Of euro-pessimism and failures

Should we be depressed or happy about the state of Europe? In truth, no one knows

Director, Wider Europe programme

It is not difficult to be depressed about the EU these days. A recent
re-read of the Laeken
that set in motion the whole European Convention, the
Constitutional and Lisbon Treaties exercises just made me think (more) how far
is EU’s current state (and institutional basis) from the stated ambitions of
2001. Here us a useful reminder of the spirit of the declaration:

“What is Europe’s role in this changed world? Does Europe not, now that is finally unified, have a leading
role to play in a new world order, that of a power able both to play a
stabilising role worldwide and to point the way ahead for many countries and
peoples? Europe as the continent of humane values, the Magna Carta, the Bill of
Rights, the French Revolution and the fall of the Berlin Wall… The European
Union’s one boundary is democracy and human rights…  Europe
needs to shoulder its responsibilities in the governance of globalisation. The
role it has to play is that of a power resolutely doing battle against all
violence, all terror and all fanaticism… In short, a power wanting to change
the course of world affairs.”

The truth is that throughout most of its existence the EU was as frustrating
and depressive for its supporters as is it now. And yet, it still is the single
most successful international organisation in history. So how do we balance
euro-pessimism and optimism, history and future, success and failure, analysis
and wishful thinking?

The EU spent 7 years (or two decades – depending what’s your starting point)
wrangling with endless institutional reforms. For the last few years the
underlying feeling with many in Brussels was “just wait for us to adopt/ratify
the constitution/Lisbon treaty and then we will show the world and anyone else
what the enlarged EU is capable of… just wait a moment, this last effort and we
will do wonders… we only need the new institutional set-up and the EU will
enter a new historic phase.” Well not exactly. The appointment of Van Rompuy
and Catherine Ashton only confirmed
the EU’s usual modus operandi based on a strong bias in favour of the
lowest common denominator and against personalities with strong views and

But then I’ve finally managed to read Moravcsik’s entire book “The
Choice for Europe
: Social Purpose and State Power from Messina
to Maastricht”
– a detailed history (and theory) of European integration from the 50s to the
90s. Until my recent vacation, I only managed to read its 100 pages long
introduction (ie the key theoretical part), 30 pages-long conclusions and
scattered passages. Reading detailed historical accounts of the EU is
useful. It puts things into perspective. The more history I read, the more pervasive
is my sense of deja vu and the fewer reasons to be pessimistic I have.

Just like history at school is a long list of wars, EU history often looks
like a list of failed initiatives and unfulfilled ambitions. In the best case –
it takes decades for ambitions to become realities. A common currency and a
European Central bank were first proposed in 1969 (the Euro appeared in 1999).
A president of the European Commission (Hallstein) called himself the
prime-minister of Europe already in the 60s.
Ideas for a European Constitution and a European foreign minister were first
muted in the late 70s-early 80s. Big launches such as the European defence
community (of 1954) proved failures, while many “modest” initiatives that few
bothered to notice at the time (like competition policy) proved to have a huge
impact on European integration.

Any detailed account of EU history reads like an endless list of failures, disappointments,
backtracking, non-compliance with commitments, unfulfilled expectations, hard
bargaining, dull and unimpressive bureaucrats, selfish national leaders,
egoistic states, ever-growing skepticism, blatant behaviour of large
member states, a ridiculous common agricultural policy, etc etc.

Just think of the following. In the 50s the adoption of the Treaty of Rome
in 1957 was a backtracking from the mega-supranational nature of the European
Steal and Coal Community of 1952. Euratom proved to be a fluff. Jean Monnet was
not impressed by the Treaty of Rome. Then read the following paragraph in
Moravcisk’s book (page 95) about the attitude of the German social-democratic
party to European integration in the early 50:

rhetorically pro-European, the SPD had opposed concrete steps toward European integration
in the early 50s. The major reasons were geopolitical: integration, SPD leaders
believed, undermined prospects for rapid reunification and promoted the
integration of a rearmed army into Western military plans… By 1956 SPD started
to shift…” not least because the European Communities were less supra-national
than the ECSC. For SPD back then European integration was going against
dialogue with the USSR
with the aim achieving reunification.”

Then the 60s were dominated by De Gaulle’s triple veto of UK’s accession to the EU, the empty-chair crisis and
the Luxembourg
compromise which introduced a right of veto for member states on issues of
crucial importance without any legal basis in the treaties. Since the 70s the
European Council further de-supranationalised (or re-nationalised)
decision-making. The 70s-80s were considered even worse: two lost decades of
Euro-sclerosis. The appointment of Solana in 1999 constrained even further the
European Commission’s foreign policy ambitions. Almost every decade since the
50s witnessed often successful pressures towards less supranationalism in
European integration.

And what of the dull bureaucrats? The European Commission has had 11
presidents since 1958. But who remembers presidents Rey, Malfatti, Ortoli or Thorn?
You might remember Santer, but for the wrong reasons. Hallstein and Jenkins are
somewhere in the back of the mind, but far from being household names. And
only Delors looks impressive, but then many will tell you that he was appointed
precisely because no one thought at the time he was a visionary.

And still the EU is somehow considered a big success. The truth is that the
EU has almost always been an institution of dull bureaucrats pushing for
incremental measures that mostly fail, and those that become successes are
acknowledged as such only ten years later.

I guess, just like today, committed pro-Europeans have almost always had
plenty of reasons to be depressed about the state of the EU. But the European
integration somehow muddled through its way into being what it is – a huge
success. I don’t know whether now it will be the same – through crises and
apathy ad astra
. But I am neither pessimistic, nor optimistic about the
EU. Or am I both. I did expect more from the post-Lisbon environment, but then maybe
there is some underlying process, boring document or dull bureaucrat that is
working now on what in 10 or 20 years we will call a success. Or maybe not. The
truth is that no one knows.

This piece first appeared in the author’s EUObserver blog


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


Director, Wider Europe programme

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