Political Union: Europe's defining moment

24 July 2012
Josef Janning (Head of ECFR Berlin Office and Senior Policy Fellow)

Driven by an obvious loss of fiscal sovereignty on the part of debtor nations and a de facto loss of sovereignty on the part of creditor nations, the concept of deepening integration on fiscal policy and economic governance gained ground. Now, the old debate about a 'Political Union' – which was postponed at Maastricht, revived after the frustrations of the Nice Treaty and died after the Convention – is back. Once again, the 'finalité' of integration in Europe is being propelled by centrifugal forces inside the EU.

The method and conditionality of financial assistance reinforce divergences of economic development among eurozone members. Politically, this adds up to a strong centrifugal pull that drives member states apart, despite the various measures taken. The determination to hold the euro zone together, repeatedly reaffirmed politically at summit meetings, seems to be too weak an argument to balance this centrifugal force.

Against this background, a deepening of political integration would strengthen the centripetal argument. Its implications, however, come close to squaring the circle: political union would have to be negotiated, ratified and confirmed in referenda against waves of mistrust among member states, a general unwillingness to transfer powers to a central level of government, and the declining credibility of the political process among European publics. An impossible status quo stands against the apparent impossibility of overcoming it.

This Policy Brief by Josef Janning reviews proposals currently under debate: the report presented to the June European Council by the presidents of the European Council, the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the Eurogroup; the recent recommendations by the Padoa-Schioppa Group; the statement by the Spinelli Group; and the interim report of the informal meetings of 10 EU foreign ministers, chaired by German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.

Despite their differences, these four proposals for deepening European integration all amount to a significant agenda of change, which could transform the EU in rather fundamental ways. Such deepening would pool more powers than ever before at the Union level. Thus far, the prevailing mood among European leaders has signalled that they do not want the changes that they are nevertheless making. This approach needs to change, Janning concludes; as an unwanted outcome enforced by circumstance, deeper integration will not succeed. Change requires a 'positive' agenda. Two approaches could be taken to advance political union: One would seek to deepen integration in incremental steps. The other option would be to advance political union through the front door, spelling out the longer-term project of genuine political integration, effectively governing economic and monetary affairs, social policy, internal and external security, and foreign affairs, with full democratic accountability and parliamentary control. Both will imply significant risk leaders will have to calculate as the crisis continues to press for action.

Political Union