The EU at a Crossroads: Where from and where next?

04 Nov  –  Written by Niccolò Fantini

Crises seem to pile up one after the other in Europe recently. As tensions were already on the rise globally after the financial crisis of 2008, the Covid-19 pandemic tested the very foundations of the European Union. The challenge posed by an invisible enemy brought to the surface the several constraints and limits, but also opportunities, that the European project presents. When it seemed that it was indeed possible for the EU to pull together and face the tide with one voice, a new wave hit the Continent with full force. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine represents a game-changer for the European Union, with a war that has broken out at its borders and a direct moral involvement into the conflict. With a constant escalation since that fateful day on 24 February, Europe is increasingly being pushed by various factors into difficult situations and existential questions about its past, present and future.

While we are talking about different shocks and hurdles, they are all nevertheless interconnected in the way they call on EU governments, peoples and institutions to respond with new and creative means. In the case of Ukraine, for instance, common actions on sanctions and defence investments, not to talk about the quick political agreement on enlargement, were all taken in record time in the face of previous stasis. While this was indeed a step forward, the task seems, as with the reaction to Covid-19, to be incomplete. Indeed, the pandemic offered a chance for Brussels to show its value, and the decision to centrally coordinate the purchase of vaccines turned out to be a success in some respects. However, it also blatantly displayed the deep structural and governance faults that plague the EU’s effectiveness. While talks of a stronger health union multiplied and concrete steps were taken, it is clear that fundamental constitutional asymmetries obstruct the full potential of Brussels’ role in this and many other fields.

This series wants to be an opportunity to take stock of the European integration process from the perspective of structural and governance issues. In other words, I will attempt to draw a clearer picture of what works and what doesn’t in Europe today, of how we have to face these challenges and, finally, of what kind of reactions or solutions we should prioritise to move forward. My main thesis, which I will set out in more detail in the next piece, rests on the aforementioned dialectic tension between political possibility and constitutional reality. To do this, I will be guided by ideas from Karl Polanyi’s landmark ‘The Great Transformation’, but also by more recent contributions to the debate on globalisation such as the excellent one by Dani Rodrik in his ‘Straight Talk on Trade.

The key theoretical assumption from which much of my analysis will spring is that the political and the economic realms cannot be kept separated without serious consequences. There has been a long-lasting trend, recognisable since the advent of modern capitalism and the industrial revolution, to conceive these two dimensions as different remits. Most notably, it was Adam Smith who envisioned a discipline of economics, and thus a whole system behind it, that is not only separated from the state as a political actor, but which is also self-sustaining if so isolated. The implication of this idea in the long run is that there can be two parallel social institutions, that of the market and that of the state, which may influence each other but which can move along different tracks. 

The European project, together with much of the recent neoliberal globalisation push, was built precisely on this notion. The Single European Act of 1986 and then the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 laid the groundwork for a very large common market, establishing the “Four Freedoms”: the freedom of movement for people, goods, capital and services. Such tearing down of barriers, then concretely implemented in some cases with the Schengen Area, was of course an important achievement towards European integration. However, it was not accompanied by a concurrent and adequate re-alignment of sovereignty from the nation-state to the European dimension. 

More specifically, “political supremacy appears to lie with neither the member states nor the supra-state organs of the EU, but between them all in different ways and combinations according to the policy area”. This fragmented and torn-apart constitutional distribution of real political power is especially problematic for two reasons. First, it leads to situations in which murky distributions of competencies among Union and Member States (MS) are not aligned within several policy areas that overlap and are interdependent. The following articles will dig deeper into some of these examples. Second, the constitutional set-up of the European project generates a paradox whereby political possibility and political reality are decoupled. In other words, while more and more rules are decided in Brussels, the political culture in Europe still remains focused on the Nation State as the main locus of political realisation. 

“Responsibility without responsiveness alienates the citizens, while responsiveness to the detriment of responsibility puts national governments at odds with the EU rules and at risk of sanctions.” This conundrum squeezes MS into a position of incapability and inefficacy in delivering, which can only in turn lead to major resentment and apathy on the side of the population. The so-called ‘Dahrendorf Quandary (or ‘Rodrick Trilemma’) pits globalisation, social cohesion and democracy against each other, claiming that one cannot have all at the same time. Europeanisation has developed as a spin-off to globalisation, and the EU should indeed be a project aimed at resolving these tensions by transcending borders and aligning economic expansion with political accountability. This attempt, however, seems to have stalled for several reasons. Moreover, the wave of anti-integrationist and neo-nationalist approaches embodied by (far-)right movements across the Continent that promise to bring back democratic accountability and economic inclusion will paradoxically only exacerbate the situation further, by perpetuating the stasis that leads to neither closer integration nor (wishful) isolation.

With the Conference on the Future of Europe now concluded and a big question mark on its follow-up, this is the moment for a meaningful assessment of these key structural issues, which should be rooted in vision and bold ideas. In the next article of this series, I will dig deeper into the theoretical assumptions behind the separation between politics and economics. In this piece I will also take aim at the technocratic doctrine and rhetoric that have permeated the European project, with dangerous consequences.

The following article will then look at the fundamental problem of a European Union with more and more competencies that are not followed by the necessary implementing tools. I will take case studies ranging from the management of the pandemic to the tackling of migrant flows, including more recent dilemmas such as Germany’s “go-alone” strategy on the energy crisis.

The third publication will take it from there to discuss two vexed but connected questions: those surrounding the reform of the unanimity rule and the politicisation of European institutions. Indeed, I will demonstrate that the inter-governmental character of EU decision making, while in itself profoundly undemocratic and self-replicating because of the access it provides to vested, neoliberal and minority interests, cannot be easily overcome without serious changes in both institutional structures and political culture. In the closing article, I will review the implication of my previous analyses and propose some concrete actions and solutions to these hurdles.

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Recommended citation:

Fantini, N. (2022) The EU at a Crossroads: Where from and where next?, IDRN, 04 November. Available at: [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].