The end of an “Ever Closer Union”: will national interests supersede core European principles in the EU?


Before the Brexit took place last June 23, David Cameron, then Prime Minister of the UK, travelled to Brussels in February 2016 with the sole objective of wrangling concessions from EU leaders.


He hoped negotiations would make membership of the EU more palatable to citizens of the UK and – more importantly – to colleagues in Mr Camerons’s British Conservative Party. One highly symbolic issue negotiated was that the UK would be no longer beholden to one of the EU’s guiding tenets: the seemingly inevitable march of all Member States towards an “Ever Closer Union”.

The EU leaders capitulated to Mr. Cameron on this demand. And with that, they formally abandoned the founding principle in which all EU countries must work toward a deeper, more political and ever closer integration, even if is at differing speeds. The UK wished to be far removed from this commitment that carried onerous “EU federalist” overtones to them. Ultimately, the EU deemed it a worthy sacrifice to ensure the UK stayed in the Union


Ever Closer Union: A quick history of one of EU’s guiding principles

“An ever closer union among the peoples of Europe” has been a core objective of European integration since the Treaties of Rome in 1957, establishing the EU’s precursor, the European Coal and Steel Community. In the eyes of many, fulfilling such a principle involves the continual pooling of countries’ resources, collective decision-making and transferring sovereignty from the Member States to supranational EU institutions,finally codifying these institutional competences into the body of European law supersedes national law.

One assumption of the “Ever Closer Union” principle is that at some point in the future, all Member States should aim to converge. Particularly, while some countries may not yet be in the Eurozone, it should be every country’s ultimate end goal. In fact, under the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, all EU Member States must join the euro once the necessary monetary and budgetary conditions are fulfilled (barring Denmark, which negotiated opt-outs of the single currency). After the February negotiations, Mr.Cameron was unequivocal in his view:

“Britain will be permanently out of ever-closer union, never part of a European superstate … Britain will never join the Euro and we’ve secured vital protections for our economy.”

Evidently, these hard-won concessions for the UK were not enough to keep the county in the EU. 52% of the votes declared a majority of the country wished to fully leave on June 23.


A Post-Brexit Reality: Exposing the conflict between founding principles and national interests

In the aftermath of the Brexit result, other Member States have continued down the path that the UK had begun forging. As support grows for these alternative trajectories, the idea of “Ever Closer Union” is becoming more politically toxic in capitals across the continent.

One such vocal group in support of this new path away from supranational dominance is the Visegrád group, composed of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. Even though they are relative latecomers to the EU – joining in 2004 – and despite internal disagreements, the Visegrád quartet has maximised its clout by co-ordinating European policy stances and voting together in Brussels.

In a post-Britain future in the European Institutions, the Visegrád Four’s relative weight in EU voting as a bloc will increase in clout. However, the departure of the UK will mean that the Visegrád Group loses a close ally to counter-balance the more pro-integrationist Eurozone countries. The UK was the most powerful voice in the EU against Franco-Germany led coalition of Eurozone countries, vetoed their tax harmonisation measure proposals and resisted Eurozone membership.


Poland and Hungary leading a “counter-revolution”

Whereas the government in the Czech Republic is less vocal in its opposition against Brussels and Slovakia is itself a member of the Eurozone (and therefore more circumscribed in its options regarding distancing itself from EU monetary policies), the governments of Poland and Hungary present themselves as vociferous critics of the EU’s political status quo. Hungary’s Fidesz Party and Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) parties both hold governments with strong parliamentary majorities.Both mirror the stance of the British Conservative Party concerning the European Union’s strengths and weaknesses.

Shunning any pro-federalist ideas, Hungary and Poland favour a straightforward continent-wide single trading market over any complex, multi-faceted political union. They favour looser enlargement of the EU and accepting more countries into the bloc (with Poland eyeing the Eastern Partnership countries and Hungary with its sights on the Western Balkans), rather than supporting further integration of existing Member States. In short, they support a widening rather than deepening of the EU. All within strongly guarded external borders, however. In a speech delivered at a recent commemoration event to remember the 1958 revolution in Hungary, Mr. Orbán compared the growth of Brussels’ supranational mandate and institutional over-reach to ‘Sovietisation’, highlighting the palpable frustrations he articulates about the EU.

Both Poland and Hungary have been receiving strong warnings from the EU leaders, criticised for their apparent undermining of democracy domestically. For example, in January 2016, the European Commission launched an inquiry into recent reforms conducted by the PiS party. The reforms affect Poland’s constitutional tribunal and media, with the Commission concerned that they breach the rule of law.

The EU has mechanisms to punish states that engage in behaviour which they perceive as encroaching on the EU’s core values such as democracy, human rights and rule of law. Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty is a legal mechanism that allows the EU to sanction countries that hinder or abrogate these values and suspending their voting rights in European institutions.

Warning by the Commission over the invocation of Article 7 have never been acted upon by the EU institutions, for fear further of stoking anti-Brussels sentiment in the countries. But the fact alone that the European Commission is criticising these countries is already increasing negative sentiments in both these Member States, who would appreciate a future iterations of the European project to devolve decision-making powers back to national parliaments (and therefore create a more distant EU that does not interfere in their domestic affairs).

Despite their loud admonishments of the EU,  neither Poland nor Hungary will make the radical choice to leave the EU. A poll conducted in 2016 involving ten Member States found that the EU appears to be most popular in these two countries. Both countries have benefited enormously from EU funding and access to the single market. Polish and Hungarian enterprises have entered into competition with companies from other countries, employees from Poland and Hungary freely seek employment in other EU Member States and freedom of movement allows Poles and Hungarians to cross borders as members of the Schengen area. A recent report by the European Commission on the economics of enlargement found that the 2004 enlargement Member States enjoyed increased macroeconomic stability, balanced inflation and interest rates in line with the EU-15 and an average annual economic growth of 3.75% between 1997 and 2005, performing better than the old Member States (EU-15) which achieved 2.5% on average in the same period.

 Despite the material benefits, antagonism toward the EU’s perceived over-reach is a constant presence.


Reforming the Lisbon Treaty: A call by Visegrád to re-assert the national parliaments’ powers in European decision-making.

Central European countries – under the umbrella of Polish and Hungarian leadership – contend that the 2009 Lisbon Treaty’s expansion of the European Parliament’s powers (at the expense of the European Council’s relative clout) has resulted in the dilution and weakening of national leaders’ voices in Europe.

In September 2016, Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski broadcast his country’s plans for a redesign of the Lisbon Treaty amendment, a proposal which has Visegrád backing, stating:

“For many months we have tried to begin reforms in the EU, we want to use the Brexit discussion for that… We [Visegrád group] are united [in the understanding] that intra-EU relations must be reformed… We say it out loud, we would not hesitate to change the [Lisbon] treaty, if necessary.”

One reason for the Lisbon Treaty was to minimise the perceived democratic deficit in the European Union institutions. However, the democracy promoting measures in the Lisbon Treaty (increasing the relative power of European Parliament, for example) have not done enough to mitigate the perception of many Europeans that the EU is a distant bureaucratic apparatus of unaccountable civil servants that disregards the needs of the people. Recently, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of Poland’s PiS party, stated that growing euroscepticism in countries such as France and the Netherlands highlight how “the vision of the EU forced upon us by the Lisbon Treaty has failed”.

Poland’s stance was echoed in a joint communiqué in July 2016 by the Visegrád members, stating:

“It’s time for the Union to be more pragmatic, focused on the essentials and reforms. At the same time the EU must act with due consideration and solve the problems of citizens while respecting the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality as well as the role of the national parliaments.” [italics author’s own]

The Principle of Subsidiarity: Is it being strangled by the Principle of Ever Closer Union?

As a cornerstone of the EU’s architecture, the principle of subsidiarity (Article 5 (3) of the Treaty on EU) ensures that all policy matters that could be dealt with more efficiency or more effectively (or even just equally as well) at the national level should not be decided in Brussels by the Commission. For the Central European countries – and across the Union – there is a belief that subsidiarity principle has been overshadowed in the drive towards further EU integration and the unwarranted preponderance of the principle of “Ever Closer Union”.

The EU has struggled to find a solution to the migration crisis. The failure of its proposed migrant quotas for each Member States has resulted in the idea EU solidarity ringing hollow. Furthermore, contentious issues circulating, such as a quasi-EU army,  harmonisation of tax laws and foreign policy at the EU level – be they legitimiate or pure speculation – concern many national governments. Concerning the idea of European level defence framework, Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, supports the idea of a EU defence force and more power accruing to the Commission over defense issues. In his annual address to the European Parliament September 2016, he argued,

“Europe can no longer afford to piggy-back on the military might of others. We have to take responsibility for protecting our interests and the European way of life. … Without a permanent structure, we cannot act effectively.”

Any permutation of  European army is a highly unpopular idea in many Member States and could widen divisions in the Union. In response to the negative reaction by many Member States to this proposal, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini floated a two-tier EU concept regarding the future of EU defence. She argued that member countries who are eager to integrate their defense capabilities should be able to push ahead, without the need for treaty changes or the need to drag reluctant states along. Instead, the can choose to opt out of this measure.


Potential remedy: a two-tier European Union

A two-tier Europe could be a solution to the issue of deep disagreement among EU Member States. EU leaders must concede that many member countries will never join the euro or commit their resources to common defence. Ultimately, to open the door to this new redesign, this would mean EU leaders abandoning the rhetoric of the EU marching toward the “ever closer union” that a single currency requires.

In place of the Union’s original trajectory, the EU could reshape itself into two concentric circles. An inner core could consist of federalist-leaning countries that are fully committed (economically, politically and maybe even militarily) to deeper integration. At the edges of this core circle could be a wider, looser circle, containing the countries  whose populations have no appetite for a single currency or tax and welfare harmonisation.

Political will maybe lacking at the moment to spearhead such a transformation. The most powerful Member States, France and Germany, will have general elections and both Francois Holland and Angela Merkel could lose their seats and eurosceptic parties could sweep into national parliaments. There is a collective step back by many leaders from contentious issues in Brussels. Furthermore, Widespread concerns that Brexit will have a contagion effect is paralysing many EU leaders. It is causing the EU leaders to lean towards punishing the UK  in its “divorce” negotiations. To stymie the potential of other countries leaving the EU, the Brexit negotiators wish to deny membership of the single market to Britain. In their eyes, the UK cannot have its cake and eat it too. All of these factors will ultimately translate into long delays before the EU itself is put under the microscope.

As the 60th anniversary of the signing of the 1957 Treaties of Rome – and the birth of the European project – approaches, EU leaders must take this time to reflect on the future of the European project, and decide whether the high principles espoused by the Union’s forefathers are worth holding onto, even if it leads to widespread disillusionment, disagreement and (as the UK clearly demonstrated), complete departure. A full recalibration of the EU’s direction may be necessary to satisfy the heterogeneous group of twenty eight (soon to be twenty seven) countries under the Union’s umbrella. This would constitute a very difficult feat at a very difficult time for the EU facing crises from both inside and out. If a compromise – such as a two-tier or even multi-tier EU can be achieved, it may stem the wound left from the UK’s monumental vote to leave and there can be a more palatable balance between national interests and the founding principles of the EU.


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