The disintegration factory

Neil Campbell / Apr 2016

Manuel Valls, prime minister of France. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

“The EU is on the verge of disintegration” is a mantra repeated by many European politicians. In January, Manuel Valls, the Prime Minister of France—a member state that signed the birth certificate of the Union—said the EU would face imminent and speedy collapse if it did not deal with the migration crisis.

From the Eurozone to conflict in Ukraine and the ‘new normal’ of terror attacks, there is no doubt that in recent years Europe has been hit by consecutive crises and the responses have been dismal. The crises are increasingly linked and self-propelling. The mismanagement of the asylum system feeds off anxieties about the economy, financial instability allows more space for populist responses, security concerns trump rights protections, and so on.  In this reading by Valls and others, migration is the last straw. A failed collective response to migration will break the EU’s political spine once and for all.

The main narrators of the EU’s imminent dissolution say the Union’s policies and structures are broken, heralding the demise of the European project. As the EU system is pushed to its limits, disintegration becomes a real possibility. There is no doubt that the EU is in deep crisis but ubiquitous hand-wringing about the EU’s imminent demise is also a liability in itself. The rhetoric is misleading: ‘Disintegration’ suggests a loss of control and it favours European leaders who offer quick-fix solutions.

Take Brexit. If the British people vote to leave the EU, it would be the first reversal of EU integration. But does this mean an EU breakdown? Probably not. A UK exit would be a controlled reversal of integration. The eurocrats so vilified by the ‘leave’ campaign in the UK will diligently peel back the economic, social and civil protections afforded to British citizens though EU membership. The implications would be severe—including the acceleration of multi-speed Europe with fragmented groups of member states—but it would not be outright chaos. Paradoxically, a Brexit might well lead to more EU integration without the UK dragging its heels. It might even lead to faster disintegration of the UK than the EU. However, such nuances are pushed aside when the objective is to shout out that Europe is falling apart.

When disintegration rhetoric is used as a means to make the EU react, in fact it serves the position of those that don’t really want the EU to react at all. This is a real danger. For instance, when commentators predict imminent and speedy collapse, many do so as a call to action not a gleeful promise. Even if their sentiments are miles apart, this brings Valls on the same rhetorical page as the most Eurosceptic leaders.

The crises we face today can only be solved by EU-wide responses, because these are EU-wide problems. It is that simple. The disintegration rhetoric undermines such solutions because it suggests that EU handling has brought us here in the first place. This is only partly true and is based on the common fallacy that the “EU” is only the Brussels-based institutions–not the EU as Brussels and 28 member states. Politicians who fuel the rhetoric of disintegration are asked to come up with solutions to prevent it, fail to do so, cry foul and perpetuate the vicious cycle.

To make matters worse, the EU’s DNA—conceived to avert crisis instead of dealing with several at once —is not helping. There are three major obstacles in the system. The first is that normal decision making is slow and deliberative. Success is based on compromise instead of offering every member state what they want. The compromise gene is slow, cumbersome and does not grab the headlines. The second flaw is that the EU structures and processes were designed to deliver that compromise, not explain it. The internal EU public diplomacy task is the responsibility of member state governments. European leaders consistently fail to do this because accusing the EU better serves political interests at home. And third, there is no middle gear between slow bureaucracy and summit-level late-night decisions (as we saw with the recent EU-Turkey deal on 8 March). The combined result of these three is distrust from below, poor deals and a mix of political and populist opportunism from above.

The EU attempted to fix some of these deficits with the 2009 Lisbon treaty where it pushed for more democratic accountability through two not entirely new ideas: proximity and participation. The first refers to closing the distance between EU citizens and the decisions made on their behalf; the second was to ensure that citizens have a direct say in what those decisions are.

Five years later proximity is championed by populists on the left and right who claim that they are speaking on behalf of citizens in a way that the EU political elite cannot. Meanwhile, the low turnout at the last European elections and failings of the European Citizens Initiative suggests EU efforts to improve participation have made no discernible difference to citizens, further boosting populist leaders who claim that only they speak on behalf of citizens.

The failure of proximity and participation strengthen the spectre of disintegration. In addition, this failure undermines effective responses in many areas that require EU-wide policies such as combating discrimination against minorities, judicial corruption, constitutional changes that go against EU values, migration, and of course counter-terrorism policies. If the EU has failed to do its job—as the disintegration rhetoric suggests—then why would Europeans trust that an EU-level response is the appropriate solution for all these issues?

A spiral of low expectation and low performance ensues. Moderate, analytical solutions to fix the flaws are not judged on their merit but are over-shadowed by the looming threat of disintegration. Citizens do not believe that the EU can help them and turn to those who claim to hold the solutions – populist opportunists.  Much of the exaggeration about the EU’s imminent demise has been to galvanise a response. But instead this hyperbole, that is now becoming the norm, has the opposite effect.


Neil Campbell

Neil Campbell

April 2016

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