“Evils which are patiently endured when they seem inevitable, become intolerable once the idea of escape from them is suggested.”
—Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the Revolution
Is the European Union headed for the kind of collapse that would make it this decade’s Soviet Union? Tocqueville famously observed that the collapse of political institutions usually seems inconceivable, right up until the moment it happens—at which point the collapse is seen to have been inevitable and over-determined by the underlying corrosive trends that were pulling the institution apart.
This mismatch of perception with reality is more than just a function of the threshold collective action dilemma that confronts revolutionary movements.1 It is a cognitive and emotional dilemma that faces pundits and politicians too: To admit institutional fragility is sometimes tantamount to encouraging fracture. And when a political institution has deep emotional roots in the collective psyche of a population—whether those roots are more about love or resentment or even hate—it is hard to imagine a scenario in which the institution has disappeared and the world must figure out how to go on without it.
So it was with the USSR a generation ago. In 1988, the Soviet Union was widely judged, both inside and outside the country, to be troubled but stable. On January 1, 1992 it ceased to exist. American Sovietologists spent much of the next decade trying to figure out why they couldn’t see in advance what, in retrospect, appeared to be inevitable.
In 2016 the European Union is certainly challenged and troubled. But will it collapse, or is it stable enough to survive? The evidence of the past few years—Grexit averted and the euro rescued (at least for the time being)—could suggest “yes.” One could even take it as a signal of underlying EU strength. The summer 2016 Brexit vote might be, when all is said and done, a disastrous choice for Britain and a spur to EU reform that will strengthen and make more resilient what remains. That’s a hopeful perspective for Europhiles, but we believe it is wrong. The historical parallels between the European Union of 2016 and the USSR circa 1989 are deep enough to take seriously. And in an ironic twist of intellectual history, American scholarship on the European Union is in the grip of a mirror image of the prejudicial tendencies of theory that afflicted Sovietologists in the 1980s.
The similarities fall into three key elements of political economy. The political component of the European Union is broken in a manner eerily similar to that of the late-stage Soviet Union. Both were curiously apolitical, because they sat on elite-driven teleological foundations that ignore how human beings actually live and bargain. The economic component is broken in parallel: Both were tied to peculiar and incoherent ideologies that respond to economic stagnation by getting even more confused, making major policy mistakes all but inevitable.
But the most important similarity lies in the dynamic that turned the late Soviet experiment of perestroika (“restructuring”) and, later, glasnost (“openness”) into a cascading institutional failure. Because of its history and organizational configuration, the European Union may be structurally un-reformable in many of the same ways that Soviet Russia was, as Gorbachev discovered to his surprise.
If that is right, then the most likely path forward will witness the emergence in the European Union of a Gorbachev-type figure who makes the explicit case that muddling through is not enough. This leader will begin by trying to restructure the Brussels bureaucracy, but will find herself with no choice but to radically re-think the European Union’s democratic deficit. She will then watch helplessly as the EU edifice cracks and crumbles, and will know exactly how Gorbachev felt around 1989. And when it’s over, Americans will once again be found asking themselves, “why didn’t we see it coming?”
We do not advocate for the end of the European Union. Its flaws and foibles notwithstanding, we recognize and honor the extraordinary historical achievements of the world’s most elaborate and sophisticated experiment in supranational governance. But we need to call it like we see it, not how we might wish it to be.
Not long after the Brexit vote shocked the world, Martin Wolf wrote in the Financial Times that the European Union should be a “refuge not a prison.” He meant that,
the core challenge of the EU is to make it work—and be seen to work—for the benefit of the great majority of its citizens…. The failure of the EU lies not in its political structures but in its policies. It must secure legitimacy via practical achievements rather than further erosion of national autonomy.2
The world’s premier economic columnist here named, perhaps without quite knowing it, the central contradiction at the heart of the European Union.
To make this concrete, consider the policy response that Wolf (along with many other respected economists) argues is necessary for Europe to rebound out of its post-global-financial-crisis slump and avoid future Greek-style crises. If you believed that the appropriate policy response was a combination of fiscal stimulus and a rebalancing of the zone’s macroeconomic rules so that they less blatantly favor the Union’s largest and richest country (Germany), then the obvious next question is: why didn’t that happen?
The fundamental answer lies neither in some abstract ideology of austerity wafting through the conference rooms of the European Central Bank nor in some putative Teutonic commitment to discipline debtors no matter the ultimate cost. It lies in a much simpler institutional fact: The European Union remains a monetary union but not a fiscal union. The only way today’s European Union could reasonably produce the policies Wolf and many others advocate is if it were at least a de facto fiscal union. But that would require radical reform of the political structure of the Union. In other words, it is EU political structures themselves that are ultimately at fault for the European Union’s economic policy mistakes.
But the real contradiction resides at a level deeper. It is right to say that the European Union, like all political systems, must ultimately secure legitimacy through practical achievements. But it can’t do that without changing political structures that fail systematically to produce needed policies. And it can’t change those political structures without further eroding national autonomy—a prospect for which there is little meaningful popular support, since such a move would be seen (with justification) as a further erosion of democratic accountability.
The irony of European integration is that engendering these contradictions was the plan all along. Jean Monnet and his successors weren’t naive dreamers; they understood that nationalism would remain strong in Europe despite its largely having caused two disastrous world wars. So how could European integration then proceed “beyond the nation-state,” as Ernest Haas put it in his classic 1964 book of that title?
The logic of integration, labeled “neo-functionalism” by Haas, was based on technocratic notions of how governance requirements among economically interdependent states would evolve. The model was supposed to work like this: A European elite would identify a policy objective that would be presented to the European public as a positive incremental step in the direction of economic integration. This would create “spillover effects” in the form of a perceived need to follow up with further integrative moves in order to stabilize and capture the promised economic benefits. Rather than mounting a frontal assault on national sovereignty, the reason to “go further” would be simply to complete the logic inherent in the previous steps, embodied in concrete economic incentives to finish what had been started.
Essentially every economist who looked at the creation of the monetary union and the euro remarked on the inherent instability of a large and diverse currency union that was not also a fiscal union. In 1997, before the euro’s launch, Milton Friedman famously predicted that the new currency would not survive the Eurozone’s first economic downturn.3 But from the point of view of the Eurozone’s architects, this risk structure was exactly the point: technocratic creation of facts on the ground in one domain (monetary union) would drive a perceived need to go further down the integration pathway (toward fiscal union), which would in turn drive political integration. To mix technological metaphors: putting the monetary cart before the political horse was a feature, not a bug.
The more ambitious neo-functionalists believed that, over time, the multiplying intensity of cross-border transactions and the “necessary” transfer of regulatory authority to supranational institutions would generate a European identity to sit alongside and eventually supplant national identities. But in typically technocratic fashion, even that transfer of allegiance didn’t depend on confronting directly the ideological foundations of nationalist feeling. Instead, it would come about gradually, almost under the radar, via mundane institutional development—as interest groups, industry associations, and the like within individual countries reorganized along European lines.
Technocratic incrementalism, economic rationality, supranational governance to capture the benefits of a globalizing world—these were supposed to be the driving forces behind European institutional integration. Neo-functionalism was a way of sidestepping politics and hoping that it would follow along without too much disruption.
Unfortunately, what was once a brilliant political strategy has now become Europe’s Achilles’ heel. In retrospect, what is surprising is how far the neo-functionalist dynamic took Europe before hitting its limits. But it’s been faltering now for some time. When the Solemn Declaration on European Union in 1983 declared that the goal was “commitment to progress toward an ever closer union” based on social democracy, cosmopolitanism, and human rights, it was already starting to sound tired to a younger generation of Europeans who felt that the continent was falling behind the globalization curve. Strong economic performance can hide institutional failure for a while, but not forever.
Consider 1992, when the French referendum on the Maastricht Treaty squeaked through with 51.1 percent and later was rejected in Denmark by a similar margin. Denmark was then given a series of opt-outs: no single currency, no common defense, no union citizenship—and asked to vote again. In retrospect, these exceptions set an ominous precedent: “ever-closer union” except, except, except. It also set a precedent for do-over votes when referenda produced results unacceptable to the technocratic plan. It happened in Ireland in 2008 with the Treaty of Amsterdam. It happened in 2015 with the rejection of the Greek referendum, and the response was to send back to Athens even harsher bailout terms for Syriza to swallow.
The most important failures here lie in Brussels’s systematic inability to grapple with the primacy of politics. Neo-functionalism was an elegant idea, but that fifty year old theory doesn’t describe how politics works in the 21st century. Magicians won’t show you the same trick more than a few times for a reason: You’ll start to see the sleight of hand even if you don’t want to. Once the shell shock of two world wars faded over several generations, Europeans no longer wanted to trick themselves into integration. They sought clear and conscious decisions, and they wanted openly to debate the stakes of those decisions.
And so the creation of “technocratic facts on the ground” is now more likely to promote resentment and backpedalling when elites try to claim that the next politically delicate step isn’t really political but somehow natural and inevitable—as a result of what they themselves chose to do without sufficient public support or understanding just a few years earlier. This is particularly galling to those who must live in the “actually existing” EU, which (like the Soviet Union before it) has failed to deliver the promised golden age of solidarity and prosperity.
Instead what a broad swathe of Europeans see is that the European Union is a boon to bulge bracket bankers (Central London is the richest place in Europe) and bureaucrats in Brussels (the third-richest), and a politically unresponsive originator of regulation for most everyone else. What we are witnessing is neo-functionalist dynamics gone bad: more and more supranational regulation that hasn’t spilled over to political responsiveness and integration.
This story may not look much like the Soviet Union on the face of it, but there is a fundamental similarity that bodes ill for Europe. The simple observation is that both the European Union and the Soviet Union were built on teleological philosophies of history that posit an inevitable endpoint toward which time and events must progress, and that ignores how human beings really think and live.
In the Soviet case, it was the inevitability of the coming of proletarian empowerment and international solidarity. Hindsight makes it easy to scoff, but the USSR was supposed to have been the epitome of modern political organization—a point affirmed by no less a conservative authority than Samuel Huntington.4 The 1917 revolution was supposed to have ended the need for further revolutions. The utopian impulse was ever-present in the official ideology that would abolish private property and markets, and create the “new Soviet Man.”
When these narratives faltered (as they did in 1921, in the run-up to World War II, and ultimately in the economic stagnation that set during the 1970s), the Party responded pragmatically but soon did everything it could, ranging from propaganda to Stalinist terror, to revive them. What began as a radiant myth slowly decayed into a radioactive lie, or at least into a permanent condition of hypocrisy. By the end of the Brezhnev era the teleology simply wasn’t plausible anymore, and just about anyone living in Moscow in the early 1980s would have likely felt that the arrow of history was pointing in precisely the opposite direction from what the official narrative claimed. Even the most hardened apparatchiks of that period and the succeeding administrations of Chernenko and Andropov knew in their hearts it was a lie.5
And when the teleology went out of it, all that was left was a stagnant and rigid bureaucracy cynically extracting rents from an underperforming economy. Governments can survive this kind of cynicism for a while, but not forever. Having an historic, heroic ideology at that point becomes a burden rather than a boost, a constant reminder of the failure of the regime to deliver. That’s why Napoleon, the pig ruler of Animal Farm, had to scribble on top of “all animals are equal” that “some animals are more equal than others.” His iron rule would have been more stable if he had simply replaced the human farmer autocracy with his own and never written the first part of that manifesto in the first place.
The truth is that nothing in politics is inevitable. To pretend and act otherwise is a recipe for repression or, in the case of the European Union, a populist backlash. It is no surprise that so many of the Brexiteers saw an irreconcilable conflict between the elite and everyone else (that irreconcilability being a distinctive, defining feature of populism). Teleology is ultimately more like a religion than a political belief system, and 21st-century Europe isn’t a place where any religion will hold people together very long. (How this applies to depleted teleologies in the United States is an interesting question too, but not for now.)
Robust economic growth is nature’s greatest political salve. But no economy grows robustly forever. In periods of rapid economic change, the test of a political economy’s stability is not so much how it manages growth as how it manages volatility. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, volatility has often taken the form of rapid, sector-specific growth bursts interspersed among periods of stagnation.
The second failure common to both the European Union and the USSR is that both were built on ideological foundations that responded to the challenges of economic stagnation when it happened by getting more confused, not more cogent. Over time, the responsible institutions became more rigid, not more flexible. Together these made stagnation harder to live with for meaningful periods of time, and harder to escape by means of enacting sometimes-necessary bold policy actions.
By the mid-1970s the Soviet Union was mired in a vicious circle of declining economic productivity that showed no signs or means of reversal.6 The Kremlin leadership may not have had a full picture of just how stagnant the economy was, but to citizens and workers the tangible evidence of daily experience was clear. The problem was that the governing Soviet economic model—ultimately a set of ideas like all such models—didn’t stand for anything that could compensate for lack of growth. It certainly wasn’t about the rights and dignity of the proletariat, or anti-colonialism, or even great power status—because it was no longer contributing to any of those goals. It wasn’t clear what the Soviet economy stood for, or why it deserved to exist.
By contrast, the other superpower responded to its own 1970s economic stagnation with the supply-side revolution. No matter where you stood on that set of ideas, there was no question that it made a clear case for what needed to be done and what the results would be. And it drove significant policy change, from painful monetary tightening under Paul Volker to massive tax reduction and military Keynesianism. By 1984 everyone knew where the U.S. economy was headed and what it stood for: renewed growth through lower taxes, stable inflation, deregulation, de-unionization, higher corporate profits – all in the name of rebuilding the military in order to confront the Soviet Union. This vision was exactly what Ronald Reagan was referring to when his signature reelection campaign ad declared that it was “morning in America.”
The same clarity of purpose has been present in the Chinese government and Communist Party leadership for the last four decades. They exist in order to sustain a level of growth that has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in just a few decades, while gradually re-balancing the nature of that growth from export-led growth at all costs to ecologically sustainable internal consumption, all the while maintaining political and social stability as the CCP defines it. Love it or hate it, there’s no ambiguity about that purpose, and a great deal of room for policy flexibility in service of it.
By this standard, what does today’s European Union stand for? In 2016 you might say that the EU’s purpose in confronting economic stagnation is some ambiguous mixture of post-nationalism, competitiveness, peace between historically warring states, lesser inequality…or maybe something else. Nobody really knows anymore, and that is a huge economic and political vulnerability.
Most Europeans experience Brussels as a place of abstract pronouncements and convoluted institutional processes that few can understand but that visibly generates more regulation than economic growth. There is no greater purpose that compensates for this experience by giving it meaning, and no blueprint that legitimates institutional flexibility in the service of unconventional policy options.
The moral and political rot at the heart of the Union came into sharp focus with the Greek debt crisis. For ordinary Greeks, the crisis was one created by the corrupt cabal of plutocrats and politicians, which they had just gotten done throwing out of office. Now was the time, they believed, for pan-European solidarity—a bailout on reasonable terms in exchange for a promise to clean up the books. Isn’t that what European citizenship was supposed to mean: that we would all stand with each other in times of trouble?
The Germans and many other Northern Europeans of course took a very different view, namely that the feckless and lazy Greeks needed to accept a major downside shock to their standard of living and so learn some fiscal and labor discipline. In practice, this meant imposing a stringent austerity program over the explicitly stated political preferences of the local population.
One way or another, either the democratic wishes of the Greeks or those of the Germans would have to be defied. These are the moments that define polities. And in this instance, a massive power imbalance combined with rigid rules and no greater sense of shared purpose to ensure an official nightmare that perpetuates inequality while multiplying perceptions of unfairness and illegitimacy.
The critical question is how did the European Union end up stuck in this Kafka-by-way-of-Hobbes nightmare? There are diverse explanations that run the gamut from the inherently conservative tendencies of international organizations, to faulty leadership, and more. But the explanation that matters most for the European Union’s future prospects is its obsession with process. In Brussels, process trumps everything. The system is paramount and the rules of process sacrosanct. It was designed to be so in a manner that only technocratic institutions can be.
It’s as if the generation that created the foundations of today’s European were, in the wake of World War II, utterly frightened of meaning and purpose (which of course the Third Reich had in spades) or any ideas that were abstract enough to catalyze political emotion. So they substituted legal and bureaucratic processes that over time became their own justification for existence yet, eventually, the European Union’s stealth enemy from within. The problem is, there is scant political constituency for process on its own—except possibly in the wake of purpose gone bad. And that was several generations ago. The European Union desperately needs a purpose beyond self-maintenance and survival, but its institutions are designed almost to prevent such a purpose from emerging.
Change and Stasis
Comparing today’s European Union with the late stage Soviet Union is not an effort to ignore or mask very significant differences. Europe is a much more prosperous place than was the Soviet Union, and that very prosperity promotes a degree of conservatism about institutional change. The Soviet Union had an external enemy, ideological and practical, to contend with in the form of a hostile superpower. The European Union’s external challenge just now is first and foremost about immigration and that is something that the European Union still can, in principle, hope to manage more effectively than can 28 (or possibly soon 27) individual national governments. The cultural milieu could hardly be more different. And so on.
But amid these differences, the parallel fragilities and rigidities of politics and economics point to the single most important locus of comparison. When the late stage Soviet Union under Gorbachev finally embarked on a serious program of reform, the system cracked and ultimately collapsed. It didn’t take long. In a May 1985 speech in Leningrad, Gorbachev openly acknowledged that the Soviet Union was suffering from persistent, structural economic stagnation. The idea of perestroika emerged later that same year. In 1987 Gorbachev presented his core policy plans for economic restructuring to the Central Committee of the Communist Party. In November 1989 the Berlin Wall came down, and just about three short years later, the Soviet Union itself went out of existence. That’s seven years for one of modern history’s most ambitious experiments in radical political organization and governance to go the full spectrum from superpower status to dissolution.
At some point, the European Union will have to embark on its own reform path. The critical question is whether the European Union is in fact structurally un-reformable and destined for collapse. A look back at the most compelling argument for why the Soviet Union may have been so sheds some important light on that question.
In the winter of 1990, when Western optimism about Gorbachev was nearly at its height, Berkeley historian Martin Malia wrote “To the Stalin Mausoleum” in Daedalus under the pseudonym “Z.” On the face of it, Malia argued, optimism about Gorbachev seemed easy to justify. The Soviet Union finally had a leader who understood the roots of economic stagnation and was willing to confront them, who understood the dysfunctions of an empire in Eastern Europe and was eager to liberate it, who understood the downside of the USSR’s isolation from a globalizing world economy and was ready to integrate in a deliberate manner, and who understood the drain and danger of an escalating nuclear arms race with the United States and was anxious to stop it. What Malia saw instead were the deeper contradictions of the Soviet Union that, he believed, made Gorbachev’s preferred reform path unworkable.
Those contradictions started with the origins of the Soviet system in utopian ideologies, but in practice it was the institutional consequences of reaching for utopia that doomed the Soviet state. The 1917 narrative of the Great Proletarian Revolution covered up a much more prosaic reality—“a minority coup d’etat staged against a background of generalized, particularly peasant, anarchy,” as Malia put it.
Jean Monnet was hardly Lenin, but the mismatch of narrative and real policy in the 1951 Treaty of Paris was similarly wide. European integration began with French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman declaring on May 9, 1950, that the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was above all a means of making war “not only unthinkable but materially impossible.” But its first institutions represented a much more prosaic effort to create an integrated and managed market for steel and coal in order to deal with overcapacity through a multi-government-run cartel.
Of course, stabilizing these important sectors of both the French and German national markets by linking their destinies together was the planned route to building a stable political relationship between France and Germany. But the ECSC failed to prevent a return of the large coal and steel firms to market power. Nor did it put forward an energy policy at the intersection of the two “newer” fuels: oil and nuclear. What it did achieve was the creation of a complex set of institutions that were out of proportion to its objectives: A High Authority, a Common Assembly, a Court of Justice, a Special Council of Ministers (with a President), and a Consultative Committee made up of representatives from the coal and steel markets. These institutions were the predecessors to today’s EU bureaucratic labyrinth.
The Soviet Union faced its greatest external challenge from the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. It first made a secret non-aggression pact to divert that challenge and buy time for preparation. Ultimately, the sacrifice of moral coherence and authority that the Molotov-von Ribbentrop pact represented was justified by the result of the war, a decisive assertion of Soviet power in victory and a legitimating narrative of great power and then superpower status that followed.
The European Union, in contrast, has been a great-power-in-waiting for decades. The wars in the former Republic of Yugoslavia during the late 1990s were its greatest external challenge—and the European Union’s collective security response fell somewhere between anemic and incoherent. Even worse, the excuses for inaction frequently rested on process and institutional self-absorption, not intentional purpose. The morally corrosive effects of that failure were exacerbated further by the concentration camp parallels of Serbian ethnic cleansing on the European continent, just four decades after the Holocaust. The European Union might be able to prevent war, but what did that signify if it could not prevent the mass murder that war brought in train and that constituted the main reason for wanting to prevent it in the first place?
The failure to seize that moment seemed to some observers to be the moral nadir of the European project. In a triumph of technocratic process over meaning and purpose, the project to engineer a single currency went forward while the effort to end genocide on the continent was left to the Americans. Debates about optimal currency areas and monetary policy arrangements crowded out what should have been a profound period of soul-searching over the Yugoslav debacle. It was almost as if the ghosts of the Soviet nomenklatura, whose bureaucratic triumph defined the Brezhnev era in the Soviet Union, had silently returned to Brussels.
The fundamentals haven’t changed much since then. When the 2008 financial crisis arrived, and the entirely predictable crisis of the euro with it, the system stuck to a kind of rump neo-functionalist logic as it forced the vast majority of adjustment costs onto a destitute Greece. We say “rump neo-functonalist” because the logical option for an integrationist alternative, moving toward fiscal union, was patently obvious. But it was never even on the political table in a serious way, at least not where it mattered (in Berlin and Paris).
In practice, the EU system responded to crisis by putting its own institutional survival ahead of the economic needs and political desires of its citizens. The corrosive loss of legitimacy at this watershed moment is not the only way to explain the deep roots of the Brexit vote, but it is surely part of what the Leavers saw and felt. If Brexit was in part a vote against globalization, it was against precisely the kind of globalization that EU institutions had fostered—with benefits for the rich and mobile, a few structural funds to compensate many losers, and no greater purpose than moving forward for its own sake.
Analytic Blind Spots
Alongside his analysis of Soviet rigidity and imperviousness to reform, Malia also offered a trenchant intellectual history of late Western Sovietology, seeking to answer the question of why others didn’t (and in fact couldn’t) see the breakup coming. In his view, most Western scholars of the Soviet Union in the 1980s were focused on the sources of Soviet stability as a mature industrial society facing gradual reform and increasingly pluralist (not democratic) development.
Perhaps this was a reaction to a previous generation’s totalitarian models that tended to paint the Soviet Union as a unitary monolith of state power. Perhaps it was a side effect of international relations’ theory of bipolarity, which suggested that the Cold War was a meta-stable equilibrium that would continue indefinitely.7 Perhaps it was partly wishful thinking, with the alternative (the break up of a major nuclear power) too unnerving to contemplate. It certainly served the budgetary interests of the Pentagon to have a stable, predictable, adaptive, and consistently hostile adversary permanently ensconced on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
Are there similar blind spots in American scholarship on the European Union? Possibly. In the international relations world, the EU stands out as the most ambitious and interesting experiment in supranational governance yet attempted. For many scholars, particularly in the American academy, the European Union represents a beau ideal of cosmopolitan governance, a model for the rest of the world.8 The transformation of historically warring nation-states into a security community where war is unthinkable marks a similar watershed; it testifies to the darling premise of liberal institutionalists: rationality after all. The idea that flexible, adaptive responses to the political economy of globalization can be engineered at the scale of a continent is worthy of fascination. Observers disagree vehemently over the mechanisms of European integration, some arguing that apparent supra-national institutions are much more about normal bargaining between national governments, much as you would see in the WTO or the United Nations. But these arguments aside, stability is still the predominant concentration and focus of explanation.
And so one is much more likely to read justifications for why other regions (such as East Asia) should look to the European Union as a model for the future than to read of reasons why the European Union itself might be fundamentally unstable. It’s true that many analyses of EU politics come with the discourse of “crisis” in the title or subtitle. But this brand of crisis discourse is much like the thirty-year “crisis” that has been facing NATO: a challenge to which the institution will respond by moving forward and adapting. The possibility of an EU breakup isn’t out of the picture, but it’s certainly in a fuzzy background that few observers want to bring into clear focus.
Is Reform Possible?
Nothing in politics is inevitable. Whatever impact it may or may not have on the European economy, the Brexit vote was a massive psychological shock to a system that never really imagined the possibility of neo-functionalism slamming into reverse. Is it possible now to imagine a path forward for European integration?
Of course it is. Here’s one story that would represent a phoenix-like revival of post neo-functionalist European integration. Elites in Germany and France take conscious, active ownership of the partial integration disequilibrium and decide the time has come to deal with it directly. We start hearing arguments that “this is what will happen if we allow the European Union to be an à la carte menu, a two-speed Europe, and so on”—the masses will try to pick and choose among the things they want at that moment (yes to trade, no to immigration, for example) and lose sight of the bigger purpose.
The truly consequential shift would be the recognition that, since they have lost sight of it already, a new and even bigger purpose needs to be articulated. More than thirty years ago, Jacques Delors travelled around European capitals to assess appetites for a new leap forward; the result was the single market and the road to the euro. This generation’s Delors equivalent would have to find a much broader consensus on a much bigger stage. The obvious target remains a fiscal union that could credibly generate a commitment to massive fiscal stimulus now and appropriate retrenchment, with debt repayment and budget surpluses, in the future.
Could a political entrepreneur put this package together and sell it to a smaller core group, perhaps the founding members of European integration, with France and Germany at the core? It’s not impossible. But if it were to happen, it would almost by necessity leave the rest of the European Union to fade backward into something like a free trade zone. And the core would become something more like a new superstate than an international organization.
In The Globalization Paradox, Dani Rodrik described a trilemma of global integration, nation-state sovereignty, and democracy; you can have two of the three at the same time, but not all three.9 He was basically right, but a new EU core could consciously choose to redefine its endpoint as a new nation-state. The problem is, the past two decades of European integration were spent running away from that conscious re-definition.
The more likely path forward looks something like this. A Euro-Gorbachev figure emerges in the wake of Brexit, with her own program of restructuring/perestroika to renew EU institutions. She might be a young MEP from one of the new Eastern member states, or a prominent national politician from France or Germany; she is unlikely to be found today in Brussels. She certainly won’t use the word perestroika as she goes about convincing others that her institutional reform package can save the European Union. But the media will use that word, with justification and unknowing irony.
If the foregoing analysis is correct, we expect that European Union perestroika will fail for the same reasons that Gorbachev’s version did. The institutions of the European Union are too complex, too interconnected, too insulated, too rigid, and ultimately too self-absorbed to grasp the necessity for change. The Eurocrats who run them, like Brezhnev’s nomenklatura, might be holding on to that last little bit of utopian thinking or they might just be holding on to their comfortable sinecures—but in either case they will fight perestroika tooth and nail in every possible under-the-table manner of blocking, foot-dragging, and obfuscation. Some national political leaders might join the call. But likely not the ones who matter most in France and Germany, as their ambivalence about supranational governance will ultimately lead them to favor intergovernmental deals that mostly bypass Brussels. We give the perestroika campaign about three years before its proponents recognize that they have to up the ante and move on to their own version of social media-enabled glasnost.
In the European context, “open-ness” will take the form of an appeal to mass national populations, over the heads of their leadership. Citizens will be called on to rescue the European Union. They will be told that it is essential to peace on the continent. They will be told that only at the supranational level can Europe fashion a plausible political and economic response to globalization. They will probably be told that Brussels is the only place where regulators can stand up to the cultural and privacy penetration of European societies by American internet giants (the GAFA coalition10) and everything, especially the “social dumping,” they represent.
Ultimately, the European glasnost appeal will have to point backward to the utopian vision of European integration that launched the project to gain any chance of credibility. Gorbachev tried to do the same in his context. What he discovered was that the population not only didn’t believe it anymore, they scoffed at it. When Soviet citizens were given the chance to say no to official political candidates for the first time in seventy years, they said no in almost all the major cities throughout the USSR. In the EU context it might be the populations of new member states that say no. It might be the populations of Italy, or France, or perhaps even Germany that say no. It might be all of these. But there will be sufficient refusals to sap whatever legitimacy is left from EU institutions. At that point, the emergence of a Yeltsin-type entrepreneur who sees the opportunity in the politics of break-up becomes almost inevitable.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, most of the constituent republics came back together loosely in something called the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). It was just enough of a political umbrella to give cover to de facto independence—a few meetings a year, some broad “shared” economic goals, and a small bureaucracy that was mainly responsible for propaganda.
Europe on the other side of the European Union will probably do better than that, but maybe not all that much better. The European Union may end, as do the plans of all hollow men, not with a bang but a whimper.
1A good summary of the standard arguments is Jack Goldstone, “Is Revolution Individually Rational? Groups and Individuals in Revolutionary Collective Action,” Rationality and Society (January 1994), pp. 139–66.
2Wolf, “How Britain Should Respond to Brexit,” Financial Times, July 5, 2016.
3Friedman, “The Euro: Monetary Unity to Political Disunity?” Project Syndicate, August 28, 1997.
4Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies (1968).
5See Alexei Yurchak, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (Princeton University Press, 2013).
6This periodization comes from Charlie Maier, Dissolution: The Crisis of Communism and the End of East Germany (Princeton University Press, 1997).
7Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics (McGraw-Hill, 1979).
8For an elegant example, see Anne-Marie Slaughter, A New World Order (Princeton University Press, 2004).
9Rodrik, The Globalization Paradox: Democracy and the Future of the World Economy (W.W. Norton, 2011).
10GAFA is an acronym used in Europe to refer to the four companies that the FT’s Gideon Rachman says symbolize “America’s evil Internet empire”: Google-Apple-Facebook-Amazon.