The European Union is a victim of its own success. The challenges the EU faces today are a direct result of its achievement of the objectives with which it was charged by the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. The problem bedeviling the EU in recent years lies in the difficulty of reprogramming a living, breathing political entity after its creation. Bureaucracy has a way of creating its own objectives. Democratic virtues become vices when systemic overhaul is the primary item on the agenda. Reprogramming, however, is exactly what the incoming leaders of the EU’s institutions aim to do if their political experiment is to evolve.
Peace in Europe
When it was founded in 1992, the European Union was charged with five key objectives: monetary union, a common defense policy, European citizenship, cooperation on judicial and home affairs, and expansion of EU law. The EU never really had to generate a common defense policy – it already had NATO (though the atrophy of the alliance’s military mission in recent years has raised new questions in the EU about what a robust and independent defense policy for Europe might look like). On every other score, the European Union succeeded. The problems came with what should happen next. The EU was designed to be a broad institutional framework that respected the national identities of its member states, but bureaucratic manifest destiny turned the apparatchiks’ focus toward emphasizing European-ness rather than preserving the union.
This resulted in a deep disconnect – both within the European Union and within the member states themselves – which can be summed up by a single question: What is the proper relationship between European identity and national identity? The European Union has existed for 27 years – long enough for an entire generation of young people to come of age without knowledge of a pre-EU world, to travel with EU passports and to work almost anywhere on the Continent they please. Some of these young people – and plenty of older ones – genuinely identify as European. And yet there are others for whom such thinking is anathema – for whom the sacrifice of national sovereignty to Brussels is a perfidious betrayal. What is life without history, tradition and family – without national distinctiveness? What was the point of all that war if national sovereignty is to be ceded to an external power anyway?
The point, of course, was to bring peace to Europe. In that limited sense, the European Union hearkens back to the Concert of Europe. That informal 19th-century system was an attempt by Europe’s most powerful states to establish a stable balance of power. Their primary goal was twofold: weaken revolutionary forces like nationalism and communism, and prevent any single European power from dominating all the others. Reflecting the optimism of its time, the Maastricht Treaty imagined a European continent unshackled from over a century of almost constant war, never to find itself beset by such tragedy again. It aimed to accomplish this by tying the economic fate of Europe’s most powerful countries together to a historically unprecedented degree. The primary goals of the EU are still the same: dull revolutionary political forces and prevent any single European power from dominating the others.
As it turned out, what European politicians failed to grasp in 1992 was the extent of Europe’s impending global obsolescence. Previous attempts to create European unity were designed for an era during which European states competed for global mastery, and the EU was modeled on these attempts. Today, European countries face a very different kind of challenge: to avoid being dominated by the very world they once ruled. A recent PwC study projected that, by 2050, there will not be a single EU country in the G-7 – the group comprised of the world’s seven largest developed economies. Already in terms of population, no EU country is in the world’s top 15 (Germany is 17th with a population of roughly 83 million). Previous attempts at European unity always failed because the geopolitics of the Continent resulted in perpetual, internecine conflict. In today’s world, the opposite is true. European unity is in the interest of EU countries because as individual states, their strength pales in comparison to the powers rising on the European periphery.
It is hard to overstate the novelty of this reversal. Europe’s internal dynamics always threatened to tear asunder the artificial chords that Maastricht wrought. Now, however, as a result of external challenges like the United States’ trade wars, China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Russia’s renewed assertiveness in its borderlands, an increasingly independent and powerful Turkey, and a rapidly changing demographic profile, the interests of EU countries are converging. The problem is that the European Union was not designed to manage a convergence of interests; it was designed to manage forces of divergence. At a time when the European Union might focus on marshaling the collective resources of all its 27 members – a force that when combined still ranks among the world’s most powerful, despite Britain’s impending departure – the EU has instead focused on rule of law issues in Poland and Hungary and on rapping Italy over the knuckles for irresponsible government spending. It is hard to fault the EU’s bureaucratic institutions for doing this – they are doing what they were created to do. The problem is that their design is obsolete.
Europe’s most powerful leaders (namely, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel) know this. (It is a strange irony that the two countries that arguably played the biggest role in destroying Europe in the 20th century, and for whom the EU is supposed to function as a de facto cage, now must work together to save it.) It is not a coincidence that the recently elected new President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, is German, and that the presumptive next head of the European Central Bank, Christine Lagarde (who resigned from her post as head of the International Monetary Fund on Wednesday) is French. It is also not a coincidence that Macron and Merkel found a way to sideline the European Parliament’s choice of candidate – though this was made easy by the fact that the candidate could not carry the voters needed to win. Von der Leyen barely could herself, eking out 383 of 747 votes on Tuesday. If Germany and France are to achieve comprehensive EU reform, they will need plenty more of the past few weeks’ backroom wizardry: Getting 27 countries to agree to cede even more sovereignty to Brussels is as close to impossible as it gets in politics.
Complicating matters further is that not even France and Germany see eye to eye on the exact nature of those reforms. Macron has led the charge for reform since his election in 2017. He envisions a “two-speed” EU, where countries that want to pool their resources together to be governed by a stronger, more centralized authority can do so without fundamentally undermining the EU’s overall structure. Merkel, in part because of her domestic political weakness, has been less vocal about what reforms she thinks are necessary, but she has been conspicuously tepid on the specifics of Macron’s proposals. Von der Leyen will not have the luxury of silence – as her candidate’s speech for president of the European Commission made abundantly clear. To the chagrin of many of her more conservative supporters, von der Leyen spoke of a $1 trillion “Green Deal for Europe” that would cut carbon dioxide emissions in half by 2030, a capital markets union designed to strengthen Europe’s small and medium-sized enterprises, an EU unemployment benefit reinsurance scheme, and an undefined new “EU-wide rule of law mechanism” to defend “the cradle of European civilization.”
But not even these radical suggestions will be enough for Macron, who told Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic on Monday that the EU was too dysfunctional to consider further expansion in the Balkans, and who earlier this month characterized the horse-trading process of selecting new EU leaders as a “failure.” It may, however, be a place to start. And while the EU’s would-be reformers face a difficult situation, it’s not an impossible one. With the exception of Greece, popular sentiment toward the EU remains predominantly positive despite large and extremely vocal minorities of euroskeptics throughout the bloc. Now Germany and France have their handpicked candidates at the EU’s helm and can credibly push for a mandate to consider broad and deep-reaching EU reform – reform that must involve real French and German compromises if they are to be welcomed by other EU countries. Both Italy (minus the League party) and the Visegrad 4 (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) reportedly supported von der Leyen’s appointment, a small sign that they at least like what they heard behind closed doors. As for von der Leyen, she, like Macron, understands that the EU has reached a “reform or die” moment. What is less clear is if she understands that, for the Herculean task ahead of her, a national interest-based pragmatism will be a far deeper well from which to draw than an unnecessarily ideological European-ism.