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Challenges, Crises and Emergency Government: The Existential Crisis of the European Union Revisite

November 12, 2020

Agustín José Menéndez, Associate Professor of political theory, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Spain
Mark Gilbert, Johns Hopkins SAIS
The Bologna Institute for Policy Research hosted a virtual seminar on the existential crises of the European Union. Mark Gilbert introduces Agustín José Menéndez who begins by addressing the main questions around the set of crises that have hit the European Union since 2007, and which converge in a deep and long existential crisis; three questions are suggested for discussion: 1) what we can learn from the crises in terms of the history of European integration; 2) what changes these crises have brought Europe; and 3) how the coronavirus shock has radicalized and accelerated the existential crisis of the European Union, and why the triumphalism prevailing in some European circles may be too premature by half.
Menéndez begins by showing that the cycle of crisis we are going through has proven wrong the assumption that most legal and political theories of integration tend to make, viz the characterization of the history of the European project as the smooth unfolding of a given set of ideals. Events such as the financial crisis of 2007 and the fiscal crisis of 2010 have alerted us to the fact that the history of European integration, much as any other history, is punctuated by discontinuities. The existential crisis of the European Union is an exceptional opportunity to rethink the narratives that prevail on the legal and political analysis of the European Union. In the same way as the postwar constellation marked a clear break with the interwar configuration of state and society, in the 1970s we can observe a second major transformation of the point and purpose of the European Communities, leading to the launch of the projects of the single market and the single currency. The present cycle of crises results from the tensions and contradictions from that model.
The analysis and reconstruction of the changes brought about by the present cycle of European crisis can be much improved if we resort to the concept of “constitutional mutation”, ie, actual changes in the way in which power is organized which do not have full formal recognition. This accounts for the many powers that have shifted from the national to the supranational level, especially on what concerns fiscal policy. It should be noted that such powers do not seem to be turning the European Union into a powerful supranational state, because they are mostly negative. The EU may constrain states, but lacks the competence to put in place its own positive policies. By the same token, power has shifted from representative to non-representative institutions. The European Central Bank, aloof from politics by design, emerges as the real “winner”. Negative centralization and de-2 democratisation have in their turn fueled social and political dynamics which have contributed to set the scene for territorial (Brexit) and democratic (Poland, Hungary, Malta) crises.
Menéndez closes with the third crisis triggered by COVID-19. The situation is dire and we may not be at the end of the crisis, but only at the end of its beginning. Some commentators and pundits would still argue that there are some reasons for European optimism, because this time the EU has a plan, the Europe Next Generation project, which will contribute to the recovery of the European economy while unleashing a digital and green transformation. However, some caution is needed for two related reasons. First, the task that Europe confronts is not only recovery after crisis, but the very government of a long and hard crisis, with deep roots in the previous cycle of crisis, and which European states are very unequally equipped to fight. This in itself creates a serious risk of disaggregation of both the single currency and the single market. Second, and consequently, EU Next Generation may perhaps be commendable as an industrial policy plan (albeit the objectives it points to seem rather vague and ill-defined), but falls short as a crisis fighting tool. As planned, it will mobilise less than 2% of the EU GDP for three years, after which the resources at the disposal of the EU will decrease, not increase. What Europeans are confronting are massive distributive questions which cannot be dealt with doing (again) too little, too late.

Listen to the full audio recording of the discussion.