The European Union is locked in a perpetual state of crisis management. It has had to head off the collapse of the eurozone, deal with waves of undocumented migrants, and now come to terms with a renewed terrorist threat, underscored by the recent attacks in Brussels. On top of all this, the EU confronts the real possibility of a British exit, or Brexit, which depends on the outcome of a public referendum in the United Kingdom in June. The European idea, which has helped to inspire the continent’s integration since World War II, may be the next casualty.
Over the past seven decades, European political leaders have seized on crises to propel European integration forward, advancing toward the goal of “ever-closer union” that is codified in the 1957 Treaty of Rome. But they have not been able to do so with the latest challenges, which have revealed practical tensions and unresolved contradictions in the European project. They have exposed European integration to be an elite-driven endeavor lacking adequate democratic legitimacy, and the EU itself as an awkward and unsustainable halfway house between intergovernmentalism and supranationalism—that is, between a loose cooperative arrangement in which states retain full independence and a federal union in which they transfer those national authorities to a superior central body. Europe’s chaotic response to recent events suggests that when push comes to shove, national sovereignty will trump European solidarity.
The so-called European idea is a cosmopolitan vision of a united Europe. Its antecedents go back centuries, but it emerged in full force following World War II, which had discredited nationalism and the nation-state throughout most of Europe. Early expressions of the European idea could be found in 1949 in the Council of Europe and in 1951 with the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). The onset of the Cold War—as well as vigorous U.S. support for European unity—gave the efforts an important geopolitical boost.
Even among elites, however, there has