Yannis Behrakis / Reuters Protestors outside of the Greek parliament in Athens, June 2015.

Democratizing Europe

How the European Union Can Reform Itself

Brexit has galvanized numerous debates about how to reform the European Union. Since the United Kingdom’s vote to leave, countless commissioners, ministers, and presidents have acknowledged that the EU must become more flexible and responsive to citizens’ concerns. But there is a familiar pattern at work: after every crisis in the last two decades, European leaders have promised to rethink integration, only to carry on in a business-as-usual fashion as soon as the dust settles.

The debate that is now taking shape is therefore a tired one. Some believe that the EU can be saved only by accelerating moves toward a full political union. This group includes senior EU commissioners, politicians in the European Parliament, and the French and German foreign ministers. Others, including leaders in central and eastern Europe, Denmark, and the Netherlands, draw the opposite conclusion. But neither speeding integration up nor slowing it down will suffice to rescue the European Union. Current proposals on the table to increase cooperation on economic policy and security, moreover, are unlikely to reignite enthusiasm for the European project at a time when suspicion of Brussels is on the rise. Introducing reforms in a way designed to circumvent the preferences of Europe’s supposedly ill-informed or ignorant citizens, moreover, would be both patronizing and incapable of providing any long-term stability.

Instead, the EU needs to radically reconfigure its whole political structure. One much-discussed option is the creation of a two-speed EU, with the possibility of so-called core states moving toward political union without the periphery states. Yet this solution is likely to be unworkable, as few southern or eastern European states would put up with such treatment, and two supposed core states—France and the Netherlands—have some of the continent’s highest levels of popular hostility toward the EU. If the core is based on the eurozone, moreover, there will be little scope for different levels of integration, given that nearly all member states are either already in the eurozone or

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