Commentary / World

Is the European Union too rigid to survive?

by Mark Buchanan


The European Union is suffering from a democracy problem: Too many Europeans feel that integration is being forced upon them. What’s worse, they may be right.

New research from a group of economists — Luigi Guiso, Paola Sapienza and Luigi Zingales — paints a grim picture of the European project from the perspective of its participants. Analyzing four decades of data from the Eurobarometer opinion survey, they find that three events — the 1992 Maastricht treaty, the 2004 enlargement to Eastern Europe and the 2010 Eurozone crisis — had the most negative effect on voters’ perceptions of the EU. In each case, the survey results suggest that Europeans perceived the events as driving further integration and didn’t like what they saw.

Meanwhile, European leaders kept preparing for more integration despite the growing dissatisfaction. Amazingly, their obliviousness to public sentiment appears to be precisely what the early architects of European integration desired.

The history, as Guiso and his colleagues present it, is mind boggling. The French political scientist and diplomat Jean Monnet, widely viewed as a founding father of the EU, envisioned that integration would be directed by an elite of pro-European bureaucrats. The project was designed to be immune to voter concerns and virtually irreversible. Problems would serve only to propel it forward, by revealing the need for the further expansion of European political power. Ultimately, voters would see the wisdom.

“Europe will be forged in crises,” Monnet wrote in 1976, “and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises.”

Supporters of European integration talked about creating an unstoppable “chain reaction.” Turning back, even temporarily, would never be an option. The great strength of the euro, as German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt saw it, was that “nobody can leave it without damaging his own country and his own economy in a severe way.”

Unfortunately, the chain reaction theory hasn’t worked out in practice. The result is a paradoxical impasse. European voters, the economists note, like the euro and want to keep it. At the same time, they don’t like the way current European institutions are managed, and they’re opposed to the further integration that economists say is needed to make the currency union viable. In other words, European voters don’t want to go forward or backward, and they also don’t want to stay where they are.

So is this, as Guiso and colleagues wonder, “Monnet’s Error?” Have the European elites miscalculated? This seems very possible, and potentially disastrous.

European leaders desiring further integration may despair of peoples’ inconsistent views, and dismiss the rise of anti-EU parties across Europe as a reaction to economic malaise. They may see this crisis as yet another opportunity to seek more integration. They say the costs of taking any step back are almost unimaginable, that we cannot go back.

Yet inflexibility is what you get in the moments before something breaks. For every hour they spend calculating how to keep the union together, European leaders ought to be spending another trying to engineer pathways for letting it come apart — at least partially and perhaps temporarily, to release pressure and anxiety. That might mean, for example, allowing greater national autonomy in the application of European regulations, especially in controlling the flow of immigrants.

There may be some wisdom in European voters’ ambivalence. At the very least, their loss of trust in the European project is an ominous sign. Uncompromising attempts to bind Europe together may instead hasten its abrupt and unmanageable dissolution, with unknown consequences. Making it easier for nations to take small steps away from European integration may be the best way to save the benefits of union in the long run.

Mark Buchanan is a physicist and Bloomberg View columnist.