Tuesday, 21 June 2016 07:07

European Integration: Current Shape and Prospects

Although the European Union is the most advanced integration project in the world today, recent events have cast doubt on its further successful realization, at least in the shape it was initially conceived.


To reach its present state, the European Union has gone through all the currently known stages and forms of integration. It has been a long and difficult road, though in retrospect, the EU creation process looks almost perfectly logical and rational.

In truth, it was a great accomplishment brought about by arduous work and extraordinary measures never attempted before. Bringing the North, South, West, and East of Europe closer together took monumental efforts, political will, and considerable courage of several generations of European politicians. After all, those who pursued and supported the integration policy knew perfectly well their ideas would undermine the Westphalian system of sovereign nation states that was the foundation of modern Europe.

Whatever its faults may be, Westphalian sovereignty has proven its viability over several centuries, while the future pan-European supra-national structure was an abstract concept that gave rise to mixed expectations on a national level.

First red flags were already present back in 1948 when the Hague Congress highlighted the differences between those who supported the unification of Europe as a single international state (federalists) and those who wanted a European union without separate nations surrendering their sovereignty (unionists).

The differences between member states of the EU reached their peak in the early noughties when the European Constitution project was in the works. Although all the then 25 member states had signed the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe, drafted by the European Convention chaired by the former President of France Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, it was never ratified. Instead, the Reform Treaty was signed in Lisbon on December 13, 2007.

The project failed due to the position some European countries took, especially those that decided to hold a nationwide referendum before ratifying the Constitution (instead of taking a vote in parliament). As a result, out of 10 countries that had chosen the referendum method, only two (Spain and Luxemburg) voted for the Constitution, another two (France and the Netherlands) voted against it, four more countries cancelled the referendum (Denmark, Portugal, Great Britain, and the Czech Republic), and as for Poland and Ireland, they never even set the date for the referendum.

This is a clear sign that critical attitude towards the European integration did not dissipate over the years. Prior to 1991, it was yet possible to quell Euroscepticism by focusing attention on the political standoff and rivalry between two very different ideologies and economies, but after the USSR had collapsed and the Eastern Bloc broke up, a new motivation was needed, one that was founded on principles other than defense against the common external enemy. Unfortunately, it was virtually impossible to find such a motivation in the limited time available before the essential forward momentum was lost.

Having built the new union solely on the principles of economic expediency, the founding fathers of the EU never concerned themselves with developing a European identity, a new supra-national construct that would be crucial to any integration process.

Meanwhile, the further away the world moved from the events of 1991, the weaker grew the forward momentum of European integration initially sparked by the standoff between two opposing ideologies (libertarian and communist).

New political and economic challenges that have arisen since the turn of the millennium as well as multidirectional ideological and civilizational trends of the present-day world further increase the integration entropy and dampen the remnants of the post-bipolar impetus.

The sadly inefficient EU bureaucracy does not improve matters, fueling the disillusionment among member states. Eurosceptics and populist politicians in various European countries take advantage of these sentiments. Thus, Euroscepticism reaches synergy throughout the continent.

The effect is amplified by external factors as well, particularly, the official Moscow’s foreign policy aimed at undermining the integrity of the Union.

A certain dissipation of unifying energy results in the once solid integration process becoming fragmented and losing momentum, which makes the future of Europe even more unpredictable. The worst part is that destructive tendencies are strong within the European Union itself, which is why the influence of Eurosceptics grows year after year.

2. Structural Disparities

As chance would have it, in the early 1990s, two opposing global processes coincided in Europe: the European integration and the Soviet dissolution. At the same time, the pan-European organization was in its final stages of development, having reached the most important and difficult part where everything that had been done before in practice had to be reasonably legitimized and efficiently institutionalized.

At first glance, it would seem that the fall of the Soviet Union should have made integration easier, but in reality, it posed a new problem, that of reincorporating former Socialist states of Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans into the pan-European civilizational ecumene.

Attempts at solving this problem as quickly as possible resulted in two unifying processes of diverse quality happening within the EU, though for some reason they are usually described as stages (or waves) of the continuous European integration.

The first of these two, which began in the late 1940s and ended in the mid-1990s, might be called the classic or intensive process. It started as a reaction to real economic problems mostly involving regulation of the West European common market and to some extent as a symmetric ideological response to the creation of the Socialist system.

During this period, the integration proceeded gradually, as European countries drew closer together. In 1957, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, and West Germany signed the Treaty of Rome. In 1973, they were joined by Great Britain, Denmark, and Ireland. Since 1981, the union included Greece, since 1986, Spain and Portugal, and since 1995, Austria, Finland, and Sweden.

It is very telling that the first institutions forming the basis of the modern European Union were purely economic in their nature: the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), European Economic Community (EEC), and European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom).

The second process, which began in the late 1990s and continues to this day, may be called the accelerated or extensive process. While the previous stage was fueled by objective economic motives, the current one is aimed at creating a more homogeneous political and economic environment within the confines of a prewar Europe.

In particular, the fifth wave of integration saw 10 countries joining the EU in 2004: Hungary, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, and Estonia. In 2007, during the second stage of the fifth wave, two more countries were added: Bulgaria and Romania. In 2013, as part of the sixth wave, Croatia became a new member of the EU.

The difference between these two processes is readily apparent. During the 44 years of the first stage (1951-1995), a total of 15 countries joined the Union, while over the period of only 18 years, from 1995 till 2013, thirteen more states became part of the EU. Of these 13, only two (Cyprus and Malta) have always been market-driven economies, while the other 11 had been developing as centrally planned, i.e. socialist, economies over several decades after World War II.

Such a rapid expansion was bound to affect the controllability of further processes. Moreover, the lack of pan-European identity had a negative impact on both the interstate relations within the EU and the relations between the EU authorities and the national governments.

Despite the fact that post-Soviet countries remained candidates for joining the EU for several years, it is unlikely that they were able to restructure their economies to such an extent as to become an organic part of the pan-European market economy. If that is indeed so, then it is hard to escape a conclusion that the second stage was aimed at expanding the volume of the Single European Market.

The co-called Partnership Programs, designed to strengthen ties with the rest of Eastern European countries without their joining the EU, serve largely the same purpose. Granted, there are few of them left, as Azerbaijan is gravitating towards Turkey while Armenia and Belarus have been pulled into the pro-Moscow Eurasian Economic Union.

Since the Soviet Union fell apart and the Warsaw Pact ceased to function, Europeans have been laboring under the illusion that all external threats to their security have disappeared, which eliminated the need to coordinate efforts and allocate large sums of money for defense.

Thus, the European integration process has been demilitarized to a certain extent. As a result, with the USA somewhat distancing itself from European affairs and the NATO playing a less defined part in the new global context, Europe found itself at a loss when faced with Moscow’s new aggressive foreign policy.

Half-baked and sometimes hasty actions taken during the final stage of the EU institutionalization prevented the organization from becoming an effective mechanism of collaborative government in Europe. It looks like a semi-finished product with all the political, economic, and social ingredients waiting to be molded into something worthwhile.


Complex prospects

In order to save the integration process from petering out completely, Europe needs to accept the fact that the Union is not as solid as it looked in the “triumphant” 1990s. Therefore, under current conditions, a confederation, let alone federation, is completely out of the question.

In this respect, it must be emphasized that the Treaty of Lisbon cannot replace a real Constitution, which makes the pan-European organization vulnerable to both internal and external threats. Moreover, the absence of a common Constitution makes developing and formalizing a pan-European identity for all member states extremely difficult.

The EU project cannot be analyzed outside the context of global processes. As the latter grow in complexity, the EU becomes more unstable, and some member states are beginning to think that perhaps it is better to leave the Union altogether and solve the emerging problems using their own traditional methods.

In particular, the EU will have to solve a number of crucial interrelated issues in the short term, starting with the problem of refugees and the related issues of internal security and counter-terror measures. Agreements reached with Turkey will not be sufficient, since the problem originates beyond the republic’s borders and lies outside the jurisdiction of Ankara.  

Moreover, relations with Russia will become even more problematic in time.

Right now, Europe is in dire need of the United States support. The US Administration must realize that the survival of the European integration project is not a purely European matter, but a global one. It is high time for Washington to focus more attention not only on relations with separate European states, but also on bilateral ties with Brussels.

Europeans, for their part, should thoroughly rethink their attitude towards security issues, from external threats to internal challenges and risks. At least two solutions present themselves in this area. First, the EU could create its own security system, but it is virtually impossible under current political and especially economic circumstances. The second solution is to adapt the NATO to the new environment, letting the organization play a more active part in Europe’s security.

Brussels and national governments alike should finally come to terms with the fact that it was in the “Old Europe” where the integration process first started losing momentum. The actions of Great Britain, France, Greece and, lately, Germany, illustrate this perfectly. Strange as it sounds, new member states of the EU, especially Poland and Lithuania, provide the most vocal support for further integration and preservation of the Union.

Given the current state of affairs in Europe, two scenarios of further development of the EU may be outlined. According to one of them, the integration process will gradually give out and the Union will cease to exist as a project. This scenario might become a reality if the international climate drastically deteriorates and the EU institutions fail to act with any efficiency, which will prompt national governments to resort to the principle “every man for himself”. In time, new organizations will pop up across Europe, founded on different basic principles.

The other, more realistic scenario has the European Union conserved in its current shape without further integration. It will focus on keeping its present member states and preserving the already developed methods of collaboration. One cannot rule out the possibility that certain member states will leave the Union, most likely those not part of the Eurozone.

If the second scenario plays out, it is quite possible that the passive stance of the former “integration engines” will prompt Poland, for instance, to initiate some sort of mixed sub-regional project, bringing in countries that never joined the EU, with the tacit consent of the US. Such a project would unite Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine as part of the Baltic to Black Sea Alliance, thus bringing together two member states of the EU and a member of the Eastern Partnership initiative. Through Turkey, this organization could potentially join the new Silk Road project and connect the Pacific to the Baltic Sea region.

Such a potential alliance already has its own identity based on the shared history of Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine (the Grand Duchy of Lithuania) as well as the need to join forces in order to confront the threats traditionally coming from the East.

Therefore, it is safe to say that in the immediate future, Brussels has to make every effort to preserve the EU in its current shape.

This would be difficult to accomplish due to both internal reasons and destructive external influences mostly coming from Russia, bent on undermining the European unity.

Thus, the European Union is highly unlikely to accept new members in the current situation. For the integration process to continue, changes have to be made to the current EU model, including its founding principles and agreements. 

Read 732 times