A real European
Jan Zielonka is a Polish national, has a Dutch passport, is an Italian resident and a British taxpayer. Thus it seems reasonable when this Oxford professor of European politics calls himself ‘a real European’. He recently wrote an essay which has been published under the title Is the EU doomed?. Last November he visited Amsterdam for a debate on the implications of his book. He suggested that he might not be as pessimistic as the title of his essay implies.

“There are three reasons the EU might well be doomed.”

The European Union (EU) is going through some gloomy times. The financial crisis (painfully) brought our attention to the fact that the EU is far from perfect. It revealed that the EU is financially unstable, but more importantly it showed us that the EU suffers from problems that are even more dangerous to the further integration of the EU.

“There are three reasons the EU might well be doomed.”, said Zielonka during the debate. First of all, the EU seems to be generating more inequality instead of less. Some member states are doing well while other states constantly seem to be on the verge of a financial collapse . Furthermore, the crisis divided the EU into creditor and debtor states. A widening gap suddenly emerged between member states, which ultimately resulted in policy makers and policy takers. But even more dangerous than this widening gap between member states is the lack of trust of the EU citizens. This lack of trust is reflected in the rapid increase in popularity of Eurosceptic parties all across Europe. Even here in the Netherlands Euroscepticism has gained popularity, with the Party for the Freedom (PVV) getting a significant amount of votes with a very Eurosceptic agenda. Finally, the EU suffers from a lack of imagination. While facing approaching disintegration, EU leaders are not able to come up with viable alternatives for a different EU.

In short, the EU is not only suffering from a financial crisis, but also from a crisis of cohesion, trust and imagination. Zielonka believes that if these problems are not addressed, the EU is heading for a path of disintegration. Hence, in the end the EU might very well be doomed.

Zielonka believes that if these problems are not addressed the EU is heading for a path of disintegration

Although Professor Zielonka points out many wrongs, he acknowledges that the EU brought us things worth preserving. One of these is the power to compete in an increasingly global world. Without the EU small member states are overshadowed by giants like China, the USA and Russia. Moreover, the main goal of the EU has always been the achievement of peace and prosperity. Consequently, Europe is currently enjoying over six decades of peace and an admirable level of wealth in comparison to most other parts of the world. “If nothing is done to stop disintegration, the EU will possibly lose some of these hard earned assets”, said Zielonka.

Certain reforms, although well meant, will only lead to more disintegration.

He then went on to sketch three scenarios of disintegration. One of these scenarios involves an external shock triggering a crisis much like the crisis of 2008. And as history suggests, it is only a matter of time before the EU will be hit by the next external shock. Another possibility is what happened to Gorbachev when he tried to save the Soviet Union. Certain reforms, although well meant, will only lead to more disintegration. It is therefore important that EU policymakers are aware of this threat produced by possible external effects of their policies. The last possible scenario sees disintegration happening as a consequence of neglect by EU leaders. Zielonka strikingly illustrated this during the debate with an old Soviet joke. In this joke Stalin, Brezhnev and Khrushchev are on a train when it suddenly stops. First things first, Stalin orders a soldier to shoot the conductor. When the train still doesn’t move, Khrushchev asks to rehabilitate the conductor post-mortem. Eventually Brezjnev says: ”Comrades, why don’t we just close the curtains and act as if the train is still going.”

It is not as if the leaders of the EU are completely oblivious to the dark cloud of disintegration hanging over Europe. Nor would they enjoy the possible consequences of it. Therefore, some of them have been considering possible pathways of further integration. The most striking one sees the EU turning into a federation much like the USA. However, Zielonka believes this scenario is highly unlikely because it involves member states giving up much of their power. A more surprising one is referred to as Bundestag Europa. Since the Germans are already running the show, why don’t we build the EU around them? What makes this option somewhat credible is the fact Germany didn’t ask for the role they have found themselves in. Furthermore, they showed great competence in handling the financial crisis. Despite all this, Zielonka discards this option as well. This is because such a role requires the party in question to be both willing and able. Germany might be able, but they are certainly not willing to make sacrifices that such a position would require.

The power lost by the EU will leave ‘power-voids’.

Professor Zielonka has an interesting take on how the EU might evolve in the years to come. He thinks that faced with future problems, members will find ways around the European bureaucracy. In fact, already this is happening with the current Greek debt crisis. However, working around the EU in this manner is likely to backfire. How? Well, this behaviour deprives the EU of power and as a result also weakens its member states. The power lost by the EU will leave ‘power-voids’. And inevitably, other actors will step in and fill these voids left behind by the EU. These actors might very well be big cities, non-governmental organizations ( NGOs) or big regions. Already these actors play a big role in day-to-day life for many EU citizens. These institutions could even be more effective than the current EU. In fact, to many citizens these actors already are more important to them than their governments. In light of these developments Zielonka suggests many of the currently existing institutions should be handed more power and money. Their flexibility and focus allows them to adapt much better in an increasingly dynamic political system.

So are we doomed?
Despite its suggestive title, Jan Zielonka’s essay still reads like a positive note in a time when the EU is more and more linked with negativity. Although the EU might be doomed, it does not have to be the end of the integration. Future developments, even disintegration, offer us new opportunities to improve our cooperation. In any case, the future of the EU might be a lot different from what many of us have in mind.



Is the EU Doomed? (2014)