Since the 2016 referendum, global attention has rested on the United Kingdom’s devastating identity crisis. Yet Brexit has been a systemic shock to the EU too – one that the Brussels institutions and European capitals are still grappling with and that has revived the long-standing divide between advocates of a federal and confederal Europe.
On the eve of Tuesday, 15 October 2019, diplomats and politicians agonised over the EU’s future relationship with a certain country. They had obtained enormous concessions, arguably more than the domestic public of the state in question could bear. The EU had been urged from multiple sides to recognise the significance of the political moment and the potentially disastrous consequences if the Union did not show itself to be sufficiently flexible to accommodate their requests. Consequences that would affect said nation, the whole region and European continent.
That evening did not see a step forward. No unanimous agreement could be reached on whether North Macedonia should indeed become a candidate for accession to the EU, after France had vetoed moving their bid to the next stage. Of course, in the next day’s press, the Council’s debate on the future of EU enlargement received less attention than the simultaneously ongoing Brexit negotiations. Yet in the long term, the fate of the Union is more likely to depend on the fate of Skopje’s relationship with the EU than London’s.
In the immediate aftermath of the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU – as the first ever Member State to do so – questions were raised what this would mean for the future of European integration and indeed the European project. Had the idea of an “ever-closer union” become obsolete in the 21st century? What could the EU do to contain the tide of nationalist populism eroding its foundations?
Overall, these questions have – at least in the popular imagination – receded a little further into the background, as the UK descended into (home-made) chaos and crisis. Indeed, many have wondered whether the UK’s departure may ultimately help the Union by offering a most vivid warning example of the alternative to European integration. That impression was reinforced as popular approval for the EU has surged in the 27 other Member States of late and many populist parties across Europe distanced themselves from earlier plans to follow the British example. Business could, arguably for some, be resumed – maybe not as usual, but without major disruption.
However, the question of North Macedonia’s EU membership is symptomatic of another – and arguably the currently dominant – strand of thinking among the strategic thinkers within the European corridors of power: the EU must be more self-restrained; it should focus on consolidating itself internally, rather than seeking to project its strengths and values beyond its borders. In a similar vein, the EU needs to accept that, even in the 21st century, national loyalties reign supreme over pan-European idealism. Brexit, the migration crisis, the rule of law crisis, and even the memory of the Eurozone crisis have in this interpretation come together as symptomatic for the risks inherent to a more centralising approach that may have seen the European project overreaching and overestimating its capacity to act. To these strategists, the EU needs a period of introspection before it can pursue more ambitious initiatives within Europe and become an actor on the world stage (again). Briefly, the developments of the past decade have revived the “confederal” tradition of European integration, at the expense of federalist aspirations. Harking back to Gaullist ideas, this is a vision that sees national capitals, not the Brussels institutions, as the true guardians of the European project.
French President Emmanuel Macron is the most prominent representative of this school of thought. This might seem counterintuitive at first sight, given his ardent enthusiasm for the European cause and zealous reform spirit. Yet for all his ambitions of deepening European cooperation in the monetary and defensive sphere, he is deeply sceptical of the belief that the recipe for Europe’s success lies in moving towards a genuine supranational democracy, underpinned by a strong European Parliament and a quasi-governmental Commission. His rejection of transnational lists to the European Parliament and the Spitzenkandidaten system show that even pro-European leaders think that the key to the future of the EU does not lie in greater democratisation and centralisation, but greater “nationalisation”.
In and of itself, this “confederal revival” has recognised the danger of persisting in past orthodoxies: to consider the present anarchy in the UK as a vindication of the EU’s work of the past decades would be wrong and dangerous conclusion to draw from Brexit. This is not the time for complacency. Though the political turmoil in the UK has offered the EU respite from the most severe of anti-European sentiment, this is all but temporary. A sense of economic injustice continues to threaten the social fabric of many EU Member States. Climate change does not only pose an existential threat to the livelihood of humanity but is likely to become the next live issue in the “culture wars”. The US remains an unstable ally under President Donald Trump, to put it mildly. Russia under Vladimir Putin continues to be a threat to the European project and liberal democracy on the continent. China is becoming an ever more ebullient player on the world stage, representing a totalitarian world view that stands in diametrical opposition to the values of the EU. To meet the challenges, the Union must change.
At the same time, the confederal approach is one fraught with danger too: by yielding too much ground to the populist narrative that there is no appetite for “more (federal) Europe” among the people anymore. That there is a prevalent popular scepticism vis-à-vis grand ideas and global ambitions. In its pessimism, this new confederalism risks empowering the very forces it seeks to counter by conceiving of the Commission and European Parliament as structurally incapable of fully appreciating the lived reality of European citizens. This is not only perilous, but crucially inaccurate. The EU’s problems do not stem from federalism per se, let alone an excess of it, but rather a lack of federalism proper. For all the genuine advances in the integration process since the fall of communism, EU Member States have shied away at every turn from bringing the European integration processes to their logical conclusion. This is indeed the leitmotif of the EU’s recent crises: they were caused or at least exacerbated by a reluctance of national governments to transfer powers to democratically legitimated European authorities which were necessary for the regular functioning of a single currency and a common external border, to name but two examples.
In other words, rather than retreat into national comfort zones, the EU should embrace a new spirit of genuine Europeanism. First by at last compelling all actors to catch up on the vital structural reforms that were delayed for too long and fuelled grievances exploited by populists. Second, by recognising that any European Union with a strong footing among the people needs to be further, not less democratised. Handing power back to the Council is to make EU decision-making more opaque, more distant, and less accountable. Lastly, the EU cannot and must not give up on its ambitions as a global player. For all its internal problems, it remains the sole somewhat stable defender of the liberal world order. To turn its back on its neighbourhood and avoid defending its values on the world stage would be to give up its raison d’être.
To emerge strengthened from Brexit and the other challenges it is facing, the EU must renew, rather than renege on its original promise to the continent’s citizens – and yes, that includes those of North Macedonia.