Since the economic recession of 2008, the EU has been hit by a series of crises, most recently the UK’s decision to leave the union following the Brexit referendum. In light of this, questions have been raised about the need to reform the whole model of European integration, with the aim of making the union more flexible and more accountable.
In this book, Richard Youngs proposes an alternative vision of European cooperation and shows how the EU must reinvent itself if it is to survive. He argues that citizens should play a greater role in European decisionmaking, that there should be radically more flexibility in the process of integration, and that Europe needs to take a new, more coherent, approach to questions of defense and security. In proposing this model for a “reset” version of Europe, Youngs reinvigorates the debate around the future of Europe and puts forward a new agenda for the future of the EU.
About the Author
Richard Youngs is a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and a professor of international relations at the University of Warwick. He has authored eleven previous books, including, most recently, Europe’s Eastern Crisis: The Geopolitics of Asymmetry (2017), The Puzzle of Non-Western Democracy (2015) and Europe in the New Middle East (2014).
“An original and provocative contribution to the continuing debate about the future of Europe. The EU at the time of writing seems to be recovering from the succession of problems created by the financial crisis and its impact on the euro. As Richard Youngs stresses, much more is needed. ‘Output democracy’ is not enough—reform must be driven by citizenship engagement and activism, and on a wide scale.”
—Anthony Giddens, member of the House of Lords
“The European Union has muddled through many crises in recent years. If it is to survive in the age of populism, and indeed to thrive, it must urgently rethink its purpose and methods. EU leaders would do well to read Richard Youngs’s book. He is surely right in arguing that the EU needs much more flexibility in what it does, and much greater democratic legitimacy for it.”
—Anton La Guardia, deputy foreign editor at the Economist and coauthor of Unhappy Union
“In a bold attempt to jumpstart new thinking on the future of the EU, Richard Youngs is not afraid to challenge conventions. He rightly encourages leaders to base Europe’s future course on European citizens’ own compasses. Let us hope his book leads to more creative solutions to the EU’s democracy challenge.”
—Marietje Schaake, member of the European Parliament
“While their governments struggle with multiple crises, European citizens feel they run into the wall of Brussels consensus. In this stimulating book, Richard Youngs rightly diagnoses the need to reconnect democratic civic energies with innovative policymaking—for a continent that is ready for a new politics.”
—Luuk van Middelaar, professor at Leiden University and author of The Passage to Europe
Europe Reset: New Directions for the EU, by Richard Youngs
—Tony Barber, Financial Times
Review—Europe Reset: New Directions for the #EU
—James Drew, EU Reporter
A many-layered crisis has plagued the European Union (EU) for a decade. European governments have struggled to keep the euro cur- rency area together, as harsh recession has swept across the continent. Recriminations over an unprecedented influx of refugees and migrants have unleashed further tensions between the EU’s member states. A series of tragic terror attacks in Europe has intensified citizens’ feelings of insecurity and raised questions about the EU’s relevance as a provider of stability. The rise of anti-establishment populist parties seems to threaten a wholesale, nativist counter-reformation against the EU’s liberal foundations. And the UK’s vote to leave the Union has left a sense of foreboding within Britain itself and throughout Europe. Often in recent years, the pillars of European integration seem to have been besieged simultaneously from within and from without.
As the EU has grappled with this series of epoch-defining crises, an expanding chorus of voices has come to call for fundamental change to European integration. For 60 years, the EU has functioned as a project of reconciliation, fusing peace building with liberal-market integration. After the strains and turmoil of recent times, many believe that a fundamental shift in rationale is overdue. Politicians and commentators have constantly stressed that the EU confronts an unprecedented range and depth of problems. Even if many believe the gravest moments of crisis may now have passed, there is widespread agreement that new forms of cooperation are required and that the EU must reinvent itself if it is to survive.
With the EU facing a multifaceted set of ongoing challenges, some circles in Brussels aptly refer to this as a ‘poly-crisis’. Given the breadth and magnitude of Europe’s troubles, it seems increasingly self-evident that things cannot continue as they are. Politicians and diplomats assert that new and innovative ways of rebuilding European cooperation are needed after this long period of adversity. In the last several years, few days have gone by without opinion pieces being published insisting that fundamental reform is needed to prevent the whole European project from dissolving in acrimony. In 2017, Emmanuel Macron’s election has engendered a renewed sense of optimism; Angela Merkel’s re-election in September 2017 was less than fully convincing, but also offers reassurance. But both these leaders have frequently warned that European integration needs to be rethought if further crises are to be averted.
Britain’s exit will have profound ramifications not just for the UK but for the broader process of European integration; it is the most dramatic wake-up call to date that the prevailing model of integration has left many people feeling alienated from the EU’s complex and distant decision-making. The broader, much dissected populist surge now rubs uneasily against the EU project’s core tenets. While Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders did not win power in spring 2017, the factors feeding populism are still present across Europe.
Meanwhile, the eurozone crisis is far from definitively resolved. The euro has suffered numerous near-death experiences since 2008. The protracted and unedifying negotiations over Greece’s third bail-out package in July 2015 took the EU closer to the precipice of self-destruction than ever before. While successive deals have been cobbled together between Greece and its creditors, the vitriol traded between governments has left a bitter aftertaste. The prospect of another bail-out crisis hovers constantly on the horizon and unresolved tensions still haunt policy debates in the eurozone.
The EU’s international challenges are no less serious than these internal travails. The surge of refugees into Europe has combined with terror attacks to leave many citizens feeling acutely exposed. Security troubles have increasingly placed a strain on the EU’s integration model. The international context is today not a self-contained domain of remote diplomacy, but an integral part of the EU’s own crisis – it is an additional factor that enjoins deliberation on new modes of integration. Concerns over insecurity have spurred new commitments to deepen integration, but on occasion seem to be loosening rather than tightening the bearings that hold together current forms of European cooperation. In addition, for the first time Europe now faces a US president explicitly critical of the EU project. Donald Trump’s erratic foreign policy more broadly exacerbates Europe’s vulnerabilities to global threats.
Even as a sense of reborn potential grows in EU circles, these varied challenges remain unresolved. In its next phase of development, the EU requires an alternative approach to cooperation between European governments and citizens. Many politicians have made this point, and have done so over many years. Thinkers, writers, diplomats and journalists have argued that the EU cannot simply carry on in piecemeal, muddling-through mode. While Brexit would seem to make a change of approach almost unavoidable, the case for rethinking European integration was a strong one long before the UK held its epoch-making referendum. Now a new model must deal with the design problems of the euro, populism, security challenges and differences between member states over refugees and migrants, while also finding a way of keeping the UK constructively involved in continental cooperation. And it must do all this against a background narrative of uncertainty about the global order.
A Radical Shift
Clearly, this poly-crisis poses searching questions about the way the EU is designed. And yet extensive and radical change to European cooperation is nowhere near being given serious consideration. The common narrative of recent years – across the spectrum from Europhiles to Eurosceptics, from writers to politicians, from engaged activists to worldly diplomats – has been that things cannot go on as before. Yet despite the seismic shock of Britain’s exit, the basic forms of EU cooperation continue largely unchanged and reform efforts remain anaemic.
Meeting in Rome in March 2017 to celebrate the European Communities’ sixtieth anniversary, leaders promised to work up ideas for a fresh start. However, they failed to identify what this might entail. The anniversary sparked a positive burst of renewed commitments to European unity, but no concrete plan for recalibrating the EU. It fostered a stirring sense of defiance against Euro-detractors and against Brexit – and this took precedence over any enquiring spirit of reinvention. Deflating months of anticipation and high expectation, the Rome Declaration agreed at the anniversary summit reads like standard Euro-speak – an awkward collection of each member state’s particular concerns and a well-worn list of generic policy aims, bereft of radically new ideas.1
Existing routes to cooperation may have crumbled, but governments have done little proactively or enthusiastically to explore possible new paths to solidarity between states and between citizens. On the one hand, pro-Europeans now push with renewed confidence for ‘more Europe’, wanting powers to be centralised at the European level in line with integration templates that have dominated discussions for 60 years. On the other hand, doubters insist on ‘less Europe’. Although many politicians and officials recognise the need to move beyond the ‘more versus less’ dichotomy, in practice they have not yet advanced anything very concrete or immediately operational as a different template for EU integration. Moreover, to the extent that many believe the EU has now turned the corner into a more positive phase, the clamour for qualitatively new ideas may once again be ebbing.
This backdrop shapes the most pressing questions facing Europe today. Is it really the case that many core tenets of EU integration need to be rethought, or is business as usual in fact a perfectly viable option? If the so-called ‘European project’ of integration and cooperation really does need to be reinvented, how is this to be done? With so much febrile discord in recent years, what is needed to rebuild solidarity between Europe’s citizens and between its different governments? Is this at all possible? Can the EU bend, so as not to break? Does the ailing patient simply need a stronger dose of the integration medicine, or does it need a different curative regime altogether?
While calls are heard for far-reaching change to and within the EU, such change fails to materialise. Many talk of the need for more flexible and looser approaches to European integration, and yet agreement remains elusive on what these might look like. Even those who claim to be putting forward extensive reform plans are not going nearly far enough in the scale of change they envision. For a decade, the EU has been hit by successive waves of crisis – economic, political and security- and identity-related – and yet the ideas for change that are on policy-makers’ tables today largely tinker around the edges of the prevailing model of integration.
Under this standard model, integration is defined as the pursuit of an ever-wider range of centralised EU policy competences, governed by firm legal rules and embedded decision-making processes involving the European Commission, the European Parliament and other supra- national bodies; combined with increasingly powerful roles for national governments in select issue areas; all applied with uniformity except where states negotiate otherwise; and run with only relatively weak channels of bottom-up democratic input. The model stands relatively unchanged after many years and appears to be immutable against the raging storm of crisis. In its resistance to far-reaching change, the EU sometimes seems akin to a church, in which the sermons may respond to evolving concerns but the liturgy brooks no change.
This raises the uncomfortable possibility that the EU is in fact beyond any major degree of qualitative reform. Given that calls for reform have been heard for a long time and yet very little has been done in response, some argue that there are only two options: either the EU ploughs ahead towards full political union and deeper integration based on the existing model of integration, or governments decide it is time to disband the Union. The tendency to frame the debate in terms of such a binary choice helps explain why the EU has not morphed into something different – and why European leaders muddle along trying to avoid fundamental change.
Taking a different approach, in this book I argue that qualitatively different forms of European cooperation are both possible and necessary. I explain why existing ideas for EU reform fall short of what is required to salvage and revive the spirit of solidarity. And I try to think through what a truly radical change would look like. Many articles and books call for an EU that is more democratic and gives citizens a stronger say in decisions – indeed, this has become an almost default line of advocacy. I attempt to go further than existing accounts by laying out concrete ideas for how very general conceptual thinking on a flexible, less uniform and more participative process of European integration could be translated into reality. I also go further than standard analysis by examining emerging citizens’ initiatives.
The book elaborates both a different kind of analytical explanation of the poly-crisis and a series of concrete policy ideas. It proposes a genuinely new beginning for European integration. It explores the means of restoring solidarity from a kind of ground zero for EU cooperation. This is a path that rejects standard ideas for deeper integration but also eschews sceptics’ doubts over the viability of the whole European project. It is also different from proposals for a minimalist ‘Europe of nations’ based on the restoration of traditional governmental sovereignty.
My notion of an alternative Europe is one driven by bottom-up citizen participation. It is likely to house a degree of both deeper centralised integration and reinforced nation-state policies. But it will be neither a United States of Europe nor a Europe of nation states; nor will it be a two-speed Europe. Rather, it will incorporate an eclectic mix of policy dynamics, and a balance of cooperation and diversity – a balance that will be more directly determined by citizens as lead protagonists.
To these ends, I advocate three levels of policy initiatives. First, I map out a ‘Compact of European Citizens’. Second, I offer a template for radical flexibility in European integration. And third, I propose novel means of pursuing European security. I explain in detail what each of these would entail and how each policy idea differs from the existing and well-worn integration script.
Of course, venturing concrete options for change will open the book up to objections that talk of ‘bringing citizens back in’ is far too starry-eyed, as today’s fractious European populations are unlikely to agree on crucial issues. It seems to me that this response misunderstands the case for democracy. Deeper democracy is needed precisely because differences are so marked, not as a means of magically conjuring pan-European harmony but as a process necessary for managing diversity and divergence. Far from advocating a vapid ‘people power’, I argue that more meaningful citizen participation could help reinforce the formal, institutional power that is needed to deal with Europe’s contemporary challenges.
In a similar vein, many insist either that far-reaching change is not possible or that radical reordering would traduce the founding ethos of the European project. I believe the very opposite. The ethos of the European dream is more likely to flounder if novel, out-of-the-box options are not considered. Governments, EU institutions, analysts, civil society organisations (CSOs) and other actors will look increasingly false in their frequent rhetorical calls for new ideas if in practice they then baulk at any radical change to existing integration processes and policies.
Of course, many books and articles have been written on one or another dimension of the EU crisis. My contribution adds to these accounts by linking together the different aspects, drawing on updated empirical information and reflecting on the future of European integration through the prism of participative citizenship. Within this general framework, and against the perturbed backdrop of multiple crises, I focus on three specific strands of possible reform. These strands reflect the standard narrative that the future EU must be more democratic, more flexible and more secure.
- Participative Europe. I ask how the EU can be democratised, after different elements of the poly-crisis have made the Union’s notorious democratic deficit far more acute. How can we actu- ally ‘bring the citizens back in’? Can a sense of solidarity and European identity be rescued from the bottom up? How can European politicians engage with sectors of the population that have begun to turn against the EU?
- Flexible Europe. There is a general feeling that the EU needs to become looser and more flexible. But what does this mean in practice, beyond minor tinkering with the current institutional set-up? What policies can be developed that take on board the widening diversity between member states that the crisis has revealed? How do we rebuild a core and basic sense of European solidarity that allows simultaneously for a healthy expression of diversity? How far can such flexibility prove itself valuable to the challenges related to Brexit?
- Secure Europe. I explore how security imperatives now raise questions for external strategy, for internal policies and for the general design of the EU project. This is because I believe that this is an integral part of the EU crisis, and not simply a tangential add-on. What kind of new thinking is needed to address European citizens’ concerns over security? How must the traditional model of integration adapt to make the EU more secure within a changing global order? What can be done in EU foreign policy to help rebuild intra-EU solidarity and the legitimacy of the overall European project?
The EU’s overarching challenge is to combine these different strands of reform – participation, flexibility and security – and address possible tensions and trade-offs between them. Is it really possible to hand back ownership and direction to citizens without cooperation collapsing and reactionary isolationism prevailing? And is it really possible to have a more flexible, less centralised, less heavily bureaucratic and less constraining model of integration that does not simply entail less cooperation between states and between citizens?
Europe is caught in an impasse: most agree that cooperation is needed to deal with the battery of serious challenges that the Union finds itself obliged to tackle, and yet citizens now say they want account- ability brought back closer to home. Is there any way this circle can be squared? Can pathways to effective cooperation be mapped out that also address people’s apparent desire to recover local identities and democratic control? Again, seeking to move beyond the somewhat idealised menus of reform routinely served up, I explore these tensions and look for ways in which an alternative Europe can embrace rather than breezily wish away such trade-offs.
A Civic Ethos
In order to address these questions, the book develops its argument in a number of steps. It explains the structural nature of the EU’s crisis, and then suggests why existing reform options are misdirected, before moving on to lay out ideas for change based on a European civic ethos. After this introduction, Chapter 1 disaggregates the different dimensions of the EU’s poly-crisis. It explains why, underlying each specific area of policy turmoil, the crisis denotes a set of challenges to the basic structure of European integration. I contend that, even if care is needed not to exaggerate the extent of the crisis, this structural dimension cannot be dismissed.
Chapter 2 examines the ideas most commonly advocated to over- come the current crisis. It laments that most debates replay long-standing ways of analysing the EU, rather than seeking a qualitatively different prism through which integration can be assessed and revised. Pressing ahead with deeper integration is unlikely to address the roots of the EU crisis. Conversely, if governments start to unwind integration, or in some cases choose to detach themselves from the European project – as the UK is now doing – the autonomy they gain is unlikely to help them solve today’s problems. The standard ‘more versus less’ dichotomy is a deeply unsatisfactory framework for thinking about the future of EU cooperation.
Having mapped out the nature of the poly-crisis and the challenge it represents, the book explores alternative ways forward. Chapter 3 unpacks the EU’s growing democracy problem. It examines the lack of effective democratic accountability and legitimacy that cuts across the different dimensions of the EU’s predicament. Talk of the Union’s democracy shortfall has been prominent during the crises of the last decade. The chapter argues, however, that it is important to distinguish between what are in fact quite different components of this snowballing problem.
Based on this diagnostic, Chapters 4 and 5 map out a different route to democratising the integration project, based on open-ended and more critical civic engagement. European cooperation needs to move beyond a focus on union between states to a notion of partner- ship between citizens. The EU must above all be an amplifier for citizens’ voices. This will entail combined processes of direct and indirect democratic participation. I detail the civic initiatives that have either emerged or gathered momentum in the wake of the crisis, and explain how these need to be extended in more ambitious directions. To this end, I propose the aforementioned ‘Compact of European Citizens’. Crucially, this flows from a bottom-up framework of political change and power contestation – a framework that offers a more promising route forward than existing EU reform options because it works with the grain of unfolding social development.
Chapter 6 contends that an overriding feature of today’s Europe is diversity: a growing divergence in policy preferences, aims and values between countries and between societies. In a more divergent Europe it is unlikely that any single solution to given problems can be acceptable or appropriate to all. The EU’s challenge today is not so much to find single, optimal policy templates, but to allow different parts of the European population different ways of expressing broadly common goals. The chapter argues against the notions of a two-speed or multiple-speed Europe that have been prominent in recent debates. Rather, it advocates a more radical form of flexible integration based around practically oriented policy communities; flexibility within and not merely between member states; and a concept of ‘democratic flexibility’ that is very different from the forms of EU-variable geometry that experts and politicians have traditionally advocated.
Chapter 7 examines the security and international dimensions of the crisis. While Europe needs more commonly and more effectively managed borders, the EU risks relying too heavily on an assumption that such controls are the primary way to guarantee European security and thus save the integration project. The chapter proposes new forms of interaction with the outside world that could do more to revive the spirit of European cooperation – novel forms that go beyond the simple and standard injunction that the EU needs ‘a more common foreign and security policy’. It also suggests ways to give international policy a citizens’ dimension. All this invites new perspectives, to the extent that analysis of EU institutional redesigns invariably omits the security aspect. Today, this aspect is as much a part of the poly-crisis as internal institutional questions, and a better fusion is required between external and internal European challenges.
Solidarity From Scratch
My central concern through the book is to turn the debate about democratic reform in a more positive direction. When political elites and many analysts acknowledge that a new, more inclusive and flexible Union is required, they tend to couch this as a grudging tactical adjustment to citizens’ disgruntlement. At most they see wider civic participation as an unavoidable expedient – as damage limitation to placate a restless populace. In contrast, I conceive a reform impulse led by civic empowerment as a positive opportunity that might open up the possibility of a better form of European cooperation and make EU institutional capacities more effective.
The European enigma is that a more malleable integration mould is needed to salvage the Union’s core spirit. The EU should be reimagined as an umbrella framework that safeguards citizens’ different policy and ideational choices – and allows these choices both to coexist benignly and to be fashioned through local and national, as well as European participative channels. Citizens need reasons to see the Union as empowering, rather than forbidding and didactic. Solidarity should mean defending the right to make different choices within a common web of mutual support. When convergence around a certain set of policy prescriptions takes place, it must come about from a gradual and bottom-up process of local demand and conviction, not through the diktats of a supposedly enlightened and well-meaning elite.
The future model of integration must build a balance of productive roles for citizens, sub-national actors, nation states and European rules. And it must ensure that these different levels of cooperation fuse together far more harmoniously than has been the case so far – recognising that top-down and bottom-up dynamics are equally important and need to be more evenly balanced. Participation is needed at multiple levels – local, national and European. To the extent that much effective participation will be structured at the national level this would accord the arena of the nation state more of a role than most templates for deeper integration allow for. Yet this is not a role that privileges the traditional notion of national sovereignty, but rather one that conceives and harnesses the national democratic sphere as one vital component of a new process of participative integration.
Some will feel it is not at all possible to enhance flexibility and solidarity at the same time, and that there is a zero-sum choice to be made between national or local leeway and deeper cooperation between member states. This book takes a different line. The combination of popular self-determination with effective policy coordination will certainly not be easy. But the trajectory of the EU’s crisis suggests these are far from being mutually exclusive, incompatible options.
There is certainly a problem with sceptics now calling for more direct popular participation simply as a means to undermine European integration. However, this disingenuous ploy should not blind us to the ways in which more participative and direct accountability can serve the European project positively. The tendency to conflate calls for direct popular input with Eurosceptic nativism is erroneous. I certainly do not contend that citizen participation is capable of dissolving the tensions that currently beset European integration or is a substitute for more effective formal institutional power – far from it. Yet giving citizens more control and more ability to influence decisions is surely one potential way to mollify their current introspection, soften their distrust of the EU and help repair today’s badly damaged solidarity between nations. Such participation can be the much-needed yeast to Europe’s unleavened integration project.
The climb to an alternative Europe will clearly be a steep one. My overarching contention is that that the EU’s rethink must include new voices and involve a fully participative process of consultation. A reset European project must at its core be about people-based democracy and, through this, about finding effective ways to build a new spirit of mutualism between citizens. To avert a wholesale meltdown of the European dream, the EU’s whole raison d’être must evolve, from reconciliation between nations to democracy among citizens.