For decades the process of European integration was an elite-driven process supported by a “permissive consensus” of the population as a whole. While the populations of European states were hardly involved in shaping the process of integration, and were almost never asked for their explicit approval (in elections or referendums), the elites could count on a basic level of unexpressed support.
The rise of so-called “Euroscepticism”, at least since the signing of the Maastricht treaty in 1992 - which transformed the mainly economic European Community into a much more political and social European Union - has meant that this permissive consensus is no longer a given. In fact, with recent popular revolts, such as the rejection of the European convention in referendums in France and the Netherlands in 2005, some commentators have started to speak of a “constraining dissensus”.
There is increasing evidence that this dissensus exists beyond the level of public sentiment. Euroscepticism has long been limited to minor parties on the political fringes, notably on the radical left and right; but it has well established itself in the contemporary political mainstream. For instance, the fourth largest political group in the current European parliament is (soft) Eurosceptic: the European Conservatives and Reformist Group, which includes (among others) the main rightwing parties in the Czech Republic, Poland, and Britain.
The post-2008 economic and financial crisis has undermined the permissive consensus even further. For the first time many Europeans are directly faced with consequences of European integration. The idea that Dutch and Germans (among others) have to bail out Greeks and Portuguese (among others) to ensure that their social benefits are at times better than their own, has had a profound effect on people’s perception of the European Union.
No longer is European integration simply a good, if abstract, idea, with some tangible positive effects (e.g. the euro, no border controls); from now on, Europeans are truly aware of the less welcome economic and financial consequences of European integration, and many (particularly in the northwest) are not amused.
European elites as well as European publics have been changing their perceptions. Although the exact start of the “crisis of the European idea” is difficult to pinpoint, the last decades have shown little elite debate about Europe’s future. With the exception of people like Belgian ex-premier Guy Verhofstadt, now chairperson of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe in the European parliament, no important politicians defend a federalist Europe openly anymore. In fact, whether Europhile or Europhobic, no major politician or party group propagates a clear and elaborate ideal of European integration!
A time for clarity
The void of debates on the future is filled by the actual and symbolic consequences of recent actions and debates. Here I will refer only to one of the most important of each. The action is the decision of the Danish government to reimpose border controls, in an alleged effort to stem the entrance of criminals from eastern European. True, the border controls will be enforced by customs-agents rather than by border-guards; but this still directly opposes the spirit of the Schengen treaty, which regulates the free transfer of people across much of the European Union.
The debate is about the euro and the eurozone, which predates the recent economic crisis but is heightened by it. Since 2009, high-ranking politicians in countries such as Greece and Italy have speculated about a possible withdrawal from the eurozone. So far no action has been taken in this direction, and most politicians - when confronted by media and political pressure - have denied any such intention; but the current debate about the eurozone is no longer only about who is going to join next, but also about who might be better (off) leaving it.
The major significance of both developments is at this time less practical than psychological. For the first time since the start of the process of European integration in the early 1950s, the implicit idea of uninterrupted progress toward further integration is being challenged across four axes: in ideas and practices, by elites and publics.
More than ever there is a need for an open debate on European integration - but this time a debate that explores all options, including the return to a less integrated European Union. This will require courage and vision from all political actors, Europhile and Europhobic alike (and all points between). The consequences of European integration - economical, political and social - are too far-reaching for the process to be allowed to linger on without any clear direction.