Making sense of Europe’s cohesion challenge

A new study from ECFR shows that, perhaps surprisingly, between 2007 and 2014, cohesion among EU member states has improved, even after years of crises

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In recent years the EU has been buffeted by a range of crises – the euro crisis, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and more recently, the risk of a “Brexit” and the influx of refugees at the EU’s borders. None of these problems can be solved by countries acting alone. It follows that the key to an effective response is maintaining European cohesion. So how cohesive has the EU been in the face of these challenges?

A new study from the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) shows that, perhaps surprisingly, between 2007 and 2014, cohesion among EU member states has improved, even after years of crises. The EU Cohesion Monitor presents new insights on cohesion as an underestimated source of strength and collective action in the EU.

Cohesion has been measured according to structural and individual metrics. Structural cohesion measures the ties between member states such as trade flows, participation in common policies or their geographical proximity, whereas individual cohesion measures the engagement, experiences, and views of EU citizens.

The EU Cohesion Monitor shows how EU cohesion is driven by a diverse set of indicators and factors that are different for each country. The study illustrates noticeable changes in cohesion drivers between 2007 and 2014.

Southern European countries such as Spain, Italy and Portugal became less cohesive with the EU over the period due to the financial crisis, while East-Central European countries, such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, became more cohesive during the same time.

Now on the eve of a potential “Brexit”, the United Kingdom shows a noticeably weak cohesion profile. Its modest score underlines the relatively low willingness of Britons to cooperate on a European level.

Most diverse in terms of their cohesion profiles are Ireland and Hungary. While Ireland has a high cohesion profile in terms of individual engagement with the European project, it is less structurally engaged with the EU. Hungary, on the other hand, is highly engaged with the EU on a structural level, but lacks individual engagement with the EU and its values.

The EU Cohesion Monitor illustrates that cohesion is not static but subject to constant change. This enables governments, civil society organisations and EU citizens to take action to strengthen cohesion in areas where the EU Cohesion Monitor identifies shortcomings.

Author Josef Janning said:

“There are clear grounds for European cohesion – the border-free zone, the economic prosperity derived from being part of the EU, and the security assurance afforded by the Union – and there is a willingness among member states to cooperate. It is for these reasons that European cohesion has gradually strengthened over time.”

“The EU Cohesion Monitor data reveals a significant split among EU member states between 2007 and 2014. When ranking countries according to their change in cohesion levels over the period, the dichotomy is striking. All of the East-Central European countries have gained over the seven-year period. On the other hand, cohesion among almost all of the countries in the south of Europe has declined, with only Malta and Portugal improving over the period.”

“Since 2007, Hungary has overtaken the Czech Republic as the least individually engaged member state. Hungary’s position in 2014 is very peculiar indeed, because it has a high level of structural cohesion matched by the Baltic States, but is at the lowest level of individual cohesion.”

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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