The European Union, bruised and battered by years of political and economic crises, is at a crossroads. In a recent speech to the European Parliament, French President Emmanuel Macron warned that today’s political divisions in Europe are like “a European civil war.” Although the decade-old eurozone crisis has faded from public view, the ongoing refugee crisis, Hungary’s and Poland’s descent into illiberalism, and the aftershocks of the Brexit vote continue to divide the continent. In this context, it is not surprising that the EU itself has become an increasingly politicized topic among voters, many of whom have come to doubt the competence and integrity of their political and financial masters in Brussels and at home. Although support for a full-blown exit from the EU still finds only limited public support, Euroskepticism has moved from the fringe to the mainstream.
Yet there is a way out of Brussels’ current predicament. It starts with recognizing that both Macron’s EU speeches and the broader debates between the pro-EU camp and hard-core Euroskeptics rest on a false dichotomy of the EU as a choice between “in and out,” between blind support for the European project and further integration or a retreat into nationalism.
Instead, the future of the EU needs to be built on an acknowledgment of the need for some differentiation across its member states—without losing sight of the broader common European project. This delicate balancing act requires building the capacity for healthy and overt debate over specific European policies and the shifts in national sovereignty that they demand. “What sort of EU?” is the right question for citizens and their parties to ask going forward—rather than defending a monolithic vision of the future of EU governance as either expansive scaling up or a wholesale shutting down.
THE CASE FOR MORE FLEXIBILITY
In the first decades of the EU’s existence, the so-called bicycle theory held that the EU must keep relentlessly going forward with integration among all
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