Why the European Union failed

The European Union, as a political project, has failed[1]. From a supranational project, it has become a secretariat for the member states. Before we can imagine new ways of preventing war in Europe - the EU’s main mission - we must examine the reasons of this failure.

The wrong reasons

Some argue that EU institutions suffer from a “democratic deficit”. Their power and effectiveness is constrained by their lack of responsibility towards EU citizens, the argument goes. This implies that citizens show more respect towards authorities they have direct control over. This implies that citizens are well-informed and care enough about institutions to show them a level of respect dependent on theirs having the control to repeal (or refuse re-election to) people in power. This argument is false for two reasons. The first one is that citizen control over EU institutions improved dramatically in 2014 with the Spitzenkandidat process, which gives the directly-elected Parliament the power to choose the head of the Commission. The democratic deficit should have been at least slightly reduced in the process. It is hard to see any signs pointing in this direction. The second reason is that citizens show great levels of respect to institutions they have absolutely no control over, such as the préfet of France (who has control about most of the local life and answers to the ministry of interior), the Chamber of Lords or the Queen in the United Kingdom[2].

Another popular argument purporting to explain the lack of legitimacy of EU institutions is their opacity. Were they more transparent, the argument goes, they would be more respected. There is some truth in this assertion. Most EU institutions recoil when asked information under Freedom of Information legislation. More importantly, decisions at the Council (where member states congregate to approve the legislation set forth by the Commission) are taken behind closed doors, making them as opaque as a papal election. Overall, however, EU institutions are more transparent than most member states’. They do not like to communicate administrative documents but, based on personal experience, always give in. Many administrations within member states do not. EU institutions, especially the Commission, communicate much more information about their internal affairs than any member state I encountered. The Commission is the only institution I know of that publishes its detailed spending, for instance, in a document that runs over hundreds of thousands of lines. If transparency were a prerequisite for trust, many member states would have crumbled by now.

Responsibility without power

The most important reason for the failure of the EU is that it was given responsibility over large areas of public life without any power. (The only two areas where it does have power, competition policy and monetary policy, are hardly popular successes.) The European Commission prepares legislation and takes position on everything from agricultural policy to net neutrality to foreign policy. In all instances, final decisions lie with the member states at the Council or in national capitals. Because decisions at the Council are nontransparent, member states can make all sorts of false claims about the powers of “Brussels”.

Frontex, the agency for the external borders of the EU, is a good example. Frontex has absolutely no power over borders. It is simply a coordination body that can help member states set up a joint border control operation. It owns no vehicles, no planes, employs no border guards outside of its Warsaw office. It is dependent on national border guards forces in everything it does. But it takes the blame for a migration policy on which it has no influence and for illegal actions by border guards on which it has no authority.

It is much simpler to blame an embodied institution with no power than to acknowledge the complexity of the situation (in the case of Frontex, one would need to research the migration policies of 28 countries to grasp the issue). Some argue that Europe lacks a superficiality that would make it recognizable[3]. While it is true that Europe lacks symbols, the EU has plenty of recognizable targets. It is embodied in many institutions and this embodiment is precisely what makes it an easy target.


European institutions have never engaged with national media outlets on a big enough scale. Outside of their home country, European politicians rarely, if ever, go to talk shows. Of course, TV stations are not precisely hunting Jean-Claude Juncker for an interview. But a good press officer could probably put him on prime time on Das Erste, TF1 and Rai1 regularly enough for him to become a known personality, on par with national figures. The Commission and the Parliament did fund media organizations that aimed at creating a European public sphere, such as Cafébabel and Presseurop, but sources of information for European citizens have remained national[4]. By not engaging with national media that matter (TV stations), EU institutions prevented themselves from gaining the legitimacy they so desperately lack.

Without a communication strategy, the relatively high transparency of EU institutions has become a tool used against them. Because information is so plentiful, it becomes a go-to source for people looking for a story. Wrongdoings that would go unnoticed at the national level become newsworthy at the European level. This, I argue, is due to the ease of access to data related to EU institutions. Investigating a €50,000 fraud case in a small town in a member state is several orders of magnitude harder that doing the same thing at the EU level.


In European states, national identity is exclusive and - almost everywhere[5] - defines the state. Because it is exclusive, national identity has to, by essence, be defined in opposition to other identities. Being Czech means not being Slovak.

These national identities are given to Europeans at school. History lessons do not teach pupils about the logic of power struggles that trigger historical events. They present a version of facts that legitimate the state through the existence of the nation. You do not need to be an anti-nationalist to understand this argument. When a book claims to tell the history of a country from antiquity to the present day, the very frame it uses justifies the pre-existence of said country throughout history in spite of all logic. The concept of France as a coherent entity before the 16th century is a perfect nonsense, for instance, and this is true of every country.

This leads to absurd nationalist outcries from Austria when a TV show includes Mozart to the list of the 100 greatest Germans of all times (Mozart was born in Salzburg, now in Austria)[6]. This also leads to incompatible visions of history. One country’s victory is another one’s defeat. Such oppositions prevent the emergence of a European sentiment. Who in France knows about the Battle of the Nations, Germany’s founding battle against Napoleon in 1813? Who in Britain knows about the struggles of the Polish army at Monte Cassino in 1944, a founding moment of Poland’s post-war history?

The issue of diverging histories is well known and has been addressed. A French-German history book was published in 2006. A commission was set up in 2010 to create a German-Polish one. The results are underwhelming. I could find no hard numbers, but the French-German history book ranks poorly at Amazon in the category “High school history textbooks”[7]. The German-Polish commission published a report in 2012 but I could find no evidence that a textbook was published thereafter[8].

While a few thousand European civil servants try to build a European space from Brussels, Luxembourg or Strasbourg, thousands of history teachers actively - if unknowingly - fight them from every school on the continent. Without a common history book, there can be no European Union.

National politicians

The nails of the European Union’s coffins have all been hammered in by national politicians. But this is only normal. Any additional power at the European level means less power at the national level. For politicians to support European integration, they need to be offered opportunities to gain more power later. However, if the integration process were pursued to its end, there would only be one leader. This implies at least 27 losers.

This simple logic shows why national politicians have no incentive to seek integration. On the contrary, they have every reason to seek independence to form smaller states and shorten their path to power. This is one of the main reasons why Europe grew from about 20 states in 1990 to about 50 today.

The only way to pursue European integration is for national politicians to be utterly convinced that it is the best path to follow. Unfortunately for Europeans, they aren’t.

### Notes

  1. Read my essay about the failure of the EU. Since then, others have made public their doubts about the future of the EU, including Jean Quatremer and George Soros.
  2. Yes, the Queen has political power in the United Kingdom. Read this investigation by The Guardian.
  3. Read Europas fehlende Oberflächlichkeit.
  4. Read my essay on why there is no European journalism.
  5. Only two countries differ. One is Finland (where Swedes are official members of the state), the other is Belgium and is not doing well.
  6. As reported by RP Online in 2003. It’s likely that similar rows emerged over Karl the Great with the French and Copernicus with the Poles, among many others.
  7. Here is the French version (ranks 55 in the category “high school history books”) and the German version (ranks 265 in the category “school history books”)
  8. The recommandations of the commission were published in 2012 and can be bought here.


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