Europe will be “forged in crises,” said Jean Monnet, a founding father of what became the European Union. For decades it’s been a favorite quote of Europhiles, and this week’s pandemic deal in Brussels once again makes them feel vindicated. Thrashed out over four days by 27 sleep-deprived leaders, it foresees the EU’s first jointly issued bonds. This debt will finance what’s in effect an insurance mechanism to help the member states worst hit by the coronavirus, such as Italy and Spain, thus proving European “solidarity.”
But countering Monnet and his intellectual progeny, the EU’s many skeptics — including those, like me, who are pro-European — have long argued that Europe always does too little, too late. Whether it’s the euro crisis or the refugee chaos of the past decade, or indeed the coronavirus recession now, the EU never quite rises to the challenge.
These two competing narratives frame a central debate about the EU’s future. Bruegel, a Brussels think tank, caricatures them as 1) the bloc is being “hardened by adversity,” leading to perpetual integration, versus 2) the “sky is falling” for the EU, which causes its disintegration.
But others believe this is a false dichotomy. Integration is not “either yes or no, forward or backward, progress or regress.” Instead, integration and disintegration both take place at the same time.
So a better way to frame the controversy may be by analogy to the long-standing debate in evolutionary biology between “creeps” and “jerks.” Biologists of the former description believe that evolution is a gradual and smooth process of adaptation. Those in the latter camp think nothing much happens for ages until sudden upheavals produce new “punctuated equilibria.”
In this sense, Monnet and all those celebrating the EU’s coronavirus deal are jerks. By contrast, a lot of the skeptics are creeps, thinking that change is slow but happening all the time — and not necessarily in a way that europhiles want. For my part, I’m a creep and a jerk.
Worryingly, the EU’s creeping changes do seem to be going in the wrong direction. One category is economic. The EU’s north and south, or its industrial “core” and “periphery,” have kept diverging since the euro crisis and will continue to do so. This week’s deal, even though its original vision of handing out fiscal grants was only diluted slightly in the haggling, won’t change this.
Another kind of negative creep is even more troubling. It is the divergence between the EU’s west and east with respect to European core values such as democracy, cultural pluralism and the rule of law. Hungary has been drifting toward “illiberal” authoritarianism for a decade and some no longer consider it a democracy.
That’s why some think tanks and western EU leaders originally wanted to tie the receipt of money from Brussels, whether from its next seven-year budget or the new coronavirus pot, to compliance with the rulings of the EU’s highest court, in Luxembourg, on such matters as the rule of law or press freedom. But after elaborate theatrics, especially by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, this conditionality was watered down into a vague promise to revisit the subject soon. For the sake of a deal, the EU surrendered.
This is worth keeping in mind as the 27 leaders now proclaim their particular definition of victory in Brussels. In reality, the EU remains fractious and fragmented and is, if anything, getting more so. This means that in foreign and defense policy it is and will remain a failure. Geopolitically, Europeans are increasingly “vegetarians in a world of carnivores” such as China, Russia and the U.S.
Does that mean the EU is fated to enter the fossil record, as many species have done before? Not necessarily, but possibly. Evolution is not about improvement toward some noble ideal but about adapting to reality. If the EU remains unable to adjust fast enough, as I’ve argued, it faces “creeping irrelevance.” Or, worse, the jerky kind. Andreas Kluth, Bloomberg