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“Ever closer union”: still a European fundamental?

A text by Sonja Puntscher Riekmann

The creation of the European polity rests on the founding myth of peace to be warranted by institutionalized cooperation of its members, delegation of selected powers to supranational organs and decision-making in respect of the rule of law. While the openness of the project’s finalité yielded changing narratives on what Europe means to different generations of citizens and elites, the preamble of the treaty defined the trajectory as leading towards “ever closer union”. Apparently, this basic avowal is put into question today. But is it really?

Indeed, in the negotiations preceding the referendum the UK government pursued the elimination of the formula “ever closer union” from the treaty supposedly to appease Brexiteers. The EU did not budge and the referendum ended with a majority vote for Leave, its reasons being more complex than discontent with a treaty formula. However, long before Brexit as the first instance of disintegration the EU was faced with varieties of Euroscepticism incarnated in new or old transmuted political parties in many member states.  Main stream incumbents reacted by proclaiming the need for institutional change while academics broached the requirement of a new European narrative. Euroscepticism came in different cloaks worn by different actors, but all concurred in scapegoating the EU for whatever they thought their clientele would define as political or societal deficiency. In this vein, the EU is doing either too much or too little, in any case she is not a power for good. Such stances were and still are advocated in hard and soft terms, but they are an instance of “voice” underpinned by a minimum degree of “loyalty”, whereas it was for the UK to choose “exit”.

During the last three decades governing elites first took a great leap forward in Maastricht, then lost courage in the wake of negative or wafer-thin positive votes on treaty changes and finally muddled through the 1990s and the 2000s. The defeat of the Constitutional Treaty to accommodate the needs of enlargement in the French and Dutch referenda of 2005 was a major blow, although important provisions were enshrined in the Treaty of Lisbon. But until the financial and fiscal crisis little was accomplished to complete monetary union by an economic, fiscal and political union. And surreptitiously, governments begun to advocate new forms of intergovernmentalism to the detriment of supranational institutions. Intriguingly though, the result of new intergovernmentalism were more hybrid modes of governance, a constitutional monster made of simultaneous centralization and fragmentation, of more integration by stealth and nationalist sovereignty posture.

The calls for a new European narrative that emerged from this conundrum started from the premise that the traditional narrative of peace, democracy and rule of law had lost its appeal, while the narrative of prosperity had paled in the financial crisis and the narrative of security in the migration crisis. Thus, the latest invention reads as “Europe that protects”. But different readers think of different things they want protection from. In the unexpected Covid19 pandemic the wish for health protection became paramount, although the EU has little competence in health policy.  She could nonetheless be denounced as inefficient by national leaders who again grasped the opportunity to stylize themselves as saviours of their states as they had done in the migration crisis. This is the posture chosen by the “frugal four” in the current negotiations of rescue funds, which are hardly the sign of a Hamiltonian moment in European history, as hailed by some commentators. Moreover, in May 2020 the German Federal Constitutional Court produced another ruling to assert national budgetary sovereignty, thus ignoring the need to conceive monetary policy for the eurozone as a whole and not only in line with German preferences. If this sketchy description of current developments is correct, the question about whether “ever closer union” is still a fundamental to Europeans, begs for a gloomy answer.

There is, however, also a bright side to the life of the Union. The Euro has survived a wicked crisis, while at last member states agreed on an intergovernmental rescue fund. European legislators created a set of new provisions to regulate national fiscal policy and banks, whereas the European Central Bank morphed into the great stabilizer of the Eurozone. Recently, Germany and France seem at last to act in concert to put in place large scale rescue operations to fight off the pandemic induced economic downturn. Brexit has so far not generated emulators, on the contrary, it has brought to life the “EU 27” who are united in preventing the UK from “cherry-picking” and in delegating the power to negotiate future relations to the Commission and Michel Barnier. Such consistency may be surprising but it is the result of a continuous inter-institutional dialogue at the European and the national level. Moreover, according to the latest Eurobarometer of 2019 citizens have either a positive (42%) or a neutral (37%) image of the Union, whereas only 20% see it negatively. Figures may fluctuate over time and mirror different sentiments in different countries, but they doubtlessly convey a general perception of the Union as something to be preserved, not dismantled. Moreover, trust in EU institutions is greater than in national institutions, while trust in the Euro is at an all-time high of 76% on average for the whole euro area. Figures relating to satisfaction with democracy are more ambivalent: While data regarding the question whether citizens believe that their voice counts at Union level decreased from 56% in Spring to 45% in Autumn 2019, it conveys satisfaction with how democracy works in the Union (52% versus 40% of dissatisfied). Most remarkably, 70% of EU 28 respondents consider themselves as EU citizens.

These results do hardly suggest the end of the Union, but rather provoke another question: Are citizens keener to unify than their elites? Do the former outdo the latter in regarding the project of “ever closer union” as fundamental? A construct that needs constant improvement to build “a more perfect union”, but that is worthwhile pursuing because there is less “happiness” to be expected without it? While answers to these questions may be speculative, data concerning citizens’ expectations towards the EU’ capacity to act could be used as an indication for a bolder vision of its future: Two thirds of citizens want the EU to develop a common asylum policy and a reinforcement of external border control, a majority wishes a European policy for renewable energy and fighting plastic waste, 78% favour measures to ensure gender equality at the work place, while 57% support a single digital market. This data draws a different picture of the EU than offered by the bickering of member states governments over asylum quota or money to be allocated to the EU for crisis management.

Finally, “ever closer union” does of course not spare European foreign and security policy. Since the inception of European integration this chapter has always been a particularly difficult one. However, while today 70% of the citizens believe that the EU’s voice is heard in the world, Eurobarometer 2019 does not ask how they want the EU to act in a conflict-ridden world and on what scale of resources. We no longer live in quiet times: the multipolar world that seemed to replace the Cold War duopoly has waned in the new struggle for hegemony between the US and China. There are more conflicts looming large: some in the immediate neighbourhood of the EU, some hot and some cold, some involving trade and currency wars, all of them threatening the liberal and multipolar world order. Are European citizens and representatives prepared to herald and pay for the defence of such order, to invest in its institutions from the UN to the WTO, to develop peace-making and -keeping scenarios, last not least to risk conflict with its counterparts, in particular the US within NATO? Or do they prefer emulating other big powers by putting “Europe first”, for instance by building European industrial champions and thus disavowing competition policy as a pillar of the single market? Or utilizing the Euro in global currency antagonisms? Whatever the answers to these questions, the EU may need a bold narrative about becoming an autonomous world power rather than remaining a quiet trade giant and a satellite of others in security and defence. Boldness was indeed the term used by the Commission president Ursula von der Leyen in her inauguration speech before the European Parliament. And boldness in political, social and economic terms is what we need to overcome the current crisis and to promote democracy, justice and sustainability in Europe and the world.

Sonja Puntscher-Riekmann is a university professor for political theory and EU politics at the University of Salzburg and a Vice-President of the European Forum Alpbach.