Migrants wait for buses in a makeshift camp at a collection point in the village of Roszke, Hungary, September 2015. 
Marko Djurica / Reuters

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.

EVER-CLOSER UNION

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 never been a single idea of Europe. That seemed not to matter as long as the general trajectory—however incremental and uneven—was toward ever-closer union, inspired in part by Jean Monnet, the French political economist and diplomat. His vision of an increasingly federal, even supranational, Europe included horizontal ties among member states and vertical relationships of authority that subordinated European states and citizens to Europe-wide institutions.

To that end, from 1945 onward, European leaders have repeatedly exploited crises to advance integration. In May 1950, for example, Monnet used the specter of German economic and political resurgence and the deepening Cold War to persuade French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman to announce the European Coal and Steel Community, an international organization meant to unify a group of countries in continental Europe. By pooling the continent’s coal and steel production and placing it under a common authority, Monnet reasoned, Europe could peacefully harness Germany’s economic dynamism and demographic potential, which might otherwise undermine Europe’s fragile peace. The ECSC would also hasten the continent’s recovery and emergence as a unit capable of acting alongside (and even separately from) the United States in the face of the Soviet menace. Monnet’s genius was to transform the commanding heights of industry from weapons of war into instruments of peace.

The European idea, which has helped to inspire the continent’s integration since World War II, may be headed for collapse.

The Treaty of Rome, which aimed to integrate Europe economically, was also born of crisis. During the early 1950s, several western European countries struggled mightily to create a European Defense Community that would unite their military might. Despite strong U.S. pressure, the EDC initiative failed catastrophically in 1954. Monnet responded by founding an “Action Committee for the United States of Europe,” which sought an indirect approach to overcoming European sovereignty. European leaders went along, focusing not on defense integration but on the less controversial economic goal of creating the European Economic Community (EEC). Yet the treaty provisions agreed to in Rome anticipated a gradual expansion of supranationalism. As nations became increasingly linked through practical cooperation, the theory went, a new European identity would inevitably emerge. But this approach ignored the desires of European publics. By the 1960s, it was no longer clear that people could easily transfer their loyalties from the nation-state to Europe.

A young girl holds up a picture of Angela Merkel as migrants set off on foot for the border with Austria from Budapest, September 2015.
A young girl holds up a picture of Angela Merkel as migrants set off on foot for the border with Austria from Budapest, September 2015. 
Bernadett Szabo / Reuters

In the 1980s, European elites again seized on a moment of panic to establish a single European market and codify foreign policy coordination among its members. A combination of oil shocks, recessions, and policy blunders seemed convincing enough evidence that Europe was falling behind economically. The Single European Act, passed in 1986, committed EEC countries to dismantle by 1992 border controls for trade, workers, and citizens. It also linked the idea of “Europe” to a set of 275 technical provisions to harmonize regulations related to transport, health, public procurement, currency controls, and the like.

In 1989, when the sudden opening of the Berlin Wall raised the inevitability of German reunification, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President François Mitterrand took decisive steps to bind Germany into Europe. The resulting 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which formally created the European Union, began the countdown to a common currency and central bank among the (now) 19 countries of the eurozone.

AN UNGAINLY HYBRID

The eurozone meltdown and the more recent migration crisis have exposed the EU as deeply flawed. After years of flailing, eurozone countries have restored some stability to the currency bloc, including by creating a banking union. But European leaders have yet to address the fundamental contradiction between the existence of a monetary union, on the one hand, and the retention by member states of national fiscal policy authority—an arrangement that poses enormous limits on the bloc’s ability to respond to financial and economic problems.

The ongoing wave of migration to Europe, which shows no sign of abating, has likewise exposed the EU as an ungainly hybrid, something more than a loose confederation of sovereign states but something less than a political union. The resulting contradictions have been clearest with respect to the Schengen area, which includes nearly all EU states (and a handful of others). Schengen, widely considered to be one of the bloc’s proudest achievements, permits the free movement of people and goods within its boundaries. And yet its members lack a common federal system to control the area’s external borders, with no common coast guard or customs agency and no single agency to process asylum claims of refugees.

The federalist version of the European idea was premised on the notion that cooperation among states would breed a common European identity alongside, and ultimately supplanting, national loyalties. But this prospect is still distant in a heterogeneous bloc of 28 nations with diverse histories, values, and experiences. Although past crises have led Europeans to join forces against external threats, today they blame one another for creating—or at least abetting—them.

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel threw out the welcome mat for Syrian refugees last summer, she invoked the humanitarian ideals of the EU. But she quickly provoked resistance from eastern European neighbors, who do not share Germany’s sense of historical responsibility or western Europe’s (admittedly mixed) experiences with large populations of overseas immigrants. She also faced resistance from sovereignty-minded EU members—not least the United Kingdom—to the idea of a mandatory “quota formula” for apportioning the refugee burden. The November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris further undermined prospects for a unified response. Predictably, EU states have renationalized their borders, playing an unattractive game of “pass the migrant.” By January, European Council President Donald Tusk warned that Schengen was on life support.

On March 18, in a desperate bid to save Schengen, EU negotiators reached a bargain with Turkey, through which the vast majority of migrants transit. Turkey will take back new migrants landing in Greece, provided the EU agrees to accept one Syrian asylum applicant for every Syrian returned to Turkey. Even this reprieve may prove temporary, however. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi has blasted the deal as a violation of international law. And it remains unclear whether EU member states are prepared to assume an equitable share of the refugee burden.

As if the eurozone collapse and migrant surge were not enough, the real possibility of Brexit poses another serious threat to the survival of the union. The United Kingdom has always been ambivalent about its relationship to the continent. It was late to the party—joining the EEC only in 1973—and has always been more comfortable with the EU’s free market than its political solidarity. But the country now appears seriously disillusioned. Twenty-five years ago, Prime Minister John Major declared that he wanted the United Kingdom “at the heart of Europe.” Today, no Conservative leader wants to be there. The Conservative Party is evenly divided between those, such as London Mayor Boris Johnson, who want it out of Europe entirely and those, such as Prime Minister David Cameron, who want the country to be safe on Europe’s margins.

The eurozone meltdown and the more recent migration crisis have exposed the EU as deeply flawed.

When he promised his countrymen a referendum on the question in 2013, Cameron was confident that the “remain” camp would win. The neck-and-neck polls suggest he may have miscalculated. In an effort to salvage British membership, Cameron has secured a package of concessions from his EU partners. They include excluding the United Kingdom from any commitment to “ever-closer union,” extracting an EU pledge to cut regulatory red tape, and giving the United Kingdom a voice in eurozone policies that might affect the pound sterling.  

David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street to travel to the Houses of Parliament in central London to sell his case for keeping the United Kingdom in the EU, February 2016.
David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street to travel to the Houses of Parliament in central London to sell his case for keeping the United Kingdom in the EU, February 2016.
Toby Melville / Reuters

Brexit would be an economic and political catastrophe for everyone. The ensuing divorce would be messy, as an embittered EU strikes hard bargains on access to the continental market. Many multinationals could flee London, undermining its position as a leading financial center. The United Kingdom would need to negotiate its own bilateral trade deals with the United States and other trading partners. Its international influence, as well as its special relationship with the United States, would wane. Brexit would inevitably hasten the dissolution of the United Kingdom itself, as Scotland would surely proceed with another referendum on independence. As for the EU, it would lose its second-largest economy, including one-fifth of its GDP, and much of its diplomatic and military heft in the world.

Regardless of the outcome of the Brexit referendum, one thing seems certain: the heterogeneous EU is headed toward a multispeed Europe that increasingly allows member states to opt in and out of particular undertakings. Other European nations are taking note of British demands for special treatment. And this is at a time when leaders across the continent are already facing more populist challenges than at any period since World War II. Although the European idea was always a project of political elites, they convinced their people to surrender some aspects of sovereignty in exchange for other benefits, such as free movement, market access, and global influence. As leaders from Merkel to Cameron have discovered, European publics today are highly skeptical of such tradeoffs.

Still, the EU will survive, albeit in an altered form. The EU will likely have to cede some of its authority back to member states. The rise of populist forces has accelerated the renationalization of European politics. As a growing number of EU countries assert their sovereign prerogatives, the result will be a Europe of variable geometry. As some EU states make border controls permanent, a “mini-Schengen” could arise among a core group of western European states. The eurozone could lose Greece—and potentially other states, if their governments conclude that they need a central bank and a currency of their own to control their economic destiny. And one of Europe’s proudest achievements, the EU human rights framework, could come under challenge from populist and nativist forces in many EU countries.

The renationalization of Europe would not be a pretty picture. While a return to war among its members seems inconceivable, a looser EU will be a weaker EU. It would be even less capable of handling the migrant crisis or robustly resisting Russian aggression, to say nothing of shouldering its share of the burden of maintaining global order.

  • Stewart Patrick is the senior fellow and director of the program on International Institutions and Global Governance (IIGG) at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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