Guest Column: Why the European Union Is – And Therefore Has – A Future

Timo Stibbe is part of the advanced Master of European Politics and Policies at KU Leuven and SciencesPo Paris. He previously completed bachelors in History and Dutch Language and Culture at Utrecht University, and obtained a Masters degree in Modern European Studies at University College London. He specialises in European integration theory and his current thesis focuses on the future of European institutional reform.

You only have to sporadically glance at the news to know that The European Union is weathering some heavy storms. Trouble in the Eurozone, disputes about how to handle the refugee crisis, the United Kingdom attempting to leave the Union, a revival of nationalism in virtually each Member State, and rebellious sentiments and anti-democratic action in countries such as Hungary and Poland. One would not be drastically exaggerating to suggest that the European Union is disintegrating. In this article, I attempt to offer some hope by arguing not only that the European Union has a future, but that it is the future.

Current nationalistic movements and far-right politics throughout the world all seem to centre on the topic of migration and share a characteristic social conservatism. Both can be seen as reactions to globalisation. Usually, the equivocal term globalisation cannot be used without providing a detailed definition, yet for the purpose of this article it suffices to say that globalisation refers to facets of a ‘shrinking’ and increasingly interconnecting world. The speed and intensity of travel, trade, migration and technology have made relations between people and countries staggeringly more direct. This has drastically changed traditional patterns of life, and confronted people from all walks of life with each other. In an attempt to preserve the familiar, people try to defend what they deem inherent to their nation and identity.

However, globalisation cannot be stopped or reversed.  Most regions in the world depend on each other for the exchange of natural resources, labour, information, and technology. Due to the rapid rate at which people are able to move and communicate with each other, self-sufficient regions or countries have become unimaginable. Closing borders will thus fail to stave off change and exclude the outside world.

Therefore, we have to streamline the consequences of globalisation to the best of our abilities. As the world has grown more interconnected, so have our global challenges. Issues such as inequality, security, and climate change require a comprehensive response. To this end, various international organisations have emerged over the past decades, such as: the United Nations,  the World Bank, NATO, Word Trade Organisation, and the World Health Organisation.

These organisations showcase that the nation state, still the dominant type of state organisation today, is not the answer to the most pressing challenges of our time. While organisations such as the United Nations are a great step towards global cooperation and peace between states, they are still organisations of nations. They lack competences and hard powers – only functioning as long as the nation states decide to play by the rules.

This is why the European Union, understood as a prototype, is the future. Member States of the European Union have transferred competences to the European level, giving it power to design and enforce laws, trade with third countries and speak on behalf of its Member States in global politics. It embodies more than pragmatic cooperation of individual players; it shows a willingness to move past arbitrary borders and hostile politics.

More importantly, the EU has opened up particular transnational spaces in which people communicate, travel, work, study, and live through its organisation. Where borders blur, solidarity increases. Solidarity is a crucial element in post-national politics because people need a common purpose. There is still little evidence that people identify with Europe the same way they identify with their nation state. What the European Union has facilitated, however, is a post-national orientation towards a large region of counties.  Eurobarometer[1] results from 2017 point out that 56% of European citizens ‘feel attached to the European Union.’ Results from 2018 indicate that 70% ‘feel like a citizen of the EU.’ Furthermore, 74% of the participants agree with the statement that ‘there is more that brings Member States together than what separates them.’

The prior statements seems to directly juxtapose the events described in the introduction. If there is solidarity and people feel European, why do they revolt against the European Union and its rules? The argument here is, that they do not. Rather, they revolt against certain particular consequences of globalisation that have not been adequately tackled or do not sit well with particular national contexts. Politicians and people therefore blame the closest personification of these forces which in the case of European countries, is the European Union. Clearly the European Union is not perfect. There are flaws in its monetary design, its overcomplicated structure and filtered democratic channels. The grudges expressed by Member States are to some extent directed at these flaws, and rightfully so. The gravitational point of nationalistic politics however, are issues that are not caused by the EU, such as third-country migration and the refugee crisis.

Trends in Eurobarometer results illustrate that antipathies towards the EU are not essentialist but contextual. For example, before the refugee crisis, citizens of Central and Eastern European countries were the most positive about their country’s membership of the European Union. In 2017, only Poland scored above the EU average. Questions about whether people think the EU is heading in the right direction and whether people are optimistic about the future of the EU, reveal a more precise example.  In the first case, only 25% of people indicate that they think the EU is currently heading in the right direction. Nonetheless, 58% are still optimistic about the future of the EU. These results suggest that generally the EU can still count on the support of its citizens, but that it somehow disappoints in the context of crises and its current performance.

There are myriad suggestions, some more comprehensive than others, on how to shape the future of the European Union. Some are careful, and suggest more flexibility for Member States by giving the European institutions a guiding role, setting out policy goals but leaving the application of the minutiae to the Member States. Others are more far-reaching and suggest moving towards Europe as a republic or federal state, leaving autonomy to what in this scenario would become regions of Europe. The central authority would design the policies that are best designed at the central level – such as social policies.

I recognise the fact that there are many facets and hurdles that I have not taken into account. Nonetheless, the European project is in need of new ideas that honour the founding principles of the EU, but fit with the current issues and wishes that exist in Europe and the world. The European Union is a young project that is growing by failure and improvement. It is a post-national political structure with potential that should attract attention from the whole world; it is a prototype for the future of political organisation. European citizens recognise this, which is why the EU itself has a future. The right attitude is therefore to constantly look for ways to improve it, rather than return to the nation state whenever times are difficult.


[1] European wide surveys that are being held annually on a wide range of issues under citizens of EU Member States.

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