Living without the European Union

In the past decade, the European Union has failed every test it was put to. It failed at providing citizens with freedom of movement, it failed at gaining popular legitimacy, it failed at ensuring the future of the euro and it might fail at keeping peace. More broadly, the foundations of the European project designed by Jean Monnet in the first half of the 20th century have gone. The EU failed at providing Europeans what it promised, but this failure should not be seen as a failure for Europe.


In the paragraphs below, I explore the failure of the EU to fulfill some of its core missions. I try to go beyond the obvious failures the EU displayed in facing the financial crisis (2009-present), increased refugee arrivals (Summer 2015), border management (Visegrad countries set up their own border management task force in October 2015 even though this is exactly the mandate of Frontex) or increased terrorist activity (November 2015).

Freedom of Movement

The Schengen Treaty has been officially suspended by a number of governments, eager to show they were protecting their citizens from foreigners. The list gets longer every month. Denmark started in 2011 (and backtracked before controls went into effect), then, in 2015, Germany, Austria, Slovenia (September), Sweden and Malta (November) followed suit. France, after the November 13 attacks, did the same. The only one of these measures that was justified by factual necessities was Bavaria’s decision to close borders… to prevent refugees from being sighted at Oktoberfest.

Border controls do not seal borders, they simply increase the cost of getting through. Refugees that want to reach Germany or the United Kingdom will pay to get around these new hurdles, but they are unlikely to remain at the place they were at when the razor-blade fence was put up. Suspects on the run have an even greater reason to pay to cross borders.

The only ones who stop crossing a border when controls are reinstated are those who cannot afford the new crossing costs. These costs affect mostly the poor and the middle-class. Richer people travel by plane, where a border check only marginally increase waiting times and they can afford to be included in the ‘fast-tracks’ of identity controls (automated booths at airports and border crossing points).

Violations of the Schengen treaty have been frequent in the past few years. Anyone who traveled by bus across Europe knows that Schengen is violated tens of times every day. British journalist Jon Worth documented the attacks on Schengen[1], as he documented the contempt of the European Commission in addressing the issue[2] (long story short: The Commission never lifted a finger to enforce Schengen).

Political legitimacy

The Spitzenkandidat process, by which the European Parliament elects the head of the European Commission, was intended to give popular legitimacy to European institutions. Jean-Claude Junker, who, by this interpretation, won the European elections, tried to bring popular politics to the EU. This could have helped Europeans see Brussels as a place where politicians debate and decide rather than a city where technocrats impose new regulations. Mr Junker tried fairly hard. He managed his commissioners like a head of government his ministers and did not hesitate to send national commissioners head-on against the government of their country of origin. He tried hardest in September 2015 when he, with help from Angela Merkel, forced a majority vote on his refugees resettlement program, in effect going against the will of some governments[3].

Weeks later, these governments and others (Poland) bragged about not respecting this decision. Even if they are legally wrong (the vote was binding), it shows that all authority is lost for Mr Juncker. This precedent makes it very unlikely that he or his successor will try to go beyond the role of secretariat of the member states the Commission had under José Manuel Barroso.

Gaining popular legitimacy in such a short time frame was probably impossible from the start, especially given Mr Juncker’s level of English. However, while he played good politics in Brussels, he never even attempted to gain popular support outside of the Ring. Using English-language Wikipedia page visits as a proxy for popularity, Mr Juncker is as well-known as Poland’s head of government Beata Szydło and 10% as famous as Angela Merkel.

The euro

Enthusiasts point to the creation of the banking union in 2012 as the sign that the euro crisis made European institutions stronger. Much more is needed to restore confidence in the currency. Who would transfer their savings to an account in a Greek bank? Anyone at all? That a Greek euro and a German euro still do not have the same worth is proof that the single currency does not exist as a Eurozone-wide store of value.

During the referendum episode, the Greek government drafted plans for the introduction of special paying units for civil servants - in effect introducing a new currency in parallel to the euro[4]. Opposition movements that violently reject current monetary compromises in France and Spain probably have similar plans, further hampering trust in the common currency.


After the Paris attacks of 2015, a popular French extreme nationalist issued a public appeal to bomb Belgium on the radio[4]. This was yet another act of animosity between member states. Rising militarism in Britain[5], Greek demands for war reparations from Germany and popular burnings of Merkel puppets should be denounced by EU leaders. While such outbursts of nationalism are not new, they are not matched in intensity by symbols for peace, such as Brandt’s 1970 Warsaw kneeling or Kohl and Mitterrand’s holding hands at Verdun in 1984[6].

The absence of any meaningful reaction from the EU to these many threats to peace in Europe shows that it forfeited on its main mission. It might have been impossible and the personnel of EU institutions might not be to blame. The fact remains that war between member states is now openly discussed in national media.

Peace is hailed as the great achievement of the EU. In the light of the recent inaction of the EU, it can easily be argued that NATO was, in fact, solely responsible for the 70 years of peace we have enjoyed.

The Europe of Monnet is already over

The strategy of the “small steps” was Jean Monnet’s way of achieving peace in Europe. The closer the integration, so went the thinking, the less likely that war would destroy the continent again. The failures I highlight above show that this strategy is not working anymore - if it ever has.

Heads of government insist that the ever closer union, which is the cornerstone of the EU, is not worth pursuing. This is only the logical conclusion of decades during which governments in every member state have used European integration as a scapegoat instead of a goal to achieve.

The small steps plan was to make disunion too expensive for governments to engage in and force them to follow the “trail of peace” [7]. This plan made a very important assumption: that governments make rational decisions that benefit their country. This was a good assumption to make in an era when technocrats, engineers and scientists held sway over the ideas discussed by politicians. The last decades have been marked by an increased politicization of the production of knowledge, making actual experts superfluous to the political debate[8]. Donald Trump’s campaign is the best example of this disconnect, but European politicians revel in it, too. As facts become less important to policy making, disunion within Europe becomes a legitimate political goal, without regard for the social costs it entails.

Adaptation to a new normal

The EU failed and current political logic is such that no one can revive it. What we need to continue integration (EU-wide unemployment benefits and pension programs, common history textbooks, a common market for services) will probably never happen because they all require the EU to impose power on member states - I showed above that this was impossible. What is likely to happen is that Schengen becomes permanently suspended, that the euro becomes the only currency of few Eurozone members and that government-sponsored nationalist hatred returns.

Is this so bad? Europe has existed as a community of shared values and experiences for centuries before the EU. Europe will not go away with it. Just like Cistercian monks contributed to creating the European public sphere by traveling between monasteries in the 11th century, Europeans will continue to exchange ideas across borders in the years to come. The cost of doing so will simply be higher than it is today. Anyone claiming to be European will first have to be rich - as it used to be before the EU.

The EU was created in the postwar years, at a time when political leaders dreamed of creating “Great Societies” where enlightened citizens could have chosen the lives they wanted under the auspices of a benevolent state. By maintaining peace and creating a common labor market, the EU was to set free unemployed workers from poorer countries and let them seek employment in richer ones, creating economic growth in the process. It decreased the cost of being European and of taking advantage of opportunities continent-wide.

This goal is now off the table for all politicians, in member states and in EU institutions. If it were still on, the Commission would not regularly try to slash the budget of the Erasmus program[9], for instance, and it would protect Schengen.

The EU was an empowering project for the European masses. At its core, it was a progressive enterprise. The values that underpinned it have withered since the 1980’s and the rise of neoconservatism. The increase of inequalities in Europe and the absence of any attempt by politicians to reverse it[10], shows how massive this shift in values truly is.

The end of Schengen impacts mostly the poor. The rich can fly and use fast-tracks at the border. The devaluation that will follow the introduction of a new currency will impact the poor. The rich have no problem hedging against this risk. They own property and bank accounts in several countries in Europe and elsewhere. The poor will suffer most as governments’ foster ethnic nationalism in policy-making. European Muslims, who are the target, are overwhelmingly poor. The rich are never beaten up by police and, if things get that bad, they can flee.

The end of the EU should not be seen as failure in itself. Rather, it is a reflection of rising inequalities within the population and shifting values among politicians. EU institutions could have been a counterweight to this trend but they, as a matter of shrewdness from the member states and a lack of luck, never had any charismatic figure to follow who could have confronted these issues.

Jean Monnet’s plan ultimately failed when a new political generation came to power, defending new values. The next generation of Europe builders will have to devise a system impervious to value shifts among the ruling class.


  1. Visit, even though it is rarely updated.
  2. Read Europeans can have no expectation that customs checks are distinct from border checks – according to the Commission
  3. Report from the news in The Guardian, for example: EU governments push through divisive deal to share 120,000 refugees
  4. Read Hugo Dixon’s Wild Plan B
  5. Eric Zemmour’s comment that France should bomb Molenbeek are to be understood as humor, says RTL. Because Mr Zemmour is not known as a humorist and very much known for his provocations, it is hard to believe the statement was not meant to provoke outrage.
  6. On the subject, I highly recommend this report by Veterans For Peace: The British Legion and the Control of Remembrancee
  7. The Anneau de la mémoire near Arras, which holds the name of French, British and German dead during World War 1, is a counter example. It is far from having the same weight as previous historical events.
  8. This is the main thesis of Der Preis der Freiheit of German historian Andreas Wirsching.
  9. On this topic, read the last chapters of Black Earth, by Timothy Snyder.
  10. In 2012, the Commission forwarded the member states’ plans to shrink Erasmus to the Parliament (which saved the program). In 2015, the Commission itself proposed to cut Erasmus’ budget.
  11. Read Piketty’s Capital for the details.