Is the EU doomed?

Book review

Reviewer: Daniela Lenčéš Chalániová

Publisher: Polity Press ISBN: 9780745683973
Author's page: Jan Zielonka

Is the EU doomed?

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n recent years, Polity Press released a number of works which take issue with the current crisis of the EU and the possible futures that might follow from it. Consider, for instance, Simon Hix’s What’s Wrong with the EU & How to Fix It (2008), Jürgen Habermas’ essay collection The Crisis of the European Union: A Response (2012) and Anthony Giddens’ Turbulent and Mighty Continent: What Future for Europe? (2013). 

Zielonka’s book-long essay Is the EU Doomed? fits neatly into this body of futuristic literature, but unlike his colleagues, Zielonka is not optimistic about the chances of reforming the EU in a federal way as Giddens is, about politicisation of EU decision-making as a solution to its problems put forward by Hix or about turning the EU into a post-modern cosmopolitan community based on human rights (Habermas). Instead, Zielonka continues to explore his vision of a neo-medieval empire – a system of governance based on overlapping networks of competences without a clear systemic hierarchy rather than a centralised Brussels authority – thoughts that he first explored in his critically acclaimed book Europe as Empire (2006). But before Zielonka introduces readers into his “polyphonic” cure, he first needs to “diagnose the patient,” speculate about causes of his problems, the effects possible cures could have. To do so, Zielonka neatly divides the book into five comprehensive parts: Crisis, Disintegration, Reintegration, Vision and Practicing Polyphony. 

The first chapter opens with the crisis of the EU which, in Zielonka’s view, has its roots in the intertwined crises of cohesion, imagination and trust. Cohesion in his understanding is, however, not limited to the narrow fiscal definition of solidary redistribution of resources, but rather to a wider context of inequality: lack of cohesion between the core and the periphery countries, but also between the “norm-makers” and the “norm-takers.” Crisis of imagination leads to short-term solutions, literally patches to stop a leak instead of lasting general repairs, and finally, a crisis of trust underlines the above, depicting a European status quo in which people not only mistrust the EU as such (as the declining EP election turnout suggests), but they mistrust also their own politicians, and even the concepts of liberal democracy and capitalism themselves, as implied by the rising popularity of extremists, xenophobes and populists on both extremes of the political spectrum. As Zielonka notes, ‘from this rather depressing vantage point, it looks like the EU may well be doomed’ (p. 19).

In the second chapter, Zielonka complains that while we EU scholars spend a lot of time researching integration, hardly anyone gives serious thought to disintegration! He promptly makes up for this shortcoming by sketching three scenarios of disintegration: in the first scenario, Europe’s leaders lose control completely, in the second one, they try to address problems, but make the situation even worse, and in the third scenario, the elites take a benign approach ‘with not so benign implications’ (p. 23). All the while, the EU is being pushed to the brink of collapse by the “engines” of disintegration: by the power inequality among members, the failure of the euro to generate integration, by the lack of democracy, by the elites’ disconnection from reality leading to the lowest common denominator decisions which fail to address substantial needs of the people and firms, by the EU’s incapability as a foreign policy power, and finally, by the European project’s failure to capture the imagination and loyalty of the people. For a long time, the EU has relied on output legitimacy epitomised by economic growth and efficiency, but even this has been lost. The EU today is failing economically, politically and institutionally.

In the third chapter, Reintegration, Zielonka ponders rational as well as irrational reasons to keep the EU, as well as two potential models for reform. Rationally, the EU’s contribution to peace and prosperity cannot be neglected, also the EU as a global trading representative lets small states punch above their weight on the global market; irrational reasons suggest to keep the EU as an “alibi” for the national governments to drive unpopular reforms, or to keep the EU just for the sheer fear of the unknown: ‘What could the demise of the EU bring about?’ (p. 55).

Remaining models for reintegration leading either to a United States of Europe would demand further transfers of sovereignty (unfeasible), or radical integration could lead to formation of a Bundesrepublik Europa with power centralised in Berlin rather than Brussels, with Germany being the tame “accidental” hegemon, however, this imperial model would require a serious domination on part of the Germans, which they do not seem to want, and greater resources which the Germans are unwilling to spend.

The gist of Zielonka’s book lies in his chapter named Vision. For Zielonka, it is unlikely that a “doomed EU” will return to the pre-integration state of Westphalian sovereignty of nation states – to the dog-eat-dog state of war of everybody against everybody – Europe is too networked for that, and besides, other institutions (NATO) contribute to peace in Europe. Zielonka’s vision is rather one of ‘overlapping authorities, divided sovereignty and multiple identities;’ he sees a Europe of fuzzy borders, with a ‘redistribution based on different types of solidarity between various transnational networks,’ a Europe of flexible arrangements, incentives and bargaining rather than strict hierarchy of rules and penalties that we know from nation-states or the EU today (pp. 81-82). 

This “polyphonic” arrangement of overlapping networks will be defined first, by a plethora of new actors including the regions, big cities, professional associations, NGOs and transnational integrative networks; second, it envisages integration along functional rather than territorial lines; third, the ‘structure of integrative schemes should be polycentric and not hierarchical. It should resemble numerous horizontal rings rather than a single vertical pyramid.’ And lastly, governance of these networks would have to be flexible, “plurilateral” and diversified, because ‘different policy fields require different types of membership, different modes of engagement and different mixtures of incentives and sanctions’ (pp. 95-96).

Zielonka’s vision, however, suffers from a rationality problem: while Zielonka is able to list rational and irrational reasons why the EU is about to fail, his treatment of the neo-medieval polyphonic Europe lacks the same consideration of irrationality. If rising populism, nationalism and xenophobia are in Zielonka’s line of argumentation able to bring the EU down, these very forces should also be able to prevent a neo-medieval arrangement from emergence, because it is precisely a retreat to the pre-integration nation-state conditions that they celebrate: closing of the borders and territorial exclusivity, ideas about downloading the power back to the national community often into the hands of a pragmatic leader who will show those crooks currently in power what it takes to run a state effectively.

Other than this, Zielonka’s vision is very refreshing. Rather than trying to resuscitate the EU like the other authors do, he offers a completely different “fix” than Hix (2008) for example. The book is written in a very clear, approachable and engaging style suitable even for people who aren’t really experts in EU governance. Zielonka consistently maintains a “dialogue” with his readers, always inquiring, always asking rhetorical questions, and it reads literally in one breath.

To conclude: we do not know what the future holds, but if indeed the EU slips into irrelevance, Zielonka’s neo-medieval vision still keeps some hope that the future of Europe will not be so tragic after all.

2017 - Volume 11, Issue 2