Building Europe: networks, nations, and citizens

IED Working Paper by Mathieu Baudier


The current state of the European integration project is paradoxical. On the one hand, crises keep piling up, sometimes cooling down, but without ever being decisively solved, until they heat up again and again. On the other hand, the relevance of uniting Europe beyond transactional inter-state relations has never seemed some strong and concrete.

For the first time, a major country, the United Kingdom, has decided to leave this project1. While not enough considered as such from the EU point of view, this is a major crisis with far-reaching consequences (especially with regard to the EU's weight on the world stage). Moreover, this crisis is developing in a messy and unpredictable manner, as it is likely that the UK will need a long transition period. But the difficulties of Brexit and its disastrous impact on Britain itself have also shown why it made sense to "build Europe" in the first place; since the referendum, polls have shown in the remaining countries a clear reversal of the decline in support for the EU. Many of the Euro structural problems remain unsolved, with frustratingly slow progress in even discussing them, let alone addressing them. But, contrary to many expectations, the common currency did not break apart and, when faced with the explicit choice of leaving it, populist governments or parties relented. The rise of populist parties and the establishment of illiberal governments in some countries is a direct threat to the proper functioning and thus the survival of the EU; but it also reminds of the importance of having fundamental rights guaranteed at a higher level than the nation-state, in order to avoid the tyranny of the majority. The war in Ukraine and the isolationism of the USA under Donald Trump have laid bare the weakness of the EU in terms of raw power and the fragility of its reliance on NATO; but these developments have triggered new pan-European initiatives, such as the permanent structured cooperation, as well as a deep change of attitude in Germany with regard to military power. Even the refugees and migrants crises, the most acute and intractable at the time of writing, while exposing national egoisms have also shown that it was illusory to pretend dealing with huge population movements in a national or inter-governmental framework, as they necessarily impact all countries, through domino effects.

These paradoxes themselves are confusing and debilitating, even more than the related crises. Crises are normal for political entities of all sizes, and the bigger the entity the more complex and interrelated they are. They can be caused by internal structural inadequacies requiring reforms, or they can be external shocks for which one should prepare, and which should be faced with resilience when they do happen. Currently, Europeans find it hard, as a community, to distinguish what they are doing wrong vs. what is already relevant and a proper basis to be preserved and reinforced. The purpose of this essay is therefore to discuss "How to build Europe?" in terms of methods, tools, and principles, rather than exhaustive and detailed policy proposals. Given the context of this writing and the fields of expertise of the author, a particular weight will be given to geopolitics and to the German, French, and Polish perspectives. Beyond these limitations, the goal is to isolate general principles and ways of dealing with the complexity of the European system, which could be reused with other scopes and starting points.

First, we will consider Europe as a whole, and the failed attempts through history to unify it as unitary entity. Zooming in, we will explore in more details two mechanisms for collaboration between states within its current structure: the Weimar triangle and the Visegrad group. The second part of this essay will contain a negative analysis. While written from a resolutely pro-integration perspective, we need to be able to think the possibility of failure of this project as well as the criticism of its essence or mechanisms, which has become so loud over the last decade. The goal is to go beyond parroting that "there is no alternative" and "more Europe is the solution to all problems", by considering the threat of illiberal global powers, the destructive effects of the Euro on European integration, and the populist criticism of "Brussels". Finally we will develop a vision of a Europe interconnected with its neighbourhood and the rest of the world, which would be able to wage war or prevent it, and which would solve the tensions between nation, elite and democracy via an educated European citizenship.


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