A new political geometry is being established in the European Union which has global geopolitical relevance. The most important features of this development are the following:
– The pressing need to sustain Euro through deep economic reforms and political reforms has been and will play an important part in reshaping the institutional setup and the power distribution system in the EU;
– Germany has emerged as a new and less and less “reluctant” European hegemon;
– The United Kingdom has been and will be distancing itself from the EU. Moreover it will probably be faced with prolonged internal troubles (such as the issue of Scotland). These factors will result in loss of regional and international clout;
– France’s economic and political malaise is set to continue which will risk the country’s long established position as member of the Franco-German tandem without which no important EU-wide political reforms are possible;
– Poland, sensing the weakening of the UK and France has started to implement a new geopolitical agenda by presenting itself as a key European player both internally and externally and as an indispensable partner for Germany;
– In the second half of 2014, a new political cycle with new European Commission and European Parliament starts;
– An important new external factor is the re-emergence of an assertive Russia which will result in significant policy shifts in the EU (foreign and security policy, energy policy, and enlargement policy);
– A more clearly institutionalized two-speed Europe has become a realistic option for the Union, not at all a taboo any longer.
As a result, the EU member states (both the political class and the public) have to be prepared to accept these new political realities and also have to find institutional and political solutions to handle issues such as the future role of the UK in the European construct, the relations with Turkey, Ukraine and Russia, and to guarantee the long-term sustainability of the common European currency.
A radically different European political framework is appearing before our eyes. And in this new space the role of Europe’s major powers will change, and there will also be a shift in the relative weights of countries. Germany will be the greatest beneficiary of the rearrangement: it will clearly be the regional primate. Almost right across the spectrum, the German political elite supports closer integration, which will assist in mitigating fears of German hegemony, but the German-French tandem will no longer be regarded as a partnership of equals. History (and necessity) has made the economy – and the common currency – the driving force of federalism, rather than political institutional development or the construction of a European cultural identity, which would have favored the French.
The French wanted the euro – and the whole process of integration – as a means of keeping the Germans in check, but in reality the opposite happened. The principles of France’s European policy – the multiplication of French power and capacities at the European and global levels and categorical inter-governmentalism – have been sorely wounded. France’s elite must decide what to do with an EU in which Germany is once again powerful and where the supranational principle is coming more and more into view. Without the French, there is no Core Europe, but they too are aware that it will be called “Kerneuropa”.
the German political elite supports closer integration, which will assist in mitigating fears of German hegemony, but the German-French tandem will no longer be regarded as a partnership of equals
Germany (“being too big to hide, too suspicious to lead”) needs to redefine its European and global role. The two are obviously very much interlinked. It seems obvious that the low profile it has been performing in global and especially regional issues is no longer an option. During the Eurocrisis its pivotal role in the EU has become crystal clear. So has the weakness of France, who also needs to redefine its European role, which will probably mean the acceptance of the fact that not even pretending to be equal with Germany is credible. In any case Germany will need partners in the so-called European construction, since no one will tolerate any unilateralism and rightly so.
Germany has made efforts to keep the UK on board but it seems more and more improbable. In the new European space, the United Kingdom will probably be the biggest loser. In late 2011, British politicians accepted the multi-speed model, having excluded themselves from the first time by not signing the Stability Treaty that sets new rules for the economy. True, the British immediately began organizing a bloc of non-euro-zone members around themselves, but this will have no real significance in the future. It suffices to mention the failure of EFTA or to consider Poland’s ambition to join the euro zone. The British loss of weight in Europe will not be counterbalanced by their “special relationship” with the United States – which has anyway become rather empty, particularly under the Obama administration. Indeed, by turning their backs on Europe, they may even be risking an acceleration of Scotland’s journey to independence. The UK legally is inside the EU, but not psychologically. No matter if the vote on its EU-membership takes places or not in 2017, the question of UK’s place in Europe will not go away. Most probably the answer to this question will be a no.
So the UK is distancing itself from integration, thereby creating an environment to press on with establishing Core Europe inside the EU-28. For eurozone key countries surrendering more of their sovereignty will be far less painful than a euro meltdown. Chancellor Merkel seriously believes that the demise of the euro would be the downfall of the EU.
With the UK drifting apart and France being bogged down in its economic malaise that prevents it to focus on long-term European strategy, a new candidate has emerged to come to the rescue, namely: Poland. It is obvious that Poland is no match to the UK or France on any important counts (economy, diplomacy, military) and it is not even inside the elite club of the EU, the Eurozone, nevertheless, sensing the shifts in the political status quo inside the EU, their main thrust is to get as close to the key political decisions and to Germany as possible. This entails that, although Poland does not yet fulfil the Euro-entry criteria it pushes hard with the issue, and primarily not for economic but for political reasons. Not only because more and more issues are decided within the Eurozone leaving the non-euro countries out, but there is a good chance that a more pronounced and politically diverging two-speed system will emerge of which the natural (although not perfect) basis may be the currency union.
One has to be clear: it is extremely difficult to foresee future developments, especially the specific positions of the various member states if, or when, the quantum leap occurs. It is a fact, however, that barely a year ago no one could have imagined the member states taking action so soon to amend the Lisbon Treaty, the adoption of which had been associated with so much grief and pain. Yet this is what has happened. In the long term, however, tiny steps will not be enough to deal adequately with the challenges of an increasingly heterogeneous union operating in an environment of growing uncertainty.
The current 18-member euro zone itself is far from being a certainty in the long term, as economic weakness in Greece and a potential referendum in Ireland (if tax harmonization will be requested to reinforce economic policy co-operation among members of the currency union) will probably lead to the exit of those countries from the zone. For the latter, this will also amount to a failure of its efforts to secure independence from the UK. Other euro zone members (in the south and the east) may well find themselves in a similar situation if they are unable or unwilling to keep pace with what is required of them.
If economic and political developments in the long term so dictate, in theory, there is a possibility that the EU – having admitted to its inability to operate the monetary union properly and acknowledging the market and political risks – will withdraw the euro from the market intentionally, doing so with a professionalism to match that displayed at the time of the euro’s introduction ten years ago. But this is only a theoretical possibility; in practice, it is almost unimaginable. So the present generation of political leaders of Europe, the generation, which appears to have lost the globalization contest, will have no choice but to act, to escape forward towards a (multi-speed) political union. Of course, all of this is an extremely dubious project plagued by many uncertainties.
Economy and politics walk hand in hand in the process of European integration. This has been clearly seen during the years of the euro crisis. During the worst crisis ever experienced by the EU as from 2008, the euro was not seen as the solution, rather than the source of the problem. But in fact, the lesson from the recent malaise is that the policy system behind the common currency needs significant reinforcement.
The euro is one of the most sophisticated results of the process of modern European integration. It is also a symbol of peaceful collaboration between European countries, which has been accompanied by, or has resulted in, unprecedented levels of peace, stability and prosperity in Europe.
In order to restore confidence in the single currency zone, a high-level fiscal union must be created, which may require further measures of economic integration, such as the creation of a European finance minister, a far bigger EU budget, and an effective bank supervisory authority at euro-zone level. Not all members will be able or willing to go that far in the medium term. A two-speed Europe – as we saw it- has already come into existence in reality with the UK’s decision to stand aside.
The European Union has tried to establish a monetary union without a political union, but it has become increasingly clear that both are needed – or neither
Nevertheless, the dynamics of integration is uncertain. This is partly because the alliance between the 18 current members of the euro zone is not a stable formation per se; for many of them, the bar will be set too high, and they will not be able to accept the degree of harmonization needed. An additional factor is that integration is to proceed on an intergovernmental – rather than supranational – basis, and there will be a need to clarify the roles of the EU bodies, in particular that of the European Commission.
By creating the euro (which was in many – especially in economic – respects either an irresponsible enterprise or a visionary act, depending on one’s perspective), Europe crossed the Rubicon: it pushed integration to a point of no return where it either presses on with a fiscal and economic union or must bear the dire economic and social consequences of a break-up of the common currency. As Ottmar Issing puts it: Der Euro “is still an experiment whose outcome seems likely to remain uncertain for a considerable time to come.”
Euro-related challenges are not only factors: Europe at the beginning of the 21st century is facing not only a financial crisis but also a political crisis (caused in part by the economic crisis). It is a political crisis in the sense that the political institutions established after World War II, including those of the EU, have lost the confidence of the electorate. Society and the economy are undergoing rapid change. For many, such change is an opportunity, but for even more people it is a threat. This undermines society’s confidence and leads to the chronic rejection of political institutions and a widening of the chasm between the elite and the man in the street. The welfare model that was designed to prevent a repetition of the disastrous social problems of the interwar period is now in a crisis, thereby jeopardizing the social peace that was based on keeping the middle-classes satisfied. This in turn has added to economic and social tensions caused by immigration and to a hysterical fear of globalization. In the view of many, globalization – or as the anti-globalists call it: the unbridled competition of dog-eat-dog capitalism – finds embodiment in the European Union. It is therefore not accidental that there is a growing rejection of European integration, accompanied by a general rejection of the political mainstream.
In the history of European integration, crises have acted as the triggers of major political and institutional changes. Europe and the EU face many external and internal challenges, the scale of which has grown in recent decades (greater international competition, a whole series of demographic, social and budgetary problems). Member states have often made feeble and belated responses to such challenges with delayed reforms and poor management of immigration and demographic trends. At the same time the European Union has not been more robust either (weak and eventually failed policy visions as the Lisbon program, diplomatic and geopolitical difficulties due to the lack of a common EU position, years of impasse after the failed European constitutional project, etc.)
Historically speaking, hostility, rivalries and war are the norm on the European continent; periods of peaceful co-existence are the exception. Also, in historical terms, modern European integration (voluntary cooperation between sovereign states, based on the respect for common laws, and which was launched after World War II with a strengthening of economic and commercial relations but with the primary purpose of pacifying Germany) is a vulnerable formation. As a consequence, peace and solidarity on the European continent may soon be replaced by growing hostility – if the economic situation deteriorates and becomes crisis-ridden in a geopolitical milieu that is increasingly unstable. The fate of the boldest achievement and symbol of EU integration – the common currency – is intertwined with the fate of integration as a whole: an anarchic collapse of the euro would be accompanied by the break-up of the EU and political paralysis in Europe.
The euro is fundamentally a political and symbolic creation; in its present form, it does not have firm economic foundations. In light of the above it is in the interest of the EU to save the euro by establishing a strong economic union. With its present architecture, rules and stakeholders (whether they are the EU-28, the EU-26 or the EU-18), the European Union is incapable of moving forward at the right speed and depth. In addition, European public opinion gives a cool reception to any initiative coming from above, from Brussels. The European Union – it seems – faces two possible scenarios in the long term. Under the first scenario, it passively allows the centrifugal forces (markets, member-state sabotage, public disinterest) to break it up or it ceases to exist in its present form, with the unplanned termination of the euro. All of this would be temporarily accompanied by an extremely grave crisis. Under the second scenario, in the extended lands of Charlemagne (Karolus Magnus) a new intergovernmental treaty may be adopted, resulting in strong economic policy integration and preserving the euro.
The second and third groups of countries could join later based on new conditions (which would be far stricter than they are today) if they wish so. The historical and European lesson is that regional integration projects are far from everlasting, and often the temporary break-up of a poorly designed form of integration is the key to a restructured formation that guarantees long-term survival. Historical experience shows that monetary unions are successful when they have among their members at least one economic power-house acting as the engine. Central institutions are also needed to control and enforce the rules.
The most successful ones are preceded by a political union, as in the case of the USA, the UK or Germany. Price and wage flexibility is a fundamental criterion, so that wages can be limited in poorly performing regions, just as inter-regional transfers can be useful. Fixing and applying criteria on economic convergence also prove to be necessary. In the Eurozone, we can hardly talk about real flexibility of labor markets, just as we cannot talk about a political union either. The EU budget is not designed for major income transfers either, as it only disposes of 1% of GDP. The Eurozone meets all of the remaining conditions. The US federal budget is around EUR 3.3 trillion, compared with the EU “federal” budget of roughly 120 billion euros, a good part of which is transferred to non-Eurozone countries. The difference between the internal transfer capabilities of the two monetary unions is obvious. In any case, the euro was created by politics. Politics must also help preserve it. As André Sapir and Jean Pisani-Ferry put it: the euro area needs fewer routine procedures and more ability to act in times of real crises.
The question is whether the present crisis, which threatens the existence of the most important achievement of European integration – the common currency – will lead to a “quantum leap” towards closer political integration and a multi-speed Europe. It may indeed result in any of the two.
In any case in the medium term, Europe must prepare itself for a decade of sluggish economic growth. The gap in economic, social and political development within the Eurozone will only widen unless there is a major change of direction in the integration process. In the long term, the European welfare state is unsustainable in its present form (cf. ageing and shrinking populations, budgetary over-extension, an increasing competitive disadvantage vis-à-vis Asia). For this reason alone, it would seem sensible to pool European resources and to aim for a common European political and geopolitical agenda. But that will be the result of economic necessity rather than rationality.
A lot of discussion is taking place about political union. But one thing has to be clear: not any form European political union should or could mean the formation of a regional world government or the elimination of Europe’s nation states. The nation state is a European invention, and Europe’s nations will never be dissolved into an all-embracing pan-European political unity – if for no other reason than because for Europeans a sense of European identity barely exists, and Europe does not have a common language like the United States does. Political union could mean closer political integration, a real common foreign policy, a real European (or Eurozone) president, real European parliamentary elections, a real (perhaps Eurozone) budget, and a truly common economic policy. It could also mean unified European representation (a single seat and a single voice) in international organizations as well as stronger pan-European symbolism in daily life. The euro would still not be backed by a real country, but there would be regional integration with a far stronger political profile.
Currently, the key question concerning the future of European integration is whether or not a currency without a country is viable. The European Union has tried to establish a monetary union without a political union, but it has become increasingly clear that both are needed – or neither. Some thought that this ambiguous situation would lead to a great crisis, forcing the EU to establish closer political integration. That is to say, what cannot be achieved through nice words, will happen under pressure – as has been the case so many times before. Angela Not only is the common currency without a country; it also has no backing in the form of political institutions or even the basic foundations of economic integration. The EU barely has a budget: in a modern market economy, the budget amounts to 40-50 percent of GDP, while the EU budget amounts to just one percent of European GDP. Moreover, money is not spent on things that a “normal” budget would target, but for very different purposes, such as farm subsidies – which still account for almost every second euro spent. These factors add up to a budget ill equipped to make significant transfers between Eurozone members at different levels of development and in different stages of the economic cycle. An even more important deficiency of the Eurozone is its lack of a common economic policy and the cumbersome decision-making with unanimity required, for instance, to adopt common fiscal rules.
A closer union in fiscal and economic policy terms – a European finance minister, Eurobonds, common financial supervision, a closely coordinated economic policy – seems inevitable, as does, in certain respects, a political union. All this will require a new treaty, an amended ECB statute, and above all political will. Closer integration may certainly be envisaged in the form of a multi-speed union.
Despite its undoubted successes, modern European integration is – in historical terms – a fragile construct. The main reason for this is the absence of a precise self-definition. Europe is still a nascent formation, consisting of political compromises, a common system of law, a common economic zone, and a collection of political and institutional responses to crises. Although the peoples of Europe have lived side by side for thousands of years, they do not share traditions, living myths, a common identity or language; nor do they project a single image towards the outside world. The political class and the intellectual elite are just as divided: some want more Europe, while others think that even the present level of cooperation is far greater than desirable. The underlying reason is that no one has a clear picture of the function, goal and future development of the EU; there is no agreed vision. Several political analysts and European politicians themselves are skeptical regarding the need for a declared political vision for the European integration. It seems that this view is less and less sustainable.
Member states and EU institutions will have to agree on how to guarantee the long-term sustainability of the common currency, and how take the European citizens on board for this especially because most of the steps need to be taken will have significant consequences on national sovereignty. This is in itself a colossal task: the result of the 2014 European elections clearly demonstrated the fatigue or even the enmity of the public vis-à-vis the European project. Nevertheless the grand design of an institutionalized two-speed Europe that makes room for the UK, and maybe Turkey and Ukraine will also have to be on the menu. During the political cycle that starts in the second half of 2014 in Brussels, the economic, political and geographical setup of the EU will be looked at and probably will be significantly rearranged.
– Issing, Ottmar: Europe: Common Money – Political Union? European Central Bank, 1999. Frankfurt
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– Pisani-Ferry, Jean, et al.: Coming of Age: Report on the Euro Area, Bruegel Blueprint 4. p.4. 2008, Brussels
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– Timo Baas and Herbert Brücker: EU Eastern Enlargement: The Benefits from Integration and Free Labour Movement;
Ottmar Issing: Europe: Common Money – Political Union? p. 6. European Central Bank, 1999.
Note that the UK and the Czech Republic has not signed the Stability Treaty
Pisani-Ferry, Jean, et al.: Coming of Age: Report on the Euro Area, Bruegel Blueprint 4. p.4. 2008, Brussels