Continuing our Europe2025 series, Marija Bartl argues that the metaphor of Europe as a ‘project’ foregrounds market integration and forestalls the emergence of a European public sphere.
In his recent, widely-circulated programme for Europe, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, affirms: ‘Europe is not just an economic market. It is a project.’ In so doing, he hopes to move the European Union beyond its current impasse—turning it into a Europe that protects rather than threatens, a Europe of progress for all its citizens. Yet this language reveals something deeply problematic about our imaginary of Europe, which paradoxically stands in the way of the union realising Macron’s aspirations.
Seeing the EU as a ‘project’ echoes a longstanding preoccupation with Europe’s supposed destination—with its directionality. This is omnipresent in its constitutional documents (‘ever closer union’), its legislation (relentlessly oriented towards building the internal market) and the case law of its courts (a teleological interpretation of EU law), as well as in underlying political processes (‘more or less Europe’ as the central framing category of political discussion).
It is this preoccupation with directionality that so strikingly sets the EU apart from its member states. We do not query the ‘destination’ of Italy, or Poland—unless we have some cataclysmic event in mind. These political communities just are. Whatever direction they take, and whatever we think of that, is fundamentally a matter of politics.
Join our growing community newsletter!
"Social Europe publishes thought-provoking articles on the big political and economic issues of our time analysed from a European viewpoint. Indispensable reading!"
Columnist for The Guardian
Presenting the EU as a project frames it as something unfinished that needs further construction. It becomes an entity that is about policies rather than politics—which always needs to move forward and grow, to avoid Macron’s dread ‘status quo and resignation’.
Functionalism and spillovers
The fact that we are as preoccupied with the EU’s directionality today as we were at its establishment six decades ago is something that should worry us—shouldn’t we know what we are by now?—but it should not come as a surprise.
Europe emerged as a ‘functional’ entity, oriented toward building a common market. The project was invested with many other, albeit secondary, plans and hopes—from ensuring lasting peace to building a political union. And, undoubtedly, it has progressed immensely. Not only is the internal market much more of a reality today than 60, 20 or even just 10 years ago, but economic integration has also ‘spilled over’ into many fields: human rights, health, education, collective bargaining and so on.
Watch the latest Social Europe Video Podcast
This success, however, has not been without its dark side. Many commentators have noted that ‘spillover’ has in recent decades acquired a particularly neoliberal flavour, given that the EU has used competitiveness, the privatisation or ‘liberalisation’ of public services and the ‘flexibilisation’ of labour markets as the main vehicles for integration.
Perhaps even more importantly, despite the EU’s immense expansion, it has not qualitatively changed: it has not turned from a project into a political community, where the question of direction or destination becomes meaningless.
For the most part, the EU has been gradually moulded into its current shape through a large number of technocratic, non-responsive processes, shot through with many contingent moments of political consensus. The union lacks a broad mandate: two issues—one substantive, one institutional—make it different from a political community.
Substantively, the EU has legally and institutionally limited the breadth of topics open for political decision-making. In particular, questions of solidarity and risk-sharing have been at best sidelined in EU constitutional documents and remained anathema in its political discourse, both among the EU’s member states as well as within their territories—hence unquestioned austerity policies. Yet, without solidarity and risk-sharing, there is no (political) community.
Secondly, the member states have jealously guarded their claims to being ‘proper’ democracies by not allowing even the smallest concession that would enable a European public sphere. The rejection of EU lists for the seats in the European Parliament to be vacated by the UK—were Brexit to go ahead—is the most flagrant example. Such institutional constraints have made it extremely difficult to develop the EU-wide political programmes and movements that would allow of a qualitative change in EU politics.
The gradual and laborious expansion of the EU ‘project’ has thus come at cost. The breadth of its influence, combined with the heaviness of its governing structures, may be unproblematic in times of relative prosperity. But they become a problem amid increasing inequality—for which the EU may itself be at least partly to blame.
In such a constellation, an overwhelming sense of the non-transformability of the EU increasingly permeates the political imaginaries of those not only on the right of the political spectrum (as evidenced by the growing support for parties such as Forum for Democracy in the Netherlands) but also on the left (as in ‘the left case for Brexit’).
However unrealistic the ‘taking back control’ phantasms—in either their UK or continental variants—are in geopolitical terms, they do illustrate the limits of building the EU as a project. By undermining the basic democratic imaginary of ‘popular sovereignty’, the EU presents its citizens with what they see as unchangeable, inherited hierarchies, rather than tools and spaces to change collectively their common destiny.
The EU is undoubtedly the most powerful weapon against the threats posed by globalisation—and thus also the most effective answer to the concerns of those who vote for the populist right today. Yet the fact that the EU has not transformed itself qualitatively into a political community, and remains a heavy-handed project subject to consensuses of intermingled political classes, not only stands in the way of its mobilisation against the forces unleashed by globalisation but also exposes it to such existential threats as those presented by the growing anti-EU coalition.
Not all is lost, however. Broadly, we need to accomplish two things if we are to make a qualitative leap to a political community in the EU: first, we need to make risk-sharing and redistribution (among individuals, groups, regions or member states) a topic of democratic exchange and decision-making—even if the discussion may be divisive at the outset. Secondly, we need institutions that would allow this discussion to be broad and inclusive.
In recent months, at least five realistic proposals have been made that could contribute to this transformation. First, Macron’s programme proposes a relatively achievable set of objectives, which would go a long way towards demonstrating the EU’s protective capacity in the face of globalisation. A second path to transform the EU (see, for example, Piketty, the Green New Deal, Euromemo) would be to commit more financial resources to it to redistribute. These need not be taken from any particular member states but rather could be raised by the EU independently.
Thirdly, the creation of transnational electoral lists for the European Parliament would be an excellent first step towards stimulating exchange on Europe. A fourth route lies in creating successful Europe-wide political movements (such as Diem25) as a means to build an EU public sphere—while certainly necessary, this is also slow and difficult. Finally, many pro-European politicians are turning their attention to raising support at the national level, with a view to transforming the EU from the bottom up by mobilising the member states.
Only a combination of these five paths may allow Europe to take the step that has eluded it during the last 60-plus years—the transformation of the EU into a political community. The first two paths take us closer to a union in which ‘solidarity’ (or Macron’s ‘protection’) exists across national borders. The final three, if taken simultaneously, would create a relatively robust institutional basis from which the difficult conversations about risk-sharing and solidarity could take place.
While the impending elections to the European Parliament are certainly not without importance, the tragic paradox of the EU project is that such elections in principle never decide Europe’s future. Yet all of us, and the political class in particular, need to realise that it is at best five minutes to midnight if we are to tackle the EU’s predicament.
Unless the member states’ representatives make a serious commitment to more inclusive democratic institutions in the EU, the number of those disenchanted with the non-transformability of the union will grow—and, with that, the number who will be against the EU project altogether. Every day counts.