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Where To? The European Union between Brexit and the War in Ukraine

Where To? The European Union between Brexit and the War in Ukraine

What has become of European integration? The present concerns regarding Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, a bloody war on the European Union’s Eastern borders, and transatlantic solidarity makes the question seem a bit irrelevant. Beneath the surface, however, the worries that Britain’s exit from the mostly Brussels-based organisation brought to the fore still linger. Is there any meaningful sense left to the buzzwords or has European integration become just another euphemism for piecemeal regional cooperation? 

Below Utopia 

Contrary to casual first impressions and a reverse understanding of the past, European integration, as a catchphrase, did not designate originally an unequivocal process of ever-closer union between Europe’s post-war democracies, but a practical way of avoiding the settling of such a course of action. The originator of the first big European integration theory, David Mitrany, is more than explicit about this. His functionalist theory of European integration takes inspiration from the US New Deal program of fighting the Great Depression and advertises itself as a practical intellectual device to promote and enhance much needed cooperation between European states after the Second World War, in sharp contrast to the idealist theory of the pan-Europa federalist movement led by Count Richard Nikolaus Coudenhove-Kalergy of the interwar period, for which he can scarcely hide his ridicule.

Dreams, high rhetoric and grand principles would have to take a back seat this time around if Europe was supposed to move at all beyond the 1918 stalemate. And in the 1950s, with the French Parliament’s rejection of the European Defence Community, and by implication a host of other planned communities ranging from transportation to healthcare, even these minimal functionalist projects were cut short in order to achieve some kind, any kind really, of result. Ernst B. Haas turned Mitrany’s functionalist theory on its head in order to rationalize the contingency of the events that make up Europe’s integration process. From an objective process, determined by the technical constraints of managing modern economies and societies, the neofunctionalist perspective theorized European integration as the outcome of entrepreneurial politicians such as Jean Monnet and dedicated civil servants winning the public’s hearts and minds over corrupt and petty national politicians, in short a hazardous, circumstantial and even more undefined process.

But even this perspective, which modestly allowed for a subjective, group-interests based, predisposition for integration did not stand up to scrutiny in the period between the so-called “empty chairs” crisis, which opposed French President Charles de Gaulle and the Hallstein European Commission, and the so-called Fontainebleau compromise, which opposed British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her fellow European leaders. Andrew Moravcsik’s highly praised book-length study of European integration, “The Choice for Europe: Social Purpose and State Power from Messina to Maastricht”, basically convinced everybody that there’s no mystique in it, that everything achieved is nothing but an institutional calculus of national governments seeking to maximize their gains from cooperation, just as they do in any other international arena, even if less structured or ambitious. 

Household Chores 

The process theories of European integration remain the backbone of the field, in practice as well as in discourse, to this day. They might not lead Europe anywhere or even say anything about it, but without them European integration would fail to be the simulacrum that it is. Aware of the impasse, a new, more banal, crop of theories sprung up beginning with the 1980s, bearing names such as multilayered governance or Europeanization. These “household chores theories”, as one can call them faithfully, no longer take their cue primarily from the field of international relations, but from that of management and organisational studies. Their aim is no longer to give a complete account of how European cooperation is made possible, for these new theories take European cooperation for granted and formulate partial descriptions of the mechanisms believed to govern its inner workings, at best offering suggestions for deepening the presumed process.

If the process theories of European integration represent the heroic era of the “founding fathers”, the household chores theories of European integration represent the dispirited era of the established European bureaucrats. The political agnosticism of the multilayered governance theory, for instance, suits perfectly the activity of the Delors and subsequent early 1990s European Commissions. The Maastricht-rebranded European Union likes to talk a lot about common values, but during this period, marked by the invention and rise of Euroscepticism, Europe means primarily business. Overthinking about the contours of an “unidentified political object” is almost suicidal for the Brussels elite. Occasional inconsequential spats with the US regarding the death penalty aside, the enlargement of the organisation towards the poorer, transitioning, ex-communist countries constitute the only true rationale for vaunting Europeanization as a moral force, promoting and anchoring democracy, rule of law and civil society in the periphery.

Since then, however, the consensus on European values, if it has ever existed, has been shuttered. Gone are the Prodi Commission days when the bone of contention was mainly limited to a rather abstract debate regarding the once self-understood Christian roots of Europe, with minor quarrels over the welfare state. Several European governments, such as Poland and Hungary, as well various parties and pressure groups from all over the EU openly challenge the European courts’ and institutions’ push to interpret the notion of rights, and associate principles such as equality and freedom, so extensively as to include same-sex marriage, open immigration and other controversial issues that have become centre-stage in the political debate of recent years. The old unionized working-class left has been rendered obsolete by the new information economy and is mostly gone while the once free-market groups that confronted it have been superseded by sectional alliances between business interests, government bureaucrats and a variety of social pressure groups advocating for a transformation of the economy and society along neo-corporatist lines, in other words a fusion between state power and organised private interests. 

The Never-Ending State 

The European Union doesn’t lack comprehensive and ambitious political visions about itself, but they remain elusive. At least since the turbulent 16th century, which destroyed Western Europe’s expansionist Catholic unity and more or less put an end to competing dreams of “renovatio Imperii Romanorum”, various diplomats and intellectuals sketched out numerous proposals for a new political arrangement capable of enshrining a perpetual, that is permanent, peace on the continent.

In the official whig history, these ideas have led to the creation of modern international law, in which the sovereign state is the basic unit, and later on to the creation of international organisations such as the League of Nations as autonomous arenas in which the sovereign states can come to know each other, trade interests and adjudicate disputes in a civil manner. Nevertheless, European Union theorists have in the last decades began to treat the political visions for Europe of early modern philosophers as something more than just antiquated ideas univocally presaging modern international law. Thus, political categories once thought to have become extinct or void – such as empire, confederation or federation, which form the backbone of early modern political thought on international and European affairs – have acquired a new intrinsic value, being subjected to new scrutiny and invested with new analytical meaning in an effort to make sense of contemporary European integration.

Despite their historical depth, extensive empirical content and philosophical prestige, these end-state theories of the European Union haven’t gained much traction. The insight they provide, however, is sometimes invaluable, as is the case with Murray Forsyth’s 1981 book, “Unions of States: The Theory and Practice of Confederation”, which can be said to have influenced – the very sharp critiques of his Leicester University colleagues first and foremost notwithstanding – even the formal instruments of the European Constitutional Convention, which drafted a failed constitutional treaty in 2004. The decentralized, overlapped and multilayered consociationalist politics of ancient and medieval political forms has been rendered almost unintelligible by modern sovereigntist law to the point of making the – admittedly fuzzy – distinction between federation and confederation nearly impossible. The empire is an even more discredited and difficult to analyse polycentric political category, despite the fact that it often echoes wittingly or unwittingly the writings of EU critics and enthusiasts alike. 


The events that have passed since the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community or the signing of The Treaty of Rome in the 1950s no longer allow for the belief that European integration is teleologically inevitable. The current organisation is the result of critical circumstances, sheer will and mere chance. In fact, in the view of realist international relations theorists such as Sebastian Rosato, the end of the Cold War should have spelled the end of European integration as well.

The voluntarism of European leaders and the very interests of the organisation’s member states led instead to its reinvention with the adoption of the Maastricht Treaty and the ambivalent goal of reuniting the continent by expanding the organisation eastwards. Several territories, such as the French colonial departments of northern Algeria and, later on, Greenland, a Danish Arctic dependency, have exited the European Community before, but never a sovereign state as did Britain on January 31st 2020.

 The internal politics of European integration is a collection of disputes, setbacks and compromises. One often hears that Europe was born in crisis and made of crises, in a sort of Nietzschean process. However, the nastiest and most cynical part of European politics was usually confined to relations between national politicians and national governments. Or so it was thought. The rather limited democratization of European institutions and politics has not led to its disappearance. On the contrary, what is usually called Euroscepticism has become a fixture of European politics with its own representation in the European Parliament as well as in national parliaments. The current European show of solidarity with Russian-invaded Ukraine and general sense of menace cannot hide neither this kind of popular discontent below, nor the persistent inter-governmental disputes at the top.

The post-functional integration of Europe, if such a thing does exist, is a rather messy and dysfunctional process.




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