The deep structure of the European crisis

Instead of deepening integration, the famous Franco-German engine now represented by the Merkozy-Sarkel tandem has brought the EU to the fringe of disintegration. Where does the road lead from here? Will Europe combust, as some of its rivals and adversaries hope and suggest - or are there options and alternatives for reinventing itself?

Ferenc Miszlivetz
30 April 2012

Europe is in a deep crisis today which is recognized by an increasing number of analysts, experts and observers. A lot has been said and written during the past year or two about the impact of the global economic and financial crisis on the EU. The crisis of the Euro-zone has been on the front page of leading newspapers for a long time. But ironically, the recognition that the crisis is actually far more complex and also a deepening political and social crisis for the European Union as such, has grasped the attention of analysts only  recently.

Although there were reasons enough - after the 2004 Big Bang, eastern enlargement and the 2005 double ‘no’ votes to the constitution - to pay some attention to the emerging symptoms of crisis, lingering questions were swept under the carpet. Against all promises, European integration remained an elite-driven and non-democratic process, and Eurocrats, experts and national politicians alike, remained supremely uninterested in identifying or understanding the deeper structural causes of any failures and negative tendencies. The lack of a proper diagnosis left no chance at all for effective therapy. Self-congratulatory official EU and national propaganda about the success of the new accessions possibly led to this self-deception: ‘Unity in Diversity’ thus remained a main slogan while increasing diversity actually further undermined transnational solidarity, silently turning core European societies against greater enlargement.

Why is Europe not leading the twenty-first century? 

Before and surrounding eastern enlargement the proclaimed self-image of the EU was elevated to great heights. Books were published under the title The European Dream, (Jeremy Rifkin) and indeed for a while many believed that the fading away of the American dream would open new horizons, not only for new visions of Europe but also for the realization of those visions. It seemed that the European construct had gained new momentum and that Europe would gain a political purchase on the global level and become a model for further regional integrations and as such a shaper of a new world order.

Thus Mark Leonard wrote in 2005:  “…far from being the problem, the EU is the remedy: giving countries control over policies that had become global”(Why Europe will run the 21st century?) He continues; “By giving national governments a voice in the world, the EU has saved national democracy from becoming a mere talking shop that comments on global events while the real decisions are taken elsewhere. … The EU is the only way that small countries can have a measure of control over global markets.” The buoyantly optimistic title of the book speaks for itself.

This overwhelmingly self-congratulating optimism did not last too long. Opinion polls clearly showed that old core Europe had lost its enthusiasm regarding eastern enlargement (if it had any) rightly seen and interpreted as an elite decision made above the heads of European citizens. The accession of former Soviet bloc countries had unforeseen and rather frightening consequences and European citizens soon understood that in the lack of democratic decision making on the transnational level, decision makers would remain unaccountable. The double ‘no’ votes in 2005 were an expression of dissent about the previously successful and celebrated European construction method and procedure.

European politicians, Eurocrats as well as their expert groups and think tanks had a bubble around their heads  –  a self-image underpinned by an idealized image of a desirable Europe. Instead of facing the harsh reality after 2004/2005, postponement and avoidance was accomplished through declaring a time for “a period of reflection” and projects like Plan D for debate, dialogue and democracy. The Commission recognized the democracy deficit but couldn’t find the method to cure it. Plan D did not produce sufficient dialogue and deliberation on any European, transnational or regional level and failed to strengthen citizens’ identification with the EU, bringing them closer to the European project. As opinion polls and Eurobarometer data suggest, trust in EU institutions has further declined and the turnout in EP elections likewise. Margot Wallstrom, the commissioner with a human face, created some empathy during her meetings with European NGO leaders, but the campaign did not galvanize and couldn’t even empower the so-called “European civil society” which largely remained a metaphor from above – an invention of European think tanks and the White Paper on European Governance. This time the genie remained in the bottle – societies remained passive, apathetic and increasingly skeptical.

The ‘period of reflection’ concluded with an open letter of 27 recommendations at the end of 2007. The European demos remained an abstraction; the European polity remained a non-democracy with diminishing chances for becoming a political authority with global aspirations. The eruption of the global crisis found a Europe weakened by the diminishing trust of its citizens in its non-transparent institutions; by its overambitious and less and less convincing social policy contradicting its de facto neo-liberal economic policy; and by its political philosophy. Europe was left without real leadership and the capacity for comprehensive crisis management to deal with growing discrepancies between its different regions of North and South, East and West.

Instead of expanding, de facto solidarity has been rapidly diminishing and bilateralism based on national interests has instead gathered momentum. For the first time during the entire post WWII history of integration, the German population turned Euroskeptic, and those who did not believe that European integration was a good thing started to outnumber its supporters. In the absence of strong institutions, accountable leaders and an empowered parliament, Europeans became increasingly inward-looking again. Emphasizing national interests in economic and energy policies was followed by the articulation of the preeminence of a national vernacular, culture and belonging: the social need for an exclusionary type of democracy has been strengthening, followed by the growth of rightwing populism and extremism. Germany and Britain jointly announced the end of multiculturalism as a new political doctrine. This has opened a new period in the history of European integration.

In 2011, during the intervention in Libya led by the French airforce, the French president Nicholas Sarkozy supported by other western European countries, raised the prospect of suspending the Schengen treaty and reintroducing national border controls in order to be able to legally turn back refugees from MENA countries. In a long half decade the celebrated European dream has turned into another European nightmare.

Deep structural causes of European crisis

Up until 1989/2004, those who saw, interpreted and preached post WWII European construction as a success story were not far off from reality. The foundation of functioning trans- or supra-national institutions by discovering and applying a new methodology of integration was not only unprecedented and unique, since it had taken place between former rivals and ardent enemies, but thanks to its success it became an emerging model for regional integration and development cooperation throughout the world. 

What was less or not at all understood was that the conditions for the obvious achievements of European integration were guaranteed by the bipolar logic and military stalemate of the Cold War. Western Europe’s integration with itself was a nested and well protected integration – Marshal Aid, the Berlin Wall, NATO and the Soviet (Warsaw Pact) Army guaranteed the peaceful, step by step and undisturbed process of building new institutions, introducing legal guarantees and creating the largest single market of the world. Liberal democracies nurtured upon that basis became attractive models for many countries especially in East Central Europe: it seemed - especially from the outside - that welfare and democracy were inseparable.

1989 - as unexpected and unasked for as it was for the beneficiaries of this status quo - created totally new conditions: the Berlin Wall collapsed, the Soviet Union dissolved, the logic of bipolarity disappeared. The entire eastern border of the European Communities became wide open both in the physical and political sense. Helmut Kohl, an astute politician, jumped upon the bandwagon. German reunification, interpreted as the first step towards eastern Enlargement, was promptly built upon the debris of the Berlin Wall. What belonged together started to grow together. But nobody seemed to care too much about what did not belong together and therefore could not integrate.

It was neither politically nor morally possible to deny the right of post-Solidarnosc Poland, post-Charta 77 Czechoslovakia and post-Kadarist Hungary to ‘belong to Europe’ and to access the integration process. After the collapse of the Soviet Union the same was true in the case of the Baltic Republics. It was possible to postpone the date of enlargement but it was not possible to avoid it. Maybe due to the haste involved, but most likely thanks to the lack of sufficient interest, political will or wisdom, predictable challenges caused by an immense increase in diversity, were not discussed or understood and were rather swept under the carpet by both Eurocrats and their experts, gurus and advisors in the Brussels labyrinth, as well as by old-new political elites of the transition and accession countries of East and Central Europe.

The inapplicability of the old community method under completely new circumstances was overlooked by the masters of Eastern enlargement. By formally accepting the Acquis Communautaire as well as the economic conditions dictated by the EU, the accession countries contributed significantly to the enlargement of the European Single Market, without contributing to the creation of a European demos and a clear cut European polity.

The number of European market-citizens grew significantly, while their identification with the European project stagnated with rapidly fading illusions about material progress. Democracy and welfare was decoupled, causing disillusionment, apathy and anger, a response which began mostly in ‘New Europe’, but with the escalation of global crisis, has spread everywhere.

The economic calculations behind the political fandango proved to be wrong: poor and  exposed countries as peripheries might contribute to the economic stability of the centre in the short run. But increasingly complex diversity had destabilizing effects on social and political integration processes in the medium run. The boomerang effects of the one-sided and not well thought out enlargement process were felt soon after the Big Bang and were then exacerbated, together with many other symptoms of the global crisis.

Consequences, perspectives and alternative scenarios 

The exhaustion of the Community method combined with the lack of understanding of the importance of deep cultural determinants of social and economic change (“ligatures” in Ralf Dahrendorf’s terminology) became a major impediment to deepening social and political integration. National democracies, emptied out by paternalistic international institutions including the unaccountable institutions of the EU, became ‘no-choice democracies’ with increasingly frustrated citizens who felt disempowered and paralyzed at the national level and, at the same time, never empowered as European citizens on the transnational level.  As a consequence, Europe has had to face a double democracy deficit, the primary source of its escalating and deepening political crisis.

Instead of offering an alternative model of regional integration to the unregulated system of the global economy and its discredited ideology of market fundamentalism, Europe remained exposed to and entrapped by financial market players and neo-liberal economic policies. As a result, it de facto turned against its own aspiration to implement the European Social Model and equal up regional disparities. The East-West divide as well as the North-South divide is stronger or at least more obvious today than before 2004/2005. The new phase of peripheralisation conducted by German-led ordoliberalism has provoked national resistance and led to a further and sharp decline of public trust in both national and European institutions.

The political landscape of Europe is equally intriguing and troublesome. Propagating an obscurantist and misleading ideology called the ‘third way’, the left became captivated by neo-liberalism and had less and less to offer to its voters. Facing the devastating social consequences of the crisis, it simply does not have an agenda. Differences between centre left and centre right are continuously eroding. Meanwhile inwardlookingness, xenophobia, racism and exclusionary tendencies are strengthening in both visible and invisible ways. As a consequence, rightwing populism as well as extremism has been on the rise during the past half decade almost everywhere in Europe including model democracies such as France, Holland, Denmark, Sweden and Finland. De facto solidarity is shrinking instead of expanding. It is as if the spirit of Marie Le Pen is intent on replacing that of Jean Monnet.

Instead of deepening integration, the famous Franco-German engine now represented by the Merkozy-Sarkel tandem has brought the EU to the fringe of disintegration. Where does the road lead from here? Will Europe blow up, as some of its rivals and adversaries hope and suggest - or are there options and alternatives for reinventing itself?

In a recently published paper about the possible scenarios of Europe’s self-invention, Mark Leonard heralds the “near collapse of the EU’s political system” (‘Four Scenarios for the reinvention of Europe’). Not referring to his earlier predictions about Europe’s leading global role in the twenty-first century, Leonard puts forward four alternative scenarios: what he calls “asymmetric integration”; the creation of a “smaller, more integrated eurozone”, a “political union through treaty change” and finally a “deal among the vanguard “ (a Schengen-type treaty).

These scenarios are based upon the tacit assumption that an elite integration can continue, motored by the same methods and in the same spirit. In my understanding this is not the case, since the lack of democratic legitimacy and therefore the lack of trust in transnational decision making, procedures and institutions are among the deep causes for the present failure of European construction.

Instead of being based upon the economic, financial and power interests of an elite which has proved incapable of transnational leadership, a real alternative should be based upon a new concept and vision of democracy which combines the deep human aspirations for wellbeing and dignity; in other words, a combination of economic, social and legal/institutional aspects of democracy. The new method for further European construction needs to be based upon social and cultural constructivism, a permanent feedback loop and political attentiveness to the different and at the same changing values of stakeholder societies. Europeans can escape the iron cage of their nation states only if they are able to find their belonging in a larger, transnational social space. The ‘cold projects’ of the market and of open society (to borrow Dahrendorf’s words again) combined with and guaranteed by European institutions are unable to offer this feeling of belonging and thus do not contribute to a stronger European identity.

The process of an emerging European demos and clearcut polity might be neither fast, nor easy and it is certainly not possible without conflict. In fact the democratization of the European project presupposes the politicization of the rather empty European public space. Transnational European political movements, networks, coalitions of civil organizations, and so forth need to move into this vacuum to compete for the support of an increasingly transnational post-national public, and by doing so define and redefine the European public good.

Europe’s political and social turbulence, amplified by the global financial and economic crisis as well as by the crisis of democracy, has paved the way for a new public discourse and deliberation. Strongly institutionalized neo-liberalism, rapidly growing national populism and escalating far right parties and movements need to be challenged and counterbalanced by newly emerging or reinvigorated democratic movements capable of representing the interests and aspirations of local, national and regional societies.

As a result of less obvious, more undercurrent social and cultural processes of Europeanization, everyday co-operation among civil society activists, student movements, professional circles, artists, journalists and public intellectuals has become routine. The open question of the European social and political crisis is whether this emerging European society will provide enough of a basis and a framework for a new public discourse and the politicization of the empty European public space. Or will Europeans choose to submerge themselves in their national and sub-national interests.

Against all odds, the construction of Europe can be continued, but only if Europe finds a new method enabling it to step out from under the double trap of neo-liberal economic policies and rightwing populisms. Debating, deliberating and identifying the new European public good might still conclude in a new politics of de facto solidarity.



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