Marching towards disintegration

How might European disintegration play out if we do not learn from past folly? Uncontrolled collapse, a decisive jump forward leading to a big step back, or disintegration in disguise due to benign neglect?  

The politician in search of reading material on European integration has shelves of books from which to choose. On European disintegration, by contrast, the literature is scant. Yet with Europe’s leaders embarked on a “march of folly,” to borrow Barbara Tuchman’s phrase, this could well be the future we now face. Tuchman described how leaders throughout human history have acted “contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests”[1– a description that all too neatly fits the recent behaviour of the EU’s senior politicians. The ultimate destination of their particular march of folly could well be disintegration. It is important, therefore, that we examine what that might look like.

Tuchman examined four cases of folly in human history, relating to the Trojan Horse, the Renaissance Popes, the British loss of North America, and the American involvement in Vietnam. That her first example involves the Greeks makes me think that we have learned little from history. The current plan to have a “controlled Greek default” combined with a “soft” Greek exit from the eurozone is likely to result in a series of unintended consequences reminiscent of Homer’s story. So let’s try to imagine the course of European disintegration with its diverse and rather scary implications. Below are three scenarios that might give Europe’s leaders some food for thought. The first sees Europe’s leaders losing control over unfolding events. The second suggests that they try to address problems, but make things worse. The third scenario envisages a ‘benign neglect’ policy with not so benign implications. How would disintegration play out in each of these sets of circumstances?

Uncontrolled collapse

Abrupt, chaotic disintegration is more probable than ever today. Financial markets are unpredictable and volatile, and Europe’s leaders have exhausted most of the available financial instruments and resources. The public across Europe is angry and susceptible to populist mobilisation. The situation in Europe’s backyards from Tripoli and Cairo to Pristina, Minsk and Kiev is anything but comforting. Pushing Greece out of the eurozone might seem like a reasonable response to German public opinion, but would likely trigger a cocktail of internal and external shocks that would lead to events spiralling out of political control. In this scenario, a fury of mutual accusations, retaliations, and recriminations generates anarchy and chaos. Outbursts of nationalism and partisan squabbles are the order of the day with small states increasingly fearing large states, and large states trying to balance one another. Germany is prime target for balancing, if only because of its size and history. Some commentators are already talking about a rising Fourth Reich. No wonder therefore that Angela Merkel has rallied the German Parliament behind the extended Euro rescue package. But Slovak, Dutch or Finish leaders may show less solidarity with the Greeks or Italians, and it is also far from certain whether Merkel will be able to withstand pressure of Euro-sceptics if the German economy were to deteriorate? With each state judging its grumbles and desires against its own interest and with no European centre to mediate these interests, conflicts are bound to proliferate and some of them might even lead to war, however improbable this may sound at present.

A decisive jump forward leads to a big step back

Europe’s leaders will obviously try to prevent a sliding back to Westphalia, and some of them are already advocating extraordinary measures that would transform the EU into a federation as the best response to the crisis. The President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso,had this scenario in mind when he rallied members of the European Parliament behind the idea of a more profound political, economic, and fiscal union. He called for “un nouveau moment fédérateur” that would generate “deeper and more results-driven integration,” based on the Community system rather than intergovernmental co-operation.[2]Yet this could lead to disintegration rather than the reverse. The fact is that diversity rather than unity abounds in the present-day Union and the EU’s governance structures are too weak to control its constitutive parts. The European Commission has a limited impact on politics, which are dominated by member states, especially large ones. Moreover, it is far from certain that a European super-state, if created, would ever deliver on its promises. A federation of many distinct entities, however interdependent, would always be at pains to try to identify a set of common interests to guide its policies. It would only work if composed of a few like-minded and like-looking European states. Are France and Germany sufficiently compatible and concurring to create a federative core? And how many smaller states would jump into bed with these two elephants?

Besides, a formal European core or pioneering group would create new dividing lines across the continent, fuelled by fear and suspicion. Some of the current EU member states would be worried about being excluded from the core, while others would fear domination by stronger core members. In other words, a jump into federation is not likely to stabilise relations among European states and may as well be a source of serious international dispute. In short, it might bring us close to the first anarchic scenario.

Benign neglect brings disintegration in disguise

Europe’s leaders have a record of engaging in façade politics; they make bombastic declarations without genuine intentions to live up to them. Consider, for instance, the history of the European Security and Defence Policy. After the traumatic Balkan experience, the Union decided to beef up its military capabilities. In 1999 the Helsinki “headline goal” envisaged 50,000-60,000 troops under the EU flag by 2003. When this promise proved unachievable the Union scaled down its ambitions and agreed to have a dozen or so “battle groups” by 2007, each of them comprising around 2000 soldiers. But the reality again failed to match the rhetoric. In the meantime, military operations under the EU flag have proliferated, and national defence budgets have shrunk. A chance to pool and rationalise Europe’s military resources has been missed – and Europe’s global reputation has been tarnished.

A similar temptation to engage in symbolic politics can be observed today. Although EU leaders warn that the fall of the euro would herald the end of the integration project, they seem reconciled to the prospect of Greece’s default. But the idea that ejecting one troubled member of the euro would halt rather than accelerate monetary disintegration is very problematic. The economies of contemporary Europe are too interdependent to make any cordon sanitaire around Greece effective.

Under the benign-neglect scenario, disintegration will take place in disguise. Rather than trying to look for European solutions to national problems, member states will increasingly try to solve problems on their own or in a non-European framework. They will not openly abandon the European project, but use it merely for public relations. The rationale will be to gain time and postpone problems. But unaddressed problems will not go away, and a fake EU will not be able to cope with them. While this scenario seems less likely to bring conflict than the other two, it would create a serous efficiency gap. Non-EU actors such as Turkey, Russia and the US would be likely to intervene more in European affairs – even playing EU member states off against each other  which could drive Europeans even further apart.

Re-inventing integration

A review of these scenarios makes for depressing reading. Europe must abort the march of folly or else disintegrate. The existing model of integration is clearly failing to protect Europe from external shocks and is no longer garnering public support, let alone enthusiasm. The integration project should therefore be re-thought or even re-invented to make it fit for the challenges of the 21st century. Novel ideas are more likely to originate at the grass-root level than at the top level in Brussels. The EU has sponsored several official reflection groups over the last decade but none of them have produced reports of any significance; they have simply not been sufficiently courageous, visionary and inspiring, especially for young people. We also need to look around for new leaders who would represent the modern equivalent of Schuman, Adenauer, Spaak and de Gasperi. The majority of contemporary politicians have proved either too timid or opportunistic to stand against parochial populists and nationalists determined to dismantle the European project.

In her book, Barbara Tuchman cites Plato’s suggestion to make philosophers kings in our cities so political power and intellectual wisdom will be joined in one. I am not sure whether the first part of this proposal is feasible, but we certainly need to merge power with wisdom in the difficult years to come.

[1]Barbara W. Tuchman, The March of Folly: from Troy to Vietnam, (Ballantine Books, 1985), 4.

[2]José Manuel Durão Barroso President of the European Commission Speech by President Barroso to the European Parliament during the debate on the economic crises and the euro European Parliament plenary session Strasbourg, 14 September 2011. Source:

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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