The Future of European Political Integration

Since its formation, the European Union has undergone a substantial transformation into the supranational organization it is today. While enlargement, particularly over the past decade, has led many to speculate on when, not if, Europe will turn into a full-fledged political union, significant obstacles that must first be overcome prior to the completion of a union remain. These obstacles include cultural discrepancies among former Soviet-controlled regions as well as massive bureaucratic inefficiencies that have stymied democratic progress thus far.

The crux of the issue, however, is perhaps more philosophical than institutional—Europe must come to terms with its identity in a post-Cold War world. This reason alone may in fact be the reason why the EU will not become a true political union any time soon. However, it is highly plausible that it will continue to strengthen as an economic union due to the increasing competitiveness of the euro in global markets and institutional reforms triggered by accessions of sovereignty from its various member states.

To better understand the European Union in its current state, it is important to first consider how its founders initially envisaged its finality, as embodying both political and economic unity. According to scholar Gillian Wylie, the original model for the EU did not account for future potential developments; its design was restrained by the politics of the day. Wylie uses the acceptance of Gaullism during the 1960s as a case in point to illustrate how political integration was an arduous, if not downright impossible, endeavor given the prevailing philosophy of the time.

In this sense, it is wrong for us to project a modern definition of “political union” onto an era during which such a concept was unprecedented—at least in the matter of the European Union’s origination. The European Community, as it was then known under the 1957 Treaty of Rome, was formed as a means to establish a common market among its six original member states. Given that today’s EU is arguably the best example of an economic union to date, it seems egregious to claim that political integration—in the modern sense of the word—was the desired result of the Treaty of Rome. Wylie clarifies that upon the EU’s formation, integration was not the end itself, but rather the means to realize certain “transcendent ideals,” such as peace and prosperity.

Wylie also maintains that such beliefs provided a positive framework towards which all the EU’s member states could strive, a far cry from the ambiguity that incentivizes geographical expansion in modern times. Though it can be said that the EU has some founding ideals that still hold, they have been obfuscated more recently by the endemic cultural discrepancies among member-states, exacerbated by those recently admitted with Stalinist underpinnings. From this, it could be understood how a cultural component is just as important to political integration as any economic credential. It may be even said that cultural disparities must be ameliorated prior to transitioning from economic to political union; otherwise the latter cannot remain intact. Today, dramatic institutional overhauls are severely encumbered by a lack of societal legitimation, which is rooted in the historical disparity between elites and citizens upon the EU’s formation.

The idea of societal legitimation seems to support the related issue of “democratic deficit” within the EU. Democratic deficit is defined as: “the reduced public participation in and control over policymaking that resulted from moving political authority from the national to the supranational level.” Though the severity of its democratic deficit is disputable, the EU is in fact experiencing low voter turnout and declining civic knowledge by its citizens, both of which pose significant challenges for political integration going forward. Political theorist Matthew Gabel, who acknowledges the democratic deficit of the EU, writes that such must be remedied for risk of potentially catastrophic consequences if left unresolved. Still, he maintains that the EU has done remarkably well in terms of institutional stability, which leaves open the possibility for future political integration if the immediate problems are resolved.

The inclusion of economically inefficient nations can stagnate the political process due to their lacking “societal legitimation.” Gabel argues while the EU does well in maintaining governmental stability in its current state, rapid enlargement severely undermines the stability of its consociational political structure. Consociational democracies are those that devolve large amounts of powers to their member states, establishing a culture of collectivism and proportionality that is designed to favor “representation,” perhaps as a short-term tradeoff for governability. Both Wylie and Gabel’s ideas seem to hinge on the general premise that when considering enlargement, the advantages of economic growth override any short-term political instability that may accompany such developments. It is also important to consider how Gabel sought to resolve underlying consociational debasement brought on by massive geographical expansion.

To reduce perceived democratic deficit within the EU, Gabel maintains that the EU should actively seek out already established consociational systems, as they engender long-term stability for the European Union. However, one must be aware of potentially devastating ramifications that policies such as grand coalition could have on the EU’s long-term sustainability. It would be better off if such powers were in the hands of the European Commission, which initiates the European Parliament’s (EP) policies. Better, the EP can be given greater agenda setting power and develop a symbiotic coalition with transnational interest groups. This would establish a policymaking procedure similar to the tripartite system that political scientist Arnold Lijphart champions.

Political integration, particularly for a system encompassing as many independent nations as the EU, is lethargic. When the EP instates artificial policies intended to combat present glitches in its development, it actually has the opposite effect of belaboring the process further. From a theoretical standpoint, this should be expected from any consociational system, regardless of whether or not policies are implemented that compromise its growth. According to Lijphart’s thesis, consociational democracies trade short-term efficiency for long-term equity in the system as a whole. Unlike their majoritarian counterparts, consensus systems hinge on coalition building, which can negatively affect governability. The result of this concession, however, is a generally fairer system that can have important effects on conflict mediation among a supranational organization as culturally diverse as the EU.

Current admonitions may be offset by the prevailing view of most economists, who contend free trade betters all parties involved. Since these new countries were not able to fully adopt the euro until 2007, any benefits from integration are still not understood fully. The euro’s increasing competitiveness in global markets, especially following its rocky start by the “post-socialist” countries, have led many countries outside the EU to adopt it as a reserve currency, second only to the US dollar in global markets. Though recent economic recessions such as the Greek government-debt crisis have led some to second guess the long-term economic stability of the EU, the general wellbeing of the EU as anchored by German and French economies has erased some doubt in cynics.

Though it may be difficult to assess the immediate economic benefits of newly integrated nations at this early stage, political scientist Joni Virkkunen takes a decidedly long-term stance that these nations will fully assimilate culturally, in addition to boosting the all-around economic performance of the EU in the years to come. Some might contend that current obstacles, such as widespread economic inequalities and the resistance of some notable nations (the UK, Denmark, and Poland) to adopt the euro, will only exacerbate the progression; Virkkunen believes these current hindrances will correct themselves. He references Portugal, Spain, and Greece as less prosperous countries that have aptly rebounded due to European cohesion policies (it should be noted that these countries’ democratic transitions were well-documented because of their autocratic histories). Turkey, and similar culturally incongruent nations, may follow their lead in due time.

Because of enlargement over the past decade, as well as promising economic developments made in response to the global financial crisis, it seems that the health of the EU as an economic union is quite strong. However, it will not become a political union within the foreseeable future due to massive bureaucratic insufficiencies, enabled by flawed policies that result in greater stagnation. In order to best overcome present difficulties, political elites should not intervene by artificially increasing the EP’s powers. In doing so, currently prevalent issues such as isolated nationalism—nationalism that is exacerbated by cultural differences—among the European Union’s member states will assuage in the long-term, thus enabling further political integration.