As I explained in my previous column, all these questions about the fundamental challenges faced by the EU touch upon current debates among globalization and European integration specialists. Many agree with the hypothesis that the EU has come to a point where it will have to choose between democracy, further integration and national sovereignty. According to the advocates of this “political trilemma” theory, the EU can’t have it all. It can combine two of the three but never have all three simultaneously and in full. In the terms of The Economist: Break-up would mean the end of the integration process and would restore the classic superiority of the nation state and national democracy. On the other hand, a European super state would mean full integration with the accompanying transfer of democratic checks and balances to the European level at the expense of the sovereignty and institutions of the nation state.
Putting options forward in such a blunt manner makes good headlines of course and it stimulates easy answers by politicians who seek to profit from alarmist calls to make a quick and decisive decision. In several European countries we can witness the rise of populist parties, on the right and on the left, that try to combine their old hostility towards Islam and migration with updated strong criticism of the EU and further integration. They want to return to the strong and protective nation state and do not believe that democracy can work on a supranational level. Their political opponents consist of the old conservative and social democratic parties which were traditionally staunchly pro-European, and modern liberal and green parties that have accepted the need for further integration and are willing to experiment with democracy beyond the nation state. The problem for the anti-populists is that their answers, at least for the moment, are not very convincing. As Stefan Lehne, former European top diplomat and now visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, put it: The pro-Europeans still have not found the right concepts “to save the euro without losing the European electorate.”
As The Economist itself concluded, the options are not black and white and the best solution will probably be situated in the vast gray area in between. The influential weekly proposed a sort of federalism “lite” to save the euro that includes some forms of further integration like a eurozone-wide system of bank supervision and a limited mutualization of debt. It explicitly argued against transferring everything to the EU level.
In an interesting blog, US-based Professor Peter Lindseth comes to a similar conclusion. He agrees with those who foresee neither a break-up nor a firm step in the direction of fully fledged integration, but expect the EU to muddle through. A majority of Europeans simply do not want to give up on the EU or a common currency but they are also skeptical about giving too much power to Brussels and leaving all democratic control to the European Parliament. In Lindseth’s words: “No doubt the balance between the functional demands of integration and the national forms of democracy will be, as it always has been, a difficult one to strike. But striking that balance is a necessary consequence of the significant, but still ultimately limited, power of the European idea in relation to ideas of democracy that, for better or worse, remain wedded to the nation state.”
In my words: We are waiting for European leaders to come up with a solution to the present euro crisis that recognizes the inevitables: 1. The wish to save the euro and therefore the need for further, limited or otherwise, integration on economic and fiscal issues. 2. The desire to uphold nation state sovereignty in as many other policy fields as possible. 3. The necessity to develop a new mix of national and supranational forms of democracy that wins over skeptical European citizens and establishes effective checks and balances at the same time.
In other words, don’t believe the prophets of the final choice and prepare for a messy European compromise. That is the essence of the EU, whether some academics or populists like it or not.