Sep ’15: Can the EU Survive?


Can the European Union survive?
Text by Risto Heiskala, (based on the
IASR Lecture in September, 2015)
Brussels Photos by Mika Kukkonen

Editor’s note: In the article, the Director of the Institute for Advanced Social Research, Professor Risto Heiskala, discusses the current standing of the European Union from four perspectives: ideology, economy, military and political organization. First, the values of the EU are briefly analyzed vis-à-vis the key treaties of the Union. A discussion of the Union’s chief challenges is then preceded by a few observations on its achievements. While no clear stance is taken on whether the EU will survive or not, an alternate discussion of both the achievements and the challenges facing the EU creates an image not entirely pessimistic.

Following its origins in a coal and steel union of six countries in 1952, a succession of international treaties and waves of enlargement have transformed The European Union into its present form. Now the Union has 28 member states and 508 million inhabitants – which can be regarded as a noteworthy expansion not least because of the violent history of the continent. Following the collapse of European empires at the end of World War II, the establishment and consolidation of the union has finally brought peace to Europe, which is a major achievement in itself.

Insofar as the EU was originally initiated as a peace plan for Europe, this plan has worked. But there are other difficult challenges the EU is committed to tackle. According to the Europe 2020 Strategy, the union promotes smart, inclusive and sustainable growth. The Treaty of Nice (2001) stresses that the internal workings and trade policy with third parties of the union are guided by the values of human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.

The union’s original trade union roots have left an abiding trace on the EU. It still rings correct to describe the EU with the words of Mark Eyskens (the former foreign minister of Belgium) from 1991: Europe is an economic giant, a political dwarf and a military worm. To tackle its ambitious objectives, however, the EU must develop its capabilities of coordinating the joint efforts of the member states in several sectors.

It is all but clear whether the union is capable of doing this. The considerable economic tensions may shift the union towards a federal state but may equally well break it up – or erode it into something less significant. The challenges need to be met at least in the sectors of ideology, economy, military force, political organization, infrastructures and environment.

Ideologically, the values codified in the Treaty of Nice are widely shared among the EU citizens. They are also enforced inside the union and its trade negotiations with third parties. However, enforcement of the values is incomplete both internally (Austria went through the process a few years ago, but Hungary has avoided all sanctions) and with third parties (the recent negotiations with Turkey being an example). There also remain challenges among the citizens regarding the values of nationalist populism, racism and fundamentalism, whether Muslim or Christian.


Economically, the EU is a giant, the economies of the member states being already deeply intermingled – and the integration process still goes on. Austerity policies on the union level and in the member states, however, have deepened the European recession, and the inability of the member states to share burdens has created unnecessary tragedy in the Mediterranean member states.

The Euro, a joint project of 19 of the member states, is still an incomplete currency, which limits the benefits that would be available in the wake of the strengthening of its position as a global reserve currency alongside or even instead of the US dollar.

But the most important problem is that the EU still follows the path chosen in its birth that was characterized by the German ordoliberal understanding that all social matters can and should be treated as economic. Thus the Union treats inequality, for instance, primarily as a matter of limited possibilities to participate in the labor market – and education is understood in a similar vein.

Surely, participation in the labor market does play a role in questions of education and inequality, but that is not all there is to them. In order to be able to face the future mega-challenges in regard to the problems of inequality and environmental hazards, the economic closure needs to be gradually replaced with a more openly political and ideological framework.

Militarily, the joint expenditure of the member states was USD 275 billion in 2014. This is a high figure, making up about half (i.e. 45 %) of the comparative expenditure of the US and more than three times (i.e. 327 %) that of Russia. Yet the key difference is that the EU army comes in 28 packages (the most important of these being the armies of the nuclear arm states of France and the UK). There is great need, then, for better military coordination.

Geopolitically, the last three waves of expansion of the union (in 1995–2013) amount to an invasion into the peripheral areas of the former Soviet empire, and Russia is reacting accordingly in Ukraine and elsewhere. Therefore, the EU would need an army of its own – which is not, however, currently in sight. Instead, the EU does what it has always done since the World War II: it leans on the US through NATO. This reduces costs but is dangerous because the US may have different interests in Europe than most of the EU member states.


In terms of political organization, the EU could be more integrated than it is. The Commission, the Parliament, the European Council and the European Central Bank form a relatively coherent decision making system through which it is possible to promote joint projects, but the major problem is the establishment of joint projects. In difficult situations, these take on the shape of ad hoc negotiations, which have recently been increasingly run by Germany.

Another problem is the small size of the central bureaucracy consisting of only about 1% of the GNP of the EU area and some 30,000 eurocrats located mainly in Brussels. But this bureaucracy, which is about the same size of the French Ministry of Agriculture, is a relatively efficient machinery to coordinate national bureaucracies. In these attempts, it is supported by the fact that membership negotiations with the EU make the new membership candidates to reformulate some two thirds of their national legislation according to the union’s directives and, therefore, there is a relatively unified legal code in all of the EU countries.

Yet another problem results from the weak mass support for the union. The EU is changing the national political environments, and as a consequence a division of citizens to Euro winners and Euro losers is taking place all over Europe. This is reflected in the fact that roughly one third of the MPs making it to the European Parliament in the last election were Eurosceptic, and this happened in a situation in which the voter turnout was as low as 42.5%.

In contrast, it is important to note that two thirds of the MPs still stand for European integration, and in comparison, the turnout percentage is not much higher in the federal elections of the US. Minimal conditions of the legitimacy of the union are, therefore, still met but the margin is not wide and one can ask how long this will be the case.

In regard to infrastructures and environment, the EU has problems with the aging population – and whether these can be solved with greater migration remains to be seen. There are further shortcomings in the lack of self-sufficiency of energy sources, a great deal of which come from Russia – and the transportation system, which would need great investments in the future. An overall problem, in addition, is that the European innovation system still lags behind the US both in regard to knowledge production and the availability of venture capital for new business ideas.

The biggest problems, in the end, have to do with the climate change and other environmental issues. The problems are global and the EU is by no means the worst villain in this issue, but the actual fact is that actions taken are by far insufficient in regard to the seriousness of the problems.

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If these are the challenges, can the EU meet them or will it break up or erode into something insignificant? The stakes are high and nobody knows the answer, but what we do know is that the challenges of increasing inequality and the emerging environmental crisis give us reason to anticipate some kind of improvement. An EU that would be stronger and more united than the current one would provide one solution. We need to hope that this or some other respective form of policy coordination will emerge. This is the case simply because the problems we are facing are such that no nation state is a unit big and strong enough to be able to solve them alone.