European Union?

Hailed as the most successful model of regional integration,1 the EU’s unity is challenged on economic, political, and – perhaps most importantly – social grounds. Thriving extremist parties, uncoordinated responses to migration, barbed-wire-fenced frontiers, Schengen Agreement suspension, day-to-day “misunderstandings” between member states, and a pivotal referendum to be held in the UK next June threaten the Union’s stability as well as its so often praised common fundamental values. In short, a region crumbling under the weight of potentially irreconcilable differences between members. Strikingly, all of this ignores recent fights over the Euro, which would make things even worse.

Although I support the Union and hope political integration will consolidate, I feel ashamed as a European because, from an outside perspective, we do look pathetic. For instance, some member states believe that a couple of centuries of cruel murderous colonialism and atrocities committed in almost every continent can be wiped out overnight by building walls, closing their frontiers, or even bringing immigrants back to their countries.

Europe’s heterogeneity is immediately clear from an historical perspective; its contradictions and peculiarities derive from multiple clashes of civilisations treading on Eurasian soil and occupying the Mediterranean Basin since prehistory. Regretfully, today, those differences are also sources of weakness. In turn, this frailty engenders political ineffectiveness, distrust, and division. Yet, as Antonio Gramsci reminds me, we should have pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.

Although I primarily write on this Blog to talk about economics (and I have very much enjoyed doing it so far), in order to address the above-mentioned issues and try to make sense of the present, one cannot but dwell on the realm of international relations (IR) and history. This justifies the following brief aside.

I’m aware IR contemplates different but overlapping theories, as most of the social sciences do. Therefore, a proper understanding of our complex contemporary world should draw from multiple approaches to avoid being swallowed up by current events and falling into the trap of believing that, as a theory successfully explains the present, it has general validity.


Of course, such premises and warnings about the danger of reducing the richness of the literature to predefined labels doesn’t prevent me from saying that I sympathise with neorealist ideas and follow these throughout my post. This is not to say neorealism is the best line of argument nor is it to discard other valid theses. It’s mainly because of my appreciation for Kenneth Waltz – whose work was substantially influenced by microeconomic theory! – and Noam Chomsky.

The main reason I find neorealism, or structural realism (see why in a moment) rather more appealing than classical realism is that it relaxes some of the uncomfortable, although not necessarily false, classical assumptions on human nature as the true driver of international relations. In particular, by moving away from classical views of innate human desire to dominate others, it posits a fundamentally anarchic and decentralised international system where states play or balance against each other according to their relative power and interests. Hence, a peculiar structure influences agents’ (i.e. states) behaviour, rather than an intrinsically offensive human nature. In addition, being prone to game theoretic investigation, the security dilemma is another central concept of structural defensive realism that captivates my interest.

You may now ask what the point of such an aside is and how it relates to the post’s title. Well, neorealism has a few things to say about regionalism and, particularly, the EU.

As an example, from a neorealist perspective, regional groupings form in response to external challenges in much the same way as states form alliances to balance power or threats. Thus, in this respect, the geopolitical context of the European integration plays a crucial role.

Indeed, if Europe was able to shift from war and competition to regional cooperation and integration after the Second World War (WW2), it owes that to a set of geopolitical circumstances well identified by Andrew Hurrell:

The erosion and then collapse of the colonial empires on which the power of Britain and France had been built; the immense physical destruction and psychological exhaustion of the thirty-year European civil war; the perception of a burgeoning threat from the Soviet Union; the long-predicted transformation in the scale of power and the emergence of a new class of superpowers […]; and the powerful pressure from the USA to move towards greater regional co-operation.

In fact, the US played a critical role in pressing for an integrated Europe. First, the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC) came into existence as a condition attached to the Marshall Plan. Second, the US pushed for the rearmament of West Germany, which somehow forced Europeans to live together with a rehabilitated major power (“regionalist entrapment”; integration serves as an institutional construct to manage a powerful state). Third, European integration developed at a high price: security dependence on the transatlantic partner. A price that Europeans still pay today, no matter how valuable the goods in question are.

Moreover, neorealists focus on economic competition. Again, Hurrell points out that

In the 1960s de Gaulle placed great weight on European co-operation […] as a means of countering le défi americain […]. Equally, the relaunch of European integration in the 1980s can be interpreted as a response au défi japonais.

In a sense, today we could argue about le défi chinois. Thus, balance-of-power concerns partly fuelled regional integration; in other words, or rather economic terms, gains and losses.

However, as previously anticipated, no theory can explain everything. Notwithstanding the fact that neorealism is quite convincing at explaining how power shifts happen and how regional groupings form, it is probably less influential when it comes to regional cooperation once integration is under way.

Indeed, alternative views like neoliberal institutionalism or constructivism profoundly contribute to understanding regionalism. Actually, constructivists pay close attention to concepts like “regional awareness” and identity among members of a regional grouping, whose cohesion ultimately depends on a prolonged and strong sense of community, rather than short-term interests. Constructivism is very telling with respect to integration dynamics, due to its sociological approach.

The fiercest attack to neorealism comes from the liberals’ tenet that democracies don’t go to war with each other. As a matter of fact, there is evidence of a “democratic peace” in Europe and, more generally, between democracies since the end of WW2. I largely agree with that. Nevertheless, we should consider that such evidence builds on a very short time span and sometimes costly compromises. After all, WW2 is an extremely recent event when compared to the entire turbulent history of humanity; if we really want to prove our peaceful and respectful nature, we still have a great deal to do! I’m highly sceptical we’ll ever do that and I believe democracies often don’t go to war with each other for the very simple reason that wars are kept at a safe distance or, even worse, purposely created to destabilise other regions threatening their hegemonic power. Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Plus, does this mean non-military conflicts cannot arise any more within the EU? Given the existing crisis and general difficulties at each round of enlargement, the answer tends to be negative. Then, what about the contentious link between the institution member states created by foregoing part of their sovereignty and questions of representativeness, accountability, and legitimacy of those institutions (see recent disputes over the Greek debt crisis)?

Our discussion so far rests on realist historical considerations and hopefully provides some insights on how to interpret current matters. We generally need to contextualise particular situations by relying on diachronic analyses as opposed to short-sighted synchronised ones, largely preferred by political leaders. Of course, the nature of a blog post imposes some restrictions both in length and in scope; as a consequence, I’ll draw some conclusions in light of what I’ve exposed and my personal experience as a European citizen.

National interests still dominate over common fundamental values underpinning the European Project like respect for human dignity and human rights (including the rights of minorities!), equality, justice, non-discrimination, pluralism, solidarity, and tolerance. Instead, populist and extremist parties now hold leverage with a wide array of opposite “values” to divide and encourage hatred. This is detrimental not only to the attacked foreigner but also to the European citizen and to the idea of a united Europe.
On top of that, we lack, on so many grounds, that we cannot but look sceptically at those who prefigure a fully-fledged political unity by exclusively focusing on monetary aspects. In fact, as far as these aspects are concerned, the EU is trapped in a fragile incomplete monetary union (i.e. where each member state maintains its own independent budgetary policy) whereas a full fiscal union is likely to be required in the long run; and we cannot have a full fiscal union if there’s no political willingness to do that!2
Finally, and to me more importantly than any single aspect outlined so far, the EU lacks what constructivists call “regional awareness”, that shared identity we talked about just a moment ago, that shared sense of belonging to the same particular community for better or for worse. Be careful not to confuse this with standardisation and homogenisation of culture, habits, language, … ! Nothing could be sadder than that and I’m not envisaging such a prospect. Heterogeneity is precisely what enriches this piece of land. I’m rather talking about the willingness to go beyond those negotiable differences and accommodate pluralism while conserving fraternity. There’s no such thing as a European Country, yet.

This leads to the end of our discussion. But, if you like, I would conclude by quoting from a 2011 thought-provoking paper on the state of the EU:

Just as the emergence of the Soviet Union as the only great power on the continent pushed the Europeans to make the EC, its collapse removed the incentive for integration. Suddenly, they did not have to think about establishing a political or military community. Nor was there a compelling geopolitical reason for them to maintain the economic community they had built during the Cold War. […] Provided there are no further shifts in the distribution of power and the economic situation does not pick up – both fairly safe bets – the slow fraying of the Community that has been going on for a decade now will probably continue. This is not to say that the Europeans will stop cooperating with one another. After all, there are plenty of reasons for them to continue working together. The current distribution of power, however, means that it is unlikely the EC will continue to survive in its current form. As time passes, it is likely to look more like other international institutions, and less like the exceptional case that it seemed to be for so long.

Were we to embrace the proposition that the EU’s integration process strengthens whenever facing common threats, will this time of crisis rekindle further consolidation? Will we be able to gaze beyond the finger and look at the moon? Unfortunately, history keeps being blatantly ignored, whether purposely or foolishly.

Oscar is studying for the BSc Economics and Finance independently in Italy.

6 thoughts on “European Union?

  1. “Although I support the Union and hope political integration will consolidate, I feel ashamed as a European because, from an outside perspective, we do look pathetic. For instance, some member states believe that a couple of centuries of cruel murderous colonialism and atrocities committed in almost every continent can be wiped out overnight by building walls, closing their frontiers, or even bringing immigrants back to their countries.”
    Not all colonialism was necessarily ‘cruel and murderous’, nor is ‘atrocities’ a word without controversial overtones, Oscar, unless you are referring exclusively to your own country’s adventure in Abyssinia (Ethiopia). It is clear you have a wider purview, however and I must assume you are taking aim at the United Kingdom and the former British Empire. The UK was the country to which Emperor Haile Selassie fled for safety in exile, where he was an honoured guest in my home City, escaping cruelty and possibly worse, from the atrocious Mussolini, at any rate, whilst many hundreds of thousands of my ancestral countrymen gave their lives selflessly to the betterment of (admittedly) subject peoples. History is far too nuanced to be dismissed in a couple of condemnatory phrases, however fashionable it may be in liberal academic circles.
    Like you, I support my country’s continued membership of the European Union, but not consolidated political union, which is being shown to be impractical and overly ambitious, at least for our time, but I also feel no shame, as a European, but rather, pride in my heritage. You cannot change history by pulling down statues, or denigrating your own ancestors.

  2. To be honest, I think it will be difficult for the EU to fully be a monetary union and full fiscal union. This is asking governments to give up monetary and fiscal policies to the EU and to treat it as one region.

    But economically, each country in the EU is so different in its economy. And as you have said, there is no regional awareness which makes it harder.

    Each country holds it own culture, language and etc. Sovereign nations will not be willing to let that go because they want their countrymen to be patriotic and to have an identity.

    Point is, I think it will be difficult.

  3. Excellent Article. Just to politely reply to the comment by Chris, while I sincerely agree with and respect your point that, “History is far too nuanced to be dismissed in a couple of condemnatory phrases”, I am afraid when speaking of Europe’s colonial history the terms, ‘cruel’ and ‘murderous’ are very apt. Indeed, I believe the point Oscar is making is that we are now seeing the cumulative echoes of these histories arriving on Europe’s doorstep, as people flee their native countries due to war, exploitation, brutality, poverty and a lack of hope. Many of these horrors were set in motion by the hand of colonialism and you only need to live in a ‘post-colonial society, as I do, to understand how these histories continue to shape and constrict every aspect of society, from the economic to the psychological.

  4. Hello Chris.

    Reading your comment was profoundly disheartening.
    In a sense though, I should thank you for it as it represents the perfect example of the kind of contrast that’s preventing European people from integrating.
    May I ask why you exploited those few lines to turn a genuine critical discussion into bar conversation, largely misunderstanding the main purpose of the post and making wrong assumptions relative to what I wrote?

    You somehow imagined a phantom attack at the UK, which is visibly absent from my post. Does such a mirage stem from a guilty conscience? Because, honestly, I see no other explanation for your totally-out-of-place comment on colonialism. Had I wished to write about the UK colonial adventures, I’d have titled my post accordingly. The fact that you focused on those lines out of my entire post, denotes a confused interpretation of my overall purpose.
    Hence, let me clarify for your benefit: my aim was to highlight how the EU is currently fractured on a multi-layered basis through a realist perspective and I largely based my discussion on neorealist ideas.

    Now, mentioning the Abyssinian case as an example of cruel colonialism is correct; mentioning that as the only (you say ‘exclusively’ Chris!) example of cruel colonialism is pathetic.
    Let’s be serious. Europeans started colonising more than five centuries ago and the only horrible episodes you recall are the Abyssinian Wars? You must be kidding me. It sounds like “the ox saying ‘horned’ to the donkey”. You’ll pardon my temporary bad temper but that’s nonsense Chris.

    In addition, I know that specific event very well since it’s part of the history of my own country – I would be even more condemnatory than you are. No problem at all. Italy experienced and made many (not only) Europeans experience the catastrophe of Fascism. Do you really think I have problems acknowledging the foolishness and idiocy of some of the historical “enterprises” my country was involved in overseas?
    There’s probably no need to school me about my own country’s past. That’s unexpectedly childish from your side.

    I see you felt attacked personally and this is both disarming and frustrating, as I clearly didn’t refer to any particular country when mentioning colonialism. That’d have been a careless mistake. How can we possibly compare the level of cruelness among colonisers? Did you really think I was trying to engage in such an unreasonable endeavour?

    The history of colonialism is so complex, long, and embraces several colonial powers that your comment to that single sentence highlights how little you care or know about it. You did say something important, something yourself seem to ignore while mentioning a single event merged in an ocean of similar facts: “History is far too nuanced to be dismissed in a couple of condemnatory phrases”. I couldn’t agree more with you. For this reason, I ask you not behave like a child saying his friend undertook more despicable actions. That’s useless and, more importantly, intellectually depressing!

    In this sense, you should really consider frequenting those academic circles you mention.

    Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain, The Netherlands, and (if you don’t mind of course) the UK were the main European colonial powers. All of them systematically and indiscriminately committed atrocities and made large use of repressive power in order to subject indigenous populations. Hopefully, you’ll realise the inappropriateness – or rather ridiculousness – of statements like “not all colonialism was necessarily cruel and murderous”, given the current geopolitical situation and the world history of the past five centuries!

    The only “positive” aspects of colonialism I can think of relate to innovative agricultural techniques, infrastructure development, enhancement of industrial and commercial activities, and better administrative and financial systems. All of this however, occurred at the expense of a progressive unsustainable impoverishment of human and natural resources. I bet you’ll find it unfamiliar but we generally refer to that as ‘colonial exploitation’.

    If you don’t feel ashamed of what some of our ancestors did in this respect, I’d suggest you expand your horizons by reading some Anglophone, Francophone, Hispanophone, or Lusophone literature, among others. You’ll realise ‘atrocities’ is probably too generous as a term to define what we did (not you and I Chris, don’t confuse even this).

    I’m sorry that our readers have to endure this unnecessary aside on colonialism. Again, that’s not the subject matter of my post in the first place. Therefore, I’ll not enter further into a debate over your bad choice of arguments because that will open a potentially infinite verbal crossfire. I hope you understand.

    Let’s then turn to your conclusion: “I also feel no shame, as a European, but rather, pride in my heritage. You cannot change history by pulling down statues, or denigrating your own ancestors.”

    What a silly comment indeed. Of course, I don’t feel ashamed of my entire heritage as a European. I wrote ‘ashamed’ in a specific paragraph and I was referring to the clumsy EU’s response to the migration crisis. Obviously, your interpretation of my emotions failed once again.

    As for your reference to an inexistent denigration of my ancestors (immensely annoying Chris! You have no idea!), the emptiness of those words speaks for itself. How you even dare saying I denigrated my ancestors in general? Who are the ancestors you refer to? When and where did I denigrate them? Please be careful with your words.

    I can easily summarise my position by re-quoting one of our ancestors I’m rather proud of (contrary to what you maintains about me): “We should have pessimism of the intellect but optimism of the will”. If such a sentence doesn’t ring any bell, I’ll suggest you read some Noam Chomsky.

    Chris, to sum up, I struggle to understand what led you to write what you wrote. Don’t be mad at me, I had to respond to your intellectually offensive words.
    Nevertheless, if you still want to comment on the content of my post, feel free to keep discussing! I’ll be more than happy to constructively talk with you.

  5. Hello Carmen.

    Thanks for your comment, very much shareable ideas. I agree with you a full fiscal union is kind of a difficult project. Yet, it’s also difficult to expect the EU will survive without a decisive change in the status quo.

    Many propose partial debt pooling and symmetric macroeconomics policies to signal the Eurozone is a serious business and the EU is committed to stay united. Notwithstanding moral hazard and free rider problems (which could be reduced by mutual control however!), I do think the only way to foster unity and coherence is via political tools. But that’s precisely where the problems lie in my opinion.

  6. Hello Melanie.

    Happy to hear you enjoyed the post. It’s comforting to realise someone properly interpreted that sentence. Exploiting it (as someone did above) was really petty. Let alone the arguments that followed!

    Often, the highest walls are psychological rather than physical.

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