This autumn it took the European Union almost two months to impose sanctions on Aleksandr Lukashenko’s regime in Belarus after the presidential elections had clearly been rigged and the government cracked down on mass protests. Although the EU quickly refused to recognize the results when they were published in August, it declared that Lukashenko’s new presidential mandate had “no democratic legitimacy” and called for “an inclusive national dialogue and a positive response to the demands of the Belarusian people for new democratic ones Elections. “Cyprus blocked concrete measures for weeks as it used its veto as a basis for negotiating its own dispute with Turkey.
Then, in September, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, announced with great enthusiasm that the EU would step up its efforts to combat climate change. Under this plan, the bloc would seek to reduce its carbon emissions by 55 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. The aim would also be to spend over half a trillion euros on climate-related measures over the next seven years. Again, not everyone was on board. Poland, which relies heavily on coal and lignite (a cousin of coal), has openly defied the ambitious emissions targets. New natural gas infrastructure is now emerging in Central and Eastern Europe, including the infamous Nord Stream 2 pipeline and several terminals for liquefied natural gas. Addiction to natural gas would be cleaner than coal, but it would run counter to von der Leyen’s plans.
Both situations raise the question of whether the EU is the right place to address issues such as European geopolitics, climate change and others. In theory, the answer is a resounding yes. However, the reality is more complicated.
Dealing with climate change requires a high level of international coordination to prevent countries from countries that have committed to reducing their carbon footprint to countries that adopt a lax approach from causing carbon emissions. And no European country, not even Germany or France, can be on an equal footing with the great powers of the world. But the EU collective with 450 million inhabitants can. In the meantime, measures such as isolating Lukashenko’s elite from the entire EU financial and real estate market would be more consistent than sanctions from individual countries.
In both cases, however, the EU lacks the policy tools to act effectively. For a long time this disparity was to be rectified by the bloc’s gradual development towards an ever closer union. Following the logic advocated by many of the founding fathers of the EU, successive political decisions and crises would lead to the gradual completion of the EU’s institutional architecture. The euro, for example, would make a real fiscal union inevitable. Schengen would sooner or later lead to a common visa and asylum policy.
The political culture of “total optimism”, as the Italian political scientist Giandomenico Majone called it, is not sustainable. During the past decade, marked by a multitude of crises threatening the very existence of the European project, the bloc responded with improvised corrections agreed by national leaders outside the scope of European treaties. In view of the prospect of a chaotic dissolution of the euro zone after the financial crisis of 2008, the European heads of state and government only then reluctantly agreed on the establishment of a rescue fund for countries in financial distress. And it was only when the wave of Syrian asylum seekers threatened to overwhelm the Schengen area that Chancellor Angela Merkel decided to conclude an agreement with the Turkish Recep Tayyip Erdogan to stop the migration flows.
Both acute and chronic problems – such as the rule of law in Poland and Hungary, the China challenge and the turmoil in Syria – often remain unsolved. The reason is twofold. Firstly, the not entirely federal institutional structure of the EU requires that the states comply with a high threshold of agreement, often unanimously, on follow-up decisions, especially on changes to their treaties. Second, EU Member States tend to have very different views on how various policy challenges should be solved, and also on the future of the European project, including the desirable depth of political integration, future enlargements, and the role and size of the European institutions .
The basic assumption of the “ever closer union” is that all EU members are moving towards the same goal despite all their differences. But that’s not true. Poles, Czechs and Swedes may never adopt the euro despite having formally committed to it. The climate targets set by Brussels could be ignored by national political decision-makers, as could the ambitious economic targets formulated in the Lisbon Strategy and Europe 2020. And Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s populism may not be a one-off deviation, but a permanent condition in countries like Poland and Hungary.
Perhaps such friction could be overcome if the agreement threshold required for action in the European Council were lowered so that decisions would be taken by qualified majority rather than unanimously. After Brexit, however, even the most ardent euro federalists should think twice before giving member states the prospect of being systematically outvoted.
Fortunately there is another way. Before the Maastricht Treaty, the European project was commonly referred to as the “European Communities”. There was the European Coal and Steel Community, the European Atomic Energy Community and the European Economic Community, all governed by the same Brussels-based institutions. If the pooling of these groups in the EU has not resulted in greater unity after 30 years, it may be time to think about the EU in a pluralistic way again. It may not be a monolithic unit, but rather a multitude of only partially geographically overlapping projects of economic and political integration.
The idea of unbundling is not new – Majone put it in a book that analyzed the EU’s difficulties during the financial crisis – but the case for it has grown stronger over the past decade as the EU has become increasingly intergovernmental Reactions to events in Europe and abroad.
The idea is by no means radical. The EU has long had a single market in which several non-members participate. There is also the Schengen Agreement and Monetary Union, which include both sub-groups of EU members and some non-members. While the EU endeavors to make its attempts at common security and foreign policy viable with the lowest common denominator, the large and small member states often act independently. In many other areas there are explicit and implicit outsourcing and special provisions, including the Irish Protocol to the Lisbon Treaty, Denmark’s opt-out from the Maastricht Treaty and Poland’s opt-out from the Charter of Fundamental Rights.
Such special treatment need not pose a threat to European unity. If used well, it can be a tool that holds the European building together as different country blocs deepen their cooperation in different policy areas. When Cyprus refused to sanction Lukashenko, the remaining 26 member states should have acted independently. This would raise legal questions, as sanctioned companies could still reach the EU’s financial and real estate markets via Cyprus. However, this is not an insurmountable problem given the scrutiny that the union has put into such issues in its anti-money laundering guidelines. If any sub-group of EU members are really serious about tackling climate change, they shouldn’t be held back by naysayers. And if most, but not all, of the members of the eurozone want to pool their national debt in a single debt instrument, why shouldn’t they?
To become a global actor in foreign and security policy, Brussels has launched a number of formal, institutionalized initiatives, most notably Permanent Structured Cooperation and the European Defense Fund. However, for such efforts to be successful, the UK needs to be heavily involved despite the UK’s decision to officially leave the EU. Britain may no longer be an EU member state, but it is one of the few remaining military powers in Europe.
Taking into account the fact that the European project is a multitude of parallel initiatives involving different groups of actors would inevitably diminish the role of common European institutions such as Parliament and the Commission and place the Member States firmly in their place the driver will involve seat. But that has already started in the last decade.
There are practical limits to the unbundling of the EU related to the problems of freeriding and negative selection, where the countries most interested in staying in the Union are the same as most demanding: be it for investments or tax transfers, security or otherwise. If most, but not all, EU members pursue ambitious climate targets, there may indeed be a shift in carbon emissions to countries like Poland – and the tax measures available may be insufficient. If only a subset of eurozone countries tries to build the fiscal union necessary to make monetary union sustainable in the long term, other member states will benefit from the added level of financial stability without bearing the cost.
However, the world is necessarily an imperfect place. The friction that arises from the EU’s bow to its pluralistic, multi-faceted character should not be compared with an optimal mix of policies and institutions in an ideal European association, but with the current, highly imperfect reality of the Union in the desirable Initiatives are constantly held back and derailed.
Unbundling the EU today would be a simple recognition of reality. Your alternative, the stubborn insistence on European unity and uniform solutions, will not lead to an ever closer union. Instead, it is the surest way to paralyze and ultimately irrelevant the block.