Plan C should also break the monopoly of states in running European integration. As long as states are self-appointed gatekeepers of integration it is difficult for other actors, such as cities, regions, NGOs and firms, to play a meaningful institutional role in Europe. This is at odds with the reality on the ground. Cities such as London, Hamburg or Paris are much more effective socio-economic actors than some EU member states such as Latvia or Cyprus. So why should only states, however small or dysfunctional, have a seat at the European decision-making table? Some NGOs are seen by the public as true guardians of civic or cultural values, but the EU keeps them at bay from its decisions.
Plan C should also embrace pluralism and flexibility. Different policy fields require different types of membership, different modes of engagement, and different mixtures of incentives and sanctions. Some fields, such as the Internet, are moving rapidly and constantly require new and innovative solutions. Other areas, such as human rights, require clear benchmarks and consistent policies. In the fields of industrial competition, taxation or customs sanctions are more appropriate than in immigration or environment where incentives in terms of training and material equipment are more suitable. Governance in the present EU is largely about constructing and maintaining the European centre of authority. The new vision of integration should emphasize problem-solving capacities, and this requires flexible and diversified rules that are able to cope with a complex and ever-changing environment.
Plan C, which I discuss in detail in my book Is the EU Doomed? (Polity Press, 2014), is not about reforming the EU: it is about envisaging Europe’s future with less or no EU. This will not come about by a European directive, but through hard bargaining among different economic and political actors working under pressure from internal and external shocks. And as neither Europhiles nor Europhobes offer a plausible vision of the future, it is time to think and talk about alternatives.
Earlier this year the French Institute of Public Opinion (IFOP) asked a representative sample of Europeans the views they intend to express in their vote during the European elections in May (PDF). Seventy four percent of French respondents declared: “mistrust towards Europe in the way that it is presently being built”. The same answer was given by 60% of Spanish and 50% of German respondents. The time for the EU is running out. The EU envisioned a model of territorial integration run by a single institutional centre in charge of too many things, without adequate legitimacy and resources. But this vision was unrealistic and destined to fail. The EU is now hampering integration rather than facilitating it. But integration is too important to be hostage to the EU’s uncertain fortunes.
This article originally appeared in the website of the English edition of Le Monde Diplomatique.