Understanding ‘Europessimism’

In the aftermath of the crisis this new scholarly position in the debate about the EU has become an increasingly important strand of thinking

Andrew Glencross100x100There are many signs that the EU is a political system in crisis. The past few years have seen a succession of popular protests in Eurozone countries against the imposition of austerity, while political elites, especially in the UK, appear increasingly wary of supporting integration. These current troubles jar with the more academic textbook narrative of a smooth incremental progress towards ever-closer union.

In the aftermath of the Eurozone crisis, rising popular disenchantment with the EU – typically labelled ‘Euroscepticism’ – is an increasingly important phenomenon. However, beyond the textbook account, scholarly analyses of European integration have often been quite gloomy. Indeed, there is a swathe of academic literature that can be now more accurately termed ‘Europessimistic’. It’s a distinctly critical stance towards the project of ever-closer union.

If Euroscepticism relates to a party political position associated with electoral ambitions, then Europessimism is best understood as a theoretical position founded on hard analysis. It is a specific way of thinking about European integration. But we need to understand the grounds for this pessimism and discover whether it is becoming more pronounced amongst EU experts. So are scholars today more critical about the consequences and the future of integration and do they believe an alternative, more attractive, version is possible?

To answer this question, we need to distinguish between two major strands of Europessimism. Firstly, there is the federal variety, which takes aim at what it identifies as the wrong mechanism for pursuing European integration. From the early 1950s, federalist thinkers and activists such as Altiero Spinelli pointed out the shortcomings of the approach, associated especially with Jean Monnet, of taking incremental, piecemeal steps towards political union. This critique has persisted even in the face of continued institutional development that has seen the EU adopt many of the federalist features that once formed the blueprint of the 1984 Draft Treaty on European Union. The European Parliament passed that Draft on the initiative of Spinelli himself.

A second variety of Europessimism is associated with the social-democratic tradition. Social-democratic pessimism rests on an analysis of what integration means for social rights (welfare, employment legislation, collective bargaining etc) at the national level and the prospect of extending these at the EU-level. Even before the 2008 financial crisis wreaked havoc in the Eurozone, scholars such as Fritz Scharpf were pointing out the structural imbalance between de-regulation for the sake of creating a Europe-wide single market and attenuated EU social policy competences that greatly limit the scope of EU-wide social market legislation.

How, then, has Europessimism fared in the wake of the worst economic crisis the EU has ever experienced? The concern of federalist scholars today is less the worry that we will experience a rolling back of integration and a return to nationalism, but rather that Europeans continue to miss out on the benefits federalism can uniquely offer. Traditionally, supporters of federalism made the case that the efficiency of treaty reform and decision-making would be improved by removing national vetoes. With the advent of the Eurozone debt crisis, this confidence in federalism has in fact been reinforced, precisely because the current model has again shown its limitations as compared with a federal fiscal union. Federalist Europessimism thus retains its inherently optimistic side: it might criticise the current EU system, but it still proposes a better alternative.

Such optimism seems absent from the social-democratic tradition today. The German-brokered solution for preventing the disintegration of the Eurozone involved granting emergency funding to governments frozen out of the financial markets in return for dramatic domestic economic and fiscal reforms. The kind of (neoliberal) economic conditionality imposed on Greece and others constitutes an historic turning-point as never before has the EU been so implicated in deciding national tax and spending policies. In this context, social-democratic scholars also worry that integration prevents the development of transnational mobilisation around a Keynesian demand-management response as a cleavage has emerged between creditor countries and those on the periphery that require bail-outs.

Equally worryingly for social democrats, the social market economies that are the main creditors in this case (Austria, Germany, Finland, Netherlands) remain at risk from the current mode of integration. As Scharpf puts it, the legal establishment of a pan-European single market without corresponding social policy competences to counteract inequalities ‘systematically weakens established socio-economic regimes at the national level, and it also generates a liberalising bias in European legislation’.

So, what does the future hold? Both the flaws in Economic and Monetary Union – the creation of a currency union without even a banking union, let alone a fiscal one – and the convoluted EU attempt to find a remedy can, in fact, be read as a vindication of both federalist and social-democratic Europessimism. On the one hand, federalists have long advocated political union in order to pool the macroeconomic policy competences necessary to stabilise a currency zone. On the other hand, pessimistic social democrats were concerned from the outet about a monetary arrangement that could not resolve current account imbalances except through internal devaluation.

Yet these pessimistic accounts of integration do not share similar conclusions about where integration is headed. Federalist pessimism remains closely associated with a Euro-optimistic vision that federalism will in the end solve the efficiency and legitimacy problems bedevilling the EU. This vision mirrors what Joseph Weiler has termed the ‘political messianism’ prevalent in the EU’s political culture with a view to fulfilling some form of supranational destiny. By contrast, social-democratic analyses are increasingly pessimistic about the ability to implement an alternative model of integration, which would necessarily involve more supranational policy coordination. Interestingly, this disjuncture mirrors the difficulties centre-left parties face today in mobilising voters both anxious about the impact of integration and unconvinced by promises that more can be achieved at the EU level.

What remains to be seen, though, is whether these varieties of Europessimism manifest themselves in political debate and come to influence voting behaviour. Given the pervasiveness of national austerity policies, the 2014 election campaign for the European Parliament will likely be a test of how far Eurosceptic parties now draw upon Europessimism, especially of a social-democratic kind.

About the author

Dr Andrew Glencross is the author of What Makes the EU Viable? (Palgrave 2009), co-editor of EU Federalism and Constitutionalism: The Legacy of Altiero Spinelli (Lexington 2010).