Depending on whether you supported the UK leaving or remaining in the European Union, you might presume that the EU is either an undemocratic mess destined to fail, or an international organisation bound to grow and strengthen in a world where cooperation is key. The problem is, in the long-run, it really is impossible to tell which possibility will prevail.
One the one hand, this last decade has seen a rise in nationalistic sentiment and a resurgent hunger for the principles of sovereign independence; Brexit, the election of Donald Trump accompanied by the slogan ‘America first’, and Orbán’s rule in Hungary serve as just a handful of examples of such a sentiment. On the other hand, it may seem impossible that any nation could fully address its challenges alone in an age of unprecedented interdependence and interconnectedness (and the pandemic speaks for itself here).
Since its beginning, the EU has been guided by the latter view; states must share resources, work collaboratively under formal rules, and pool their sovereignty in order to survive and prosper in a globalised world. Indeed, the European Coal and Steel Community, which evolved into what we know today as the European Union, was formally established in 1951 with the aim of regional integration in order to avoid war between France and Germany following the horrific conflict of World War II. Underlying all this was a simple perspective: without internationally agreed rules and standards, states would inevitably compete and conflict, and so overarching structures were necessary to prevent this.
This may appear surprising, as in recent years we’ve often heard from leave campaigners that the EU was originally a mere free trade bloc which morphed into a political union over time. However, the language of ‘political union’ and ‘ever-closer union’ has been in the treaties right from the start, and those ideas have increasingly manifested themselves. Illustrating this, just recently the German Foreign Minister went so far as to call on the EU to abolish the veto power of individual member states when it comes to foreign policy. It seems, therefore, that the EU is set to continue on its pathway towards ever-closer union and increased integration between its member-states. But is that the right path for the union to follow??
Despite major challenges – namely the eurozone crisis, the migration crisis, and even Brexit – the EU has succeeded on its slow march towards integration and expansion, and public support across the region has held steady. Whatsmore, continued access to the world’s largest single market area is a great benefit of EU membership, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic and its economic effects. The EU also remains a key player in global governance, attending and influencing the G7, giving the member-states a collective power that they would otherwise lack as independent nations.
However, increased integration and ever-closer union are not guaranteed to succeed. There is t a possibility that continued allegiance to those principles could prove to be the Achilles’ heel of the EU. Vaccine access and roll-out across the EU during the pandemic highlighted the weakness of the EU in dealing with crises as a large collective, resulting in major dissatisfaction with its leaders, as well as reducing public confidence in the vaccine itself.
Furthermore, the UK’s future success or lack-thereof as a post-Brexit independent nation will play an important role in shaping perceptions about the benefits of an ever-closer union. If the UK is seen to succeed as a nation unbound by a supranational authority in areas of trade, security, and global leadership, then the integrationist approach of the EU will be put under the spotlight.
Crucially, the sense of Europeanism among the population will likely play the key role in determining just how much further EU integration can go, whilst succeeding. If there is a strong enough European identity, as there is now, then further integration is likely to succeed. However, as we witnessed with Brexit, the electorates of Europe will not sit quietly if they feel that their national identity is being significantly displaced on the altar of ever-closer union. For now it seems as though the current path is working, and public support is holding steady. However, in the long term, the future of the EU is impossible to predict.
Leo Cullis, History in Politics Writer