The European integration process has characterised the last 70 years of European politics and economics, but it was not always like this. Bellicose competition has been at the heart of European nations’ daily life for a long time. The feuding over extra-European territories as well as the violent battling for a chunks of European soil represent only two of the numerous ways through which this primitive strife has taken place.
In fact, for a great deal of time, cooperation between the Old Continent’s nations was the exception not the rule. The 1815 ‘Concert of Europe’ and the 1884–1885 Berlin Conference to settle the 'scramble for Africa’ were two largely insufficient rudiments for navigating possible cooperative solutions to common challenges or relevant conflicting interests.
From a historical perspective, one could see the Second World War as the culmination of a centuries-long fierce struggle for regional and international dominance between European states. For Europeans, the political equivalent of the cosmic Big Bang: after that brutal war, a new era was born.
Indeed, after that the premises of peaceful coexistence had been so massively disrupted, national governments realised the need to ‘institutionalise' their relations through the creation of some formal organisations, also needed for the recovery of their economies.
It was for this reason that the Organisation for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC), the European Payments Union (EPU), as well as the highly politically symbolic European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) were established between 1948 and 1951. Relatively simple, embryonic organisations – to echo Stone Sweet, Sandholtz and Fligstein, Europe at that time was 'a very primitive site of collective governance' – whose intrinsic nature, however, intercepted the profound need for a new renaissance of European nations.
In this respect, as noted by Kirchner and Sperling, the 'emergence of highly institutionalized forms of security governance' – such as the subsequent and institutionally more complex European Union – was the logical consequence of the birth of the post-Westphalian states system. This mammoth decades-old undertaking was a breakthrough institutional engineering process in European political and economic history, whose outstanding achievements shall never be taken 'divinely' for granted. In fact, it took time, deaths and bravery to make it possible.
A glimpse of realism
Nevertheless, the idea that the ancestral national competitions between European nations could have been smoothed and eventually ‘absorbed' by a 70-year-old integration process (still politically incomplete) is supported by a certain candour. As stressed by Chandra Chari ‘after the Second World War, Europe has succeeded in overcoming ancient animosities but not old rivalries’. In this respect, although diluted, the struggle between European countries is still going on. It is just different: we carry it out peacefully, with the EU as a forum for cross-national competition. Nowadays, it is not the most powerful or the largest of armies, or the overpowering might of the most destructive naval forces that dominate, but the most dynamic, productive and efficient of economies. In the current European inter-state grapple for regional 'dominance', economic size and efficiency matter.
Three major stumbling blocks towards European integration
Why in the 2011 economic crisis, the 2015 migration crisis and in 2020 Covid-19 health crisis has the European Union been largely fragmented? Economists would say that European countries often have different utility functions. Yet they largely own the same, shared means to address common challenges. But single decisions often become subject to long disputes and negotiations that – especially in times of sudden crisis – work as 'sand in the gears'. The system simply crashes.
Perhaps worse, in times of crisis, states prefer to pursue nationalistic zero-sum game political choices vis-à-vis their neighbours. For instance, the creditors versus debtors confrontation during the 2011 economic crisis (which triggered a huge loss of confidence in the European Union), the failure of the mandatory scheme to dispatch asylum seekers equally among European countries from 2015 to 2019, or the current stalemate on the issue of the 'Europeanisation' of the public debt to tackle the Covid-19 crisis, offer a quick snapshot of the most evident shortcomings. What can explain such diverging political postures?
First there are different public opinions with often heterogenous preferences on politically and economically sensitive transversal issues. Lacking a substantial convergence, national governments fall victim to this multi-polar national public opinion framework.
Secondly, there are different economic orientations. Some countries have always been inflation-shy, while others are inflation-prone. Some have always had relatively high public debt, while others have the same word in their national language – such as the German word schuld – to mean debt and guilt. Some countries love to spend (often unproductively), others love to have their accounts in good shape. Some run large surpluses in their balance of payments, while others (sometimes as a consequence) run deficits instead. Some countries export food and make money out of tourism, others are world leaders in the automobile, aircraft, pharmaceutical or financial sectors.
Thirdly, the trap of 'policy without politics' at the EU level versus 'politics without policy' at the national level – as conceived by Vivien Schmidt – is another important obstacle to European integration. This factor tends to frustrate national public opinion: Europeans often think of Brussels as a distant yet intrusive entity, over which they cannot exercise full and effective control, contrary to what is commonly perceived to be the case with national governments, which in turn are blamed for not being adequately adamant in defending national (or nationalistic?) interests.
How to tie the knot: more humble goals could trigger more ambitious ones
More humble goals does not mean that EU Member States should reverse the important achievements that have largely benefited European countries, such as the monetary and economic union, as demonstrated by Nauro Campos. Rather, it means responding innovatively to the perplexities of Europeans. In fact, while Europeans have hope and credit the EU for peace and prosperity, they express ‘doubts’ about the future of the entire project, thinking that the EU is out of touch with the needs of its citizens.
It looks like Europe is now in what Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci called an ‘interregnum’, a peculiar time where ‘the old is dying and the new cannot be born’. In order to reverse this existential vacuum, EU Member States will have to redirect their focus towards cooperation and assistance in highly emblematic sectors. Robert Schuman envisaged the path decades ago: 'through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity', Europe will eventually be created. This is the simple formula that could guide European decision-makers' actions in the future.
Let’s take a concrete example: the health sector. The decision taken at the end of March by Germany to treat Italian and French coronavirus patients has been a powerful gesture of solidarity. This is the kind of symbolic initiative states need to put in place in order to foster genuine unity among EU members and cross-national public opinion. In fact, this highly symbolic form of solidarity (and communication) is a breeding ground for European integration and may work as an effective launch pad for increased ‘harmony’, finally dismantling the sovereignty-versus-solidarity dichotomy, a main feature of the European disunion, as pointed out by Hayward and Wurzel.
A constant series of goodwill gestures of this kind – if adequately publicised – could end up creating the right conditions to mobilise national public opinions and – as a consequence – national political representatives. European leaders could thus decide to skyrocket resources and take advantage of the ‘European genius’ to better coordinate health policy, response planning, preparedness and implementation (which are the responsibility of Member States) vis-à-vis a large variety of diseases.
Strengthened cooperation to deal with multi-dimensional and transversal economic, social and health crises will be pivotal in dealing with future emergencies. Europe shall remember that, as stressed by sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, ‘there are no local solutions, to globally generated troubles’.