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Jesse Magin – The decay of the EU

When having paid closer attention to EU politics in recent past one might have noticed that a rather new term has found its way into European politics: the so-called “coalition of the willing”.

Countries that have an interest in extended European coordination and cooperation form alliances of the willing to deepen their relations while avoiding to deal with the bureaucratic barriers of European institutions and the logjam in the European Council caused by the principle of unanimity.

Two examples can illustrate this: First, based on the initiative of Emmanuel Macron a coalition of the willing consisting of ten countries was formed in 2018 that aims at more extensive military cooperation called the European Intervention Initiative (IEI) than outlined in the EU policy PESCO. Secondly, 14 countries agreed on a coalition of the willing to welcome refugees that are rescued in the Mediterranean Sea in 2019 following the restrictive measures taken in Italy by Matteo Salvini targeting ships that rescue refugees in distress.

Especially the latter example depicts the fundamental problem of this shift in consideration of the logjam of the European Council caused by several East European states. Lacking the idea of solidarity and equality between all member states coalitions of the willing strengthen politically opposed governments. If you can expect that others will find a solution without you having to contribute, a typical collective action problem arises: governments opposing certain projects can benefit from them without participating which results in a decreasing incentive for further cooperation and increasing incentive for freeriding. Therefore, coalitions of the willing may deepen the already existing division between the rather sceptic East European countries and the enthusiastic West European countries even further.

Even though political pragmatism is sometimes necessary to quickly react to uprising challenges and should be preferred over passivity in particular situations, forming coalitions of the willing seems fatal for the European Union in the long run. When we remind ourselves of one of the main goals of the European Union we may think of the approximation and enclosure of the European countries. In addition to that we may also recall that a Union demands every member to carry some part of the load (according to their capacities) may it concern refugees, defence or climate change. Coalitions of the willing create and admit a two-pace approach towards the European project which is a paradox in regard to the functioning of the EU. The EU is designed in a way of an “European redistribution scheme”, which results in poorer countries being net beneficiaries and richer countries net contributors when only looking at the directly measurable benefits given out by the EU aiming eventually at a convergence of the national (economic) characteristics. Furthermore, there is a general awareness to the commensurability of EU policies which means for example that Hungary does not have to expect to send as many troops as France in case of the IEI. Consequently, a two-pace approach seems to contradict not only the idea but also the functioning of the EU and basically exemplifies the failure of the EU as it admits that national differences cannot be overcome.

Instead of deepening the rift between more enthusiastic and rather sceptical member states of the EU in regard to their view on the power of the European Commission further steps of the European integration and approximation should either be carried out by everyone or by none. Trying to circumvent the political deadlock of the European Council by building coalitions of the willing cannot be the long-term answer anyway and will ultimately harm the perception, understanding, attractiveness and integrity of the EU.

If the member states cannot agree on how to respond to large important challenges together the EU partly fails to legitimate the necessity of its power in these policy areas. Lifting responsibilities to supranationality is not an end in itself but needs to substantially improve the possibilities of politicians to respond to the respective challenges. This is especially the case if the EU cannot exploit these responsibilities which is why a decrease in sovereignty should always be accompanied by a higher willingness to cooperate on the supranational level. If the EU cannot secure this it will not only prove the doubters right but cause resignation among the former advocates and eventually pull the European project into the abyss.

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