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Sixty Years of European Integration

The author would like to thank Catharina Ziebritzki, research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law, Heidelberg, for the lively discussions and suggestions. Kanad Bagchi (bagchi@mpil.de) is a doctoral research fellow at Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law, Heidelberg.

The European Union has faced crisis after crisis in recent years. First it was the sovereign debt crisis, followed by bankruptcy and bailout measures of various sovereign states. Now the continent is reeling under an immigration and refugee crisis. The impending Brexit process and the recent rise of far-right nationalist parties are certainly reflective of theEU’s fundamental constitutional weakness and democratic deficit.

On 25 March 2017, European Union (EU) leaders from 27 member states (sans Britain) gathered together at the historic Palazzo dei Conservatori in Rome to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which laid the foundations of the EU. Despite a sense of dejection that has marked the EU in present times, a sense of nostalgia and glimmering hope characterised the speeches of the respective leaders. While the EU has expanded in size, depth and complexity since the signing of the Treaty of Rome in 1957, dynamics within its constitutional structures have been exposed to several fissures. After more than half a century of institutional building, the Union of Europe stands at the crossroads, more delusional and less coherent.

Structures and Fissures

With every step forward, the EU loses a bit of itself in more dramatic ways than the world is able to conjecture. Brexit, rising populism, the continent’s intransigent Eastern Bloc, the protracted debt crisis and soaring migration are only a pale reflection of a much deeper constitutional crisis within the EU. Europe stands alone and disengaged not just from its member states, but far more importantly, from its “peoples.” A crisis of confidence runs through an entire generation of Europeans, as they witness a more inflexible, distant and uninspired institution crumbling under its own weight. Ironically, the EU celebrates its 60 years of integration as a project dedicated to peace, prosperity and the confluence of differing perceptions and peoples; however today, 60 years later, it begs the question, to what end and for what purpose?

For many observers, the EU embodies a sharp contrast, as if it were against both its founding principles and its unfolding ambitions. For many others, however, the EU is simply a victim of its own success, unable to contain its own making. Irrespective of what one’s perceptions of the EU might be (and there are several, I admit), any reasonable extrapolation of the EU’s present predicaments, and indeed its potential to redeem itself, has to be preceded both with caution and an appreciation for its unique constitutional structure. As concomitant to this process, it is also important to acknowledge and perhaps even celebrate those sustained moments of hope and concerted accomplishments.

The Foundation for a Union

Universities have had a coveted place in the history of great ideas, and have invariably served as focal points of contestation and imagination. Against the backdrop of a dismayed Europe, reeling under the destruction of World War II and a destabilising economy, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressed a gathering of students and academics at the Universität Zürich in 1946. In no uncertain terms and with astonishing ambition he called for a “United States of Europe,” as the only means of consolidating a disintegrating continent and restoring its glory (Churchill 1946). He advocated for a “sovereign remedy” marked by what was perhaps unthinkable during those times: “a partnership of France and Germany” (Churchill 1946). Indeed, the Treaty which established the European Coal and Steel Community (1951) along with the Treaty of Rome was the first step, and a remarkable one, towards Churchill’s vision. Integration and common supervision of the coal and steel industry in France and Germany meant that neither could be easily moved to war or destruction. The European Coal and Steel Community, together with its institutions, averted any possibility of economic domination by a single nation, and served as an early blueprint of coordination and collaboration, that was to mark the subsequent years of European integration. The Treaty of Rome, which celebrates 60 years of formally bringing life to the European Economic Community (as it was then called), took the resolve of further integration and established a common market along with a customs union comprising six Western European countries (Belgium, West Germany, France, Luxemburg, the Netherlands and Italy).

The message in Article 2 of the Rome Treaty was loud and clear, and deserves to be quoted in full:

The Community shall have as its task, by establishing a common market and progressively approximating the economic policies of Member States, to promote throughout the Community a harmonious development of economic activities, a continuous and balanced expansion, an increase in stability, an accelerated raising of the standard of living and closer relations between the States belonging to it. (Treaty of Rome 1957)

True to its objectives in Article 2, and amidst declining barriers, commerce, industry and communication thrived and brought about an exchange of ideas, values and indeed aspirations, far more significant than the EU’s original economic underpinnings. As against its more explicit purpose for economic integration, the Rome Treaty also had a certain political undertone, clearly discernable in its commitment to laying “… the foundations of an ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe …” Its expanding agenda gradually converged into several policy areas, including climate, health, migration, security, justice, economic and monetary affairs and human rights.

Political Undertones of the EU

With each subsequent treaty being ratified, the EU was gradually engulfing its constituents into a political communion from where there was no turning back. Rule of law, democracy and judicial review became an inseparable part of the autonomous enterprise and was reflected in an increasing “constitutionality” of the EU’s structures, processes and ideals. The most pertinent observation of the EU’s changing narrative came from the European Court of Justice through its decision in Van Gend en Loos (1963). The EU was declared to be sui generis (constituting a class alone), sitting uncompromisingly between what is perhaps much more than simply an intergovernmental organisation comprising of member states, while simultaneously being less than an enmeshed full federation. According to the court, it represented

a new legal order of international law for the benefit of which the states have limited their sovereign rights, albeit within limited fields and the subjects of which comprise not only member states but also their nationals. (Van Gend en Loos v Nederlandse Administratie der Belastingen 1963)

Thus, the architecture of Europe was delineated. The union therefore transformed itself from a subject of public international law into an entity with constitutional underpinnings, defined and nurtured by a constitutional commitment embedded within the European Treaties (here, I refer to both the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union). Although, resistance to a superimposed constitutional framework ran deep into the minds of some member states and was often expressed with enormous alacrity, in the years that followed, a calibrated compromise of shared sovereignty marked the relationship between the two. From a group of six, the EU gathered an enormous momentum assimilating within itself 28 exceedingly diverse and disparate countries. The response going forward was only “more integration.”

With a constitutional order in place, the EU thrived in ever more astonishing ways. It fostered democracy in countries like Greece, Spain and Portugal, stood as a countervailing force to the Soviet Union, and extended its influence in shaping the rule of law in post-Soviet communist countries. On the economic front, the EU comprised of a block with a combined gross domestic product of about €15 trillion, had an internal market with the free movement of goods, people, capital and services, and operated as a dominant player in international trade and commerce. With remarkable growth and modest levels of inflation, the standards of living amongst half a billion Europeans only increased, peace was sustained and political rivalry was kept at a minimum. The launch of a single currency for the Eurozone and the establishment of the “European citizenship,” were further indications of a more confident and cohesive Europe. While the former signified an even greater devolution of sovereignty by member states, the latter identified a renewed vision for further federalisation of the EU. Today, the EU represents one of the most unique experiments in regional integration, far denser and more institutionalised, admitting no such parallels in the world.

Solidarity and Discipline as Fundamentals

Back to the present: what might explain the burgeoning scepticism towards the EU? Is it its faltering structures and its wavering commitments? There is certainly no easy answer to this.

The architecture of the EU was envisioned to rest on the mutually enforcing principles of solidarity and discipline among member states (Sangiovanni 2013). While both terms have a politically charged meaning and convey different conceptions to different stakeholders, in its most undemanding configuration, here, solidarity is understood as the obligation of member states to jointly pursue common solutions, through mutual support, to problems affecting the union as a whole, be it financial or otherwise. Discipline is understood as imposing an obligation on member states to abide by the rules arising under various EU treaties. In this manner, the EU treaties were to be the focal points of contestation and interplay in weeding out any imbalances, and sustaining a continued link between the two.

As the resolve of “… an ever-closer union …” acquired more prominence, the EU propelled its integration agenda with astounding speed, subsuming ever more critical areas of national interest and policy, into a much deeper and shared communion. In other words, the pace of European integration far outstripped the capacity of member states to reflect and assimilate such change into their own domestic institutional structures and processes. To ease out the process and to leave no member state behind, the EU rules of discipline were relaxed, monitoring was lightened and soft commitments became the norm. Sitting uneasily amidst this process was solidarity, which was unconditionally presumed, as recompense for greater cohesion. Thus, further down the integration path, the principles of solidarity and discipline were both taken for granted, while the link between the two was implicitly and inexorably de-emphasised. An unholy mix of less discipline, but unreservedly assured solidarity, formed the basis of the integration mantra.

The ensuing variance between those set of principles, ultimately, had a debilitating effect on the relationship between the member states and the EU’s institutions on the one hand, and between the EU and its citizens on the other. Exacerbating that imbalance was the unrestrained and almost frenzied resolve towards further integration, due to the unmindful or unconscious denial of the unequal advancement of different member states.

Crises and Institutional Disengagement

Once it was no longer feasible to sustain the veil covering the growing polarity between solidarity and discipline, the EU was muddled into one crisis after the other. Consider first, the European sovereign debt crisis. The Eurozone’s debt problems were essentially the outcome of years of fiscal imprudence by peripheral member states, untrammelled by the budgetary rules of EU law (Ruffert 2011). In several ways, the weaker member states were implicitly allowed to go down that path, lest the promise of integration be arrested, or far worse, questioned. Riding on the strength and confidence of the euro, Greece and other distressed member states relentlessly borrowed from financial markets, stretching inexorably, their public balance-sheets. Market participants and investors initially turned a blind eye towards the excesses of these member states, only to realise later that the promise of solidarity was tied to a delicate balance. Once that balance seemed all but disturbed, the EU’s credibility came down crumbling, unprepared and unwatchful as it was; while the European treaties provided no credible solution. The promise of solidarity within the EU laid itself threadbare and the ramifications of continued indiscipline threatened to expose the Eurozone’s precarious edifice. Finding no European solution in sight, the leaders of the EU were forced to create structures and agreements outside of the various EU treaties (for instance, the European Stability Mechanism), zealously supported by the European Court of Justice. Alas! The message was clear: EU problems no longer had EU solutions.

Much of the same logic explains the current migration conundrum facing the EU. If a want for more discipline was at the heart of the crisis underpinning the Euro, the want for more solidarity between Europe’s East and West in dealing with the influx of migrants has smeared relations between both camps. The relationship between Germany and Sweden on one hand and the recalcitrant eastern states of Hungary, Poland and Czech Republic, on the other, exhibiting two opposing extremes, has reached an unceremonious and complete hiatus. While the former increasingly grows more disconcerted, having to share the larger burden of attenuating and settling the rising counts of refugees, the latter have firmed up their stance on not sharing any burden at all; despite explicit EU obligations mandating an equitable apportionment of responsibility towards refugee claims. At the other end of the spectrum, lies the dysfunctional Dublin system, which establishes rules determining the member state responsible for examining an application for asylum. The “Member State of First-Contact” rule undoubtedly imposes an excessive burden on peripheral states like Italy and Greece and has led to continuous reprisals, while the conditions of living in detention centres and refugee camps have only deteriorated.

Amidst this stand-off, the EU finds itself even more paralysed and structurally inadequate in either aiding the efforts of certain member states, or in persuading others to look beyond their narrow populist agendas. With not enough solidarity in sight, European leaders were yet again forced to look outside the EU’s own institutions and processes. The refugee crisis is, to a large extent, exported to the borders of the EU—through the EU–Turkey agreement signed in 2016—whereby in exchange for aid money and an assurance for a renewed focus on Turkey’s membership to the EU, migrants would be stationed in Turkey. Voices from several quarters have raised concerns with respect to the questionable character of the deal, and its much dangerous precedent for international refugee rights. The message is clear yet again: EU problems no longer have EU solutions.

The EU’s Lost Mandate

The larger effect of the EU’s inability and unpreparedness to deal with its own set of predicaments has caught the public imagination. The EU’s scramble to resurrect itself translates into more decisive incursions into national policy, greater managerial control at the level of the EU and a seeming rejection of national hardship. Think of austerity, public budget cuts, pension downgrades, border control and the rest. Amidst the rising disconcertment among people, charges of “democratic deficit” and “illegitimacy” against the EU have acquired exaggerated proportions, carefully playing into the hands of populist and nationalist parties in the member states. A clamour for bringing back the “national state” and wresting control away from EU institutions has engulfed public discussion in several member states. While Britain took the most perilous road in attempting to dissociate itself completely from the EU, other member states, like France, Italy and Netherlands have witnessed the alarming rise of right-wing nationalist parties, with either an explicit or implicit agenda for resisting integration. As it stands, the EU is disengaged both with its member states and its peoples; severely constrained and hugely unpopular.

Will the EU be able to withstand the institutional pressures from within? Considering it does, will it be able to pull together a shared vision of prosperity and peace, inspire confidence in its weaker member states, and bridge the exploding gap with its citizens? The answer squarely lies in how far the EU is willing to shed its antipathy to change and embrace, if need be, wide-ranging and radical transformation of its institutional structures and processes. A clear evaluation of the EU’s lost mandate and an acknowledgement of its procedural infirmities is perhaps a first starting point in that direction. In this regard, the recent declaration signed by EU leaders in Rome points to a more humble and perceptive group, inasmuch as it admits of the EU’s failings:

European Union is facing unprecedented challenges, both global and domestic: regional conflicts, terrorism, growing migratory pressures, protectionism and social and economic inequalities ... [while espousing its commitment towards addressing] the challenges of a rapidly changing world and to offer to our citizens both security and new opportunities. (The Rome Declaration 2017)

 

However, a sharpened focus with respect to the EU’s vulnerabilities and shortcomings ought to occupy a heightened priority in its agenda, pronounced by a broader engagement of the EU institutions with its member states and civil society groups.

Further, a concerted rethink ought to transpire, with respect to questions of legitimacy of EU action and its responsiveness towards addressing the concerns of its citizens more closely and directly. As against national member states, the EU can no longer afford to be a distant second in alleviating the needs of its constituencies. Indeed, for the EU to play a larger role, its institutions have to be significantly opened up, the participation of a broader section of the polity has to increase and transparency in rule-making and enforcement has to be guaranteed. In other words, there is an overwhelming need to engage more purposively with concerns of both input and output legitimacy of the EU. The European Parliament on the one hand and the national parliaments on the other, are perhaps central figures in the EU’s trajectory towards greater visibility and acceptance. While it is necessary for the former to look beyond its narrow mandates and act as a veritable source of accountability and constraint on the EU executive, it is equally imperative for the latter to exploit its newly increased powers of scrutiny and formal objection, as defined under the Lisbon Treaty (Jančić 2015). Putting the individual citizen at the heart of the EU’s unfolding project ought to surface beyond its usual rhetoric into its most recognisable promise.

Conclusions

Lastly, a fundamental shift in conceptualising the relationship between the EU and its constituent member states ought to inform European leaders about matters concerning the further deepening of the integration process. This entails both a conscious appraisal of the differing circumstances of each member state and their corresponding capacities in effectively assimilating the complexities of a redesigned integrated framework. Clearly, in the case of the euro, some member states were less suitable candidates than others. However, fervour for closer integration far outweighed any rigorous examination of the same. Going forward, a categorical reaffirmation of the principles of solidarity and discipline as two sides of the same coin ought to form the bedrock of the European integration project. If this means tempering the integration strategy through a greater use of the “enhanced cooperation” procedure under the treaties, for able and willing member states, or the reorganisation of the EU, to reflect a differentiated and multi-tiered integration process, as some have suggested, so be it. At a minimum, it should form a serious point of discussion and debate within the EU (Pisani-Ferry et al 2016). Pointedly, the Rome declaration also seems to be visibly embracing a similar path: “… We will act together, at different paces and intensity where necessary … and keeping the door open to those who want to join later.” However, it remains to be seen how the EU mediates between the potential and challenges of such an approach.

TheEU has strayed a considerable distance from sustaining mutual trust and cooperation amongst its member states and it is argued that only a significant and pervasive re-evaluation of its role and mandate can reverse such a course. The EU needs to be both prepared and predisposed towards adapting to such change, mindful however, of assimilating the varying standpoints of its constituent units. To recapture the public imagination of its people, EU needs to demystify its construct, interact closely at the local level and consolidate its position as the predominant agent for hope and a better life, thus aligning itself closer to its founding goals and principles.

References

Churchill, Winston (1946): “Speech to the Academic Youth,” Speech, Universität Zürich, Zurich, Switzerland, 19 September, viewed on 28 March 2017, http://www.cfr.org/europe/churchills-united-states-europe-speech-zurich/p32536.

Jančić, Davor (2015): “The Game of Cards: National Parliaments in the EU and the Future of the Early Warning Mechanism and the Political Dialogue,” Common Market Law Review, Vol 52, No4, pp 939–75.

Pisani-Ferry, Jean, Norbert Röttgen, André Sapir, Paul Tucker and Guntram B Wolff (2016): “Europe after Brexit: A Proposal for a Continental Partnership,” Bruegel Publication, 29 August, http://bruegel.org/2016/08/europe-after-brexit-a-proposal-for-a-continental-partnership/.

Ruffert, Matthias (2011): “The European Debt Crisis and European Union Law,” Common Market Law Review, Vol 48, No 6, pp 1777–1806.

Sangiovanni, Andrea (2013): “Solidarity in the European Union,” Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, Vol 33, No 2, pp 213–41.

The Rome Declaration (2017): “Rome Declaration of the Leaders of 27 Member States and of the European Council, the European Parliament and the European Commission,” 25 March, http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_STATEMENT-17-767_en.htm.

Treaty of Rome (1957): “Treaty Establishing the European Economic Community,” 25 March, Rome: EUR-Lex, http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX:11957E/TXT.

Van Gend En Loos v Nederlandse Administratie Der Belastingen (1963): C-26/62, European Court of Justice’s decision dated 5 February, http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:61962CJ0026&from=EN.

Updated On : 17th May, 2017

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