A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

No Ever Closer Union


Pro-Europeans have long avoided a debate on the end goal of EU integration. It’s time for honesty: ever closer cooperation between member states is the only realistic way forward.

© REUTERS/Yves Herman

In the run-up to the European Parliament elections, none of the German political parties has shown quite as much ambition as the Free Democratic Party (FDP). In its election program, adopted at the end of January 2019, the pro-business liberal party calls for the convening of a (second) European Constitutional Convention by 2022 at the latest. And it also clearly defines such a convention’s mandate: to create a Europe that is democratic, decentralized, and federal.

The noble aim of transforming the existing association of states into a single federal state has rarely been invoked in recent years. Back in January 2012, in an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Chancellor Angela Merkel outlined her vision of a federal future for the European Union: in the course of a long process, the EU member states would transfer more competencies to the European Commission, “which will then work like a European government. This requires a strong parliament. The European Council, which brings together heads of government, will form the second chamber. Finally, we have the European Court of Justice as the supreme court. That could be what Europe’s political union looks like at some point in the future, as I say, and after many interim steps.”

One and a half years later, during the Bundestag election campaign in August 2013, Merkel set a starkly different tone in an interview with the Phoenix television station, arguing “More Europe is more than just a transfer of competencies from the nation state to Europe, rather I can also have more Europe by getting involved more strictly and intensively in coordinating national action with others. That is also a form of more Europe.”

Fourteen years after the introduction of the euro, the German position on European policy began to converge with that of the British. The desire to keep the United Kingdom in the EU was one of the main reasons for Merkel’s commitment to intergovernmentalism. The chancellor’s change of course was also a signal to then French President François Hollande, who was elected in May 2012 and with whom no agreement had yet been reached on political union and the reform of the EU. It was not by chance that Merkel referred in the interview to the example of the Netherlands. In June 2013, its Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans had declared in a letter to the Dutch Members of Parliament that the time of an “ever closer union” in every possible policy area had come to an end. In the future, the motto should be: “European where necessary, national where possible.”

The EU’s Democratic Deficit

Timmermans, who is now vice-president of the European Commission and the European Social Democrats’ Spitzenkandidat for the European elections, was saying what most European governments thought. If one interprets the formula of “ever closer union” in the sense of a federal deepening of the European Union, today there may still be some approval for that notion in Luxembourg and Belgium and in parts of the German public, but hardly anywhere else. Anyone who, like the FDP in their election program, wants to commit EU member states to this goal won’t bring Europe closer together, but will instead divide it. This is not a consequence of the growing national populism throughout Europe. It is rather a consequence of the EU’s democratic deficit or, to put it another way, of the progressive independence of the European executive power—a development which was accelerated with the Maastricht Treaty at the end of 1993 and which gave populist, anti-EU parties a significant boost in many member states.

One frequent suggestion for tackling the EU’s democratic deficit is to strengthen the European Parliament and thus gradually turn the European Union into a parliamentary democracy. What speaks against this is the fact that the European Parliament has far less democratic legitimacy than national parliaments. If it were composed according to the democratic principle of “one person, one vote,” it would need to comprise of several thousand MEPs in order to provide adequate representation for the population of small member states. There are therefore good, even compelling, reasons for favoring the smaller member states at the expense of the larger ones. Given the parliament’s still limited rights, this lack of democratic legitimacy is acceptable. But it should not be denied. Dieter Grimm, a former judge on the German constitutional court, was right when he wrote in 2015, “The EU does not have sufficient resources for self-legitimation. For some time to come it will depend on the legitimacy it receives from the member states. A full parliamentarization, however, would immediately put a stop to this. It is therefore not in the democratic interest.”

“More Europe” even if the price is less democracy: to pursue such a policy is to harm the European project. Those who want to further develop this project according to the basic principles of democracy must therefore strengthen the “responsibility for integration” of the national parliaments. (It was Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court that introduced this term into the public debate with its ruling on the Lisbon Treaty in June 2009). The European policy decisions of the national parliaments can be better coordinated and synchronized; a joint committee could be helpful here. The democratic legitimacy of the EU relies on the support of the states that make up the bloc. Those who think that the European Parliament can replace the national parliaments in the longer term are chasing an ahistorical utopia and inadvertently promoting what they believe they are fighting against: nationalism.

Shifting to “Ever Closer Cooperation”

Europhiles have grounds for self-criticism. The nationalist parties would not be so popular if the proponents of European integration had not for so long stubbornly avoided fundamental issues such as the future of nations and nation states in a united Europe and with it the finality of the unification process. The paradigm shift from “ever closer union” to “ever closer cooperation,” which Germany and its Chancellor also undertook incrementally, was not the subject of a government declaration and parliamentary debates. The European political initiatives that French President Emmanuel Macron put forward in the summer of 2017 didn’t just remain unanswered because Germany first had to hold a Bundestag election and then protracted coalition negotiations. Rather, there was a lack of strategic clarity in the Chancellery and in the party headquarters of both Merkel’s Christian Democrats and their coalition partners, the Social Democrats, about what Germany actually wanted.

European elections are much more likely than national elections to tempt parties to promise their supporters heaven and earth. The propagation of a federal European state by the FDP is just one recent example. The Greens, for example, are demanding a European immigration law, the Left Party a one-off millionaire levy in all EU states, a ban on arms exports, and the dissolution of both the border control agency Frontex and the border surveillance system EUROSUR. Meanwhile, CDU leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and the SPD are calling for a joint permanent seat for the EU on the UN Security Council, and the SPD also wants the transformation of Europe Day on May 9 into a trans-European Union holiday. A more plausible demand from the Social Democrats is to replace the unanimity principle with majority decisions when it comes to foreign policy decisions in the European Council of Ministers. But apart from the fact that this change would first have to be decided unanimously, there is another problem: as became apparent during the migration crisis in autumn 2015, politically controversial majority decisions can deepen existing divisions. The abolition of unanimity is therefore unlikely to have a unifying effect.

Talking European, Acting National

It is not just German parties that like to make promises during European election campaigns, which sound good but are unenforceable in practice. When Emmanuel Macron, in his “Letter to the Europeans” in early March, spoke out in favor of a “minimum wage adapted to each country and renegotiated every year,” he was just appealing to left-of-center voters in his own country. But he can hardly think that a country like Bulgaria would agree to a regulation that it believes would damage its competitiveness. Should other, economically stronger countries, such as Germany and France, step into the breach? That all remains unclear. As far as europhile rhetoric is concerned, Macron surpasses all other EU heads of state and government. But when he talks about European sovereignty and a European army, he does not mean surrendering French sovereignty. France’s exclusive control over both its permanent seat on the UN Security Council and its nuclear weapons is sacrosanct. What may at first sound supranational are in reality ambiguous metaphors from Macron.

Of course, German politicians also understand the art of talking European and acting national. The construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline is one particularly striking example of this. Another is the SPD call for a joint European army. The party seemed to barely give a thought to the fact that the German parliament has to consent to any out-of-area Bundeswehr deployments—unless they are hoping to persuade all the European states to allow the European Parliament to have a similar oversight role, i.e. to create a “German Europe” in terms of defense policy. As far as asylum and migration are concerned, the same applies: as in 2015, there is still today a tendency on the left to elevate Germany to the rank of Europe’s leading moral nation. In the 19th century, a satirical verse from Adelbert von Chamisso’s “The Night Watchman” that mocked conservatives was often quoted in Germany, “And the king absolutely/If he does our will.” These days, the center-left in Germany seems to be following a slightly different motto: “And Europe absolutely, if it does our will.”

At the same time, a number of vitally important issues are barely being mentioned during this year’s European election campaign in Germany. Is the EU still a community of values? It has so far been unable to do much about Hungary, Poland, and Romania’s open disregard for the rule of law, as laid down in the Copenhagen Accession Criteria of 1993 and the Lisbon Treaty of 2009. With some member states having made themselves so economically dependent on Putin’s Russia or China that they no longer willing or capable of supporting EU decisions critical of Moscow or Beijing and therefore repeatedly block them, what remains of the argument that Europe must speak with one voice on important foreign policy issues ? How can the EU counter Donald Trump’s unilateralism when it is currently so divided on fundamental normative issues? What remains of the idea of an avant-garde core Europe when even Italy, a founding member, is set on a collision course with “Brussels” and the EU’s common set of rules?

Since amendments to the European treaties require the agreement of all member states, it is in most cases an illusion to believe that obvious grievances can be eliminated by amending those treaties. But there is nothing to prevent liberal democracies in the EU from working more closely together and thus creating a counterweight to the “illiberal democracies” before their number increases, for example with the possible accession of problematic candidate countries like Serbia.

Modesty and Realism

A better coordination of liberal democracies is also urgently needed outside of the EU. Even after it leaves, the United Kingdom will continue to be closely linked to the states of the EU due to its political culture. The same is true for the former British colonies of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. And despite Trump, this also applies to the United States. It’s not only in the area of defense that Europe remains dependent on close cooperation with the US. What we like to call “European values” are, in fact, Western values, that have to a large extent been shaped by America. If the West is to have a future, the liberal democracies of Europe must do their utmost to counter further transatlantic estrangement.

Populists and nationalists are benefiting from the omissions and mistakes made by the defenders of liberal democracy. A particularly serious mistake was and is the fact that they are evading and even suppressing the question of the finality of the European unification process. The EU is a group of post-classical nation states. Post-classical nation states differ from older, classic, fully sovereign nation states in that they jointly exercise some of their sovereign rights and have transferred others to supranational institutions.

Those who say that it is necessary to dissolve the nation states into a United Europe overlook the fact that the overwhelming majority of Europeans would not even consider giving up their traditional nation state. Moreover, the nation state in Europe is still the safest haven for the rule of law, the welfare state, and democracy. In order to preserve and further develop these achievements, there is a need for ever closer cooperation between those European states that are committed to these values. This goal is more modest than that of a European federal state or a European republic. But it is more realistic and democratic than any supposedly europhile utopia.