The “European Moment”: tipping Point for the future of the EU

By Henning Vöpel
Henning Vöpel is Director of the Center for European Policy and Professor of Economics at the BSP Business and Law School.

There are moments in life, as in history, when decisions set the course, as it were. Decisions that significantly change directions and processes. Such moments usually define a time window of conscious shaping – or of irreversible procrastination and omission. When it closes, it may not be possible to reopen it for many years.

Europe is currently experiencing such a moment. The pandemic, which has still not been fully overcome, and above all Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, which is contrary to international law, require short-term responses that cannot be prepared for years as is usually the case. Lengthy coordination processes are converging into a moment when courage, vision and wisdom are needed to quickly chart the right course and overcome obstacles. In the history of Europe, it has almost always been moments like these when an emulsion of historical possibility and political vision lifted Europe to the next level.

It is in the nature of such moments that they contain as great opportunities as they do risks. A decision that is both courageous and wise therefore requires being clear about what answers the present requires and what paths into the future manifest themselves as a result.

The current events, which in their totality and in their historical context define a “European moment,” in a sense force an adjustment of the previous integration process and thus no more and no less than a new European constitution. The scope must therefore not be underestimated, either politically or institutionally.

In such moments, there is not only the danger of missing a historical window of opportunity, as described above, but at the same time the danger of tipping points, i.e., dynamics that become irreversible after a certain point. Politically necessary and perhaps opportune responses in the present can lead to institutionally problematic developments in the future.

Three examples illustrate the EU’s dilemmas:

EU membership of Ukraine

Politically, there is probably no alternative to paving the way for Ukraine to join the EU. There is no other way to assert Europe’s sphere of influence against that of Russia or China. Full membership at a premature point in time, however, would further increase the already high heterogeneity of the EU, because as right as it is to bind Ukraine more closely to the EU, it is also undisputed that Ukraine is still far from fulfilling the requirements for membership today.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron has introduced as a “solution” the idea of a political community, which describes something akin to a European sphere of influence, or a renewed political idea of the former “West,” which at the time offered a vague but nevertheless attractive narrative for Eastern European countries to orient themselves toward the West.

Oil embargo

The EU’s (partial) oil embargo against Russia, which had just been decided, faced the problem that it would only be effective if it was supported by all EU countries. Anything else would have been a defeat for the EU and would only have strengthened Vladimir Putin’s intention to divide the EU over this issue. But if the energy policy dependencies and interests among the EU member states are very heterogeneous, unanimity can only be achieved through a “balance”. Or else, a common European energy policy can be defined, but this would mean further centralization. Even more: In the confrontation with Putin, the EU would have to be capable of ever-sharper levels of escalation.

In fact, however, with each additional step, agreement becomes more and more expensive or the effect less and less. Conversely, this institutional dysfunction increases the negotiating power of individual member states in asserting national interests, as shown, for example, by Hungary, which uses the EU’s unanimity rule to block decisions and extort its own benefits.

Pandemic Aids

Politically, the pandemic has required great European solidarity to overcome its health and economic consequences. In the course of this, the EU was granted to borrow over €750 billion collectively to finance the NextGenerationEU stimulus package. Here, too, a historically enforced political decision could significantly change the institutional development of the EU, namely if this temporary financing instrument were to establish itself as a permanent facility.

The crises and events of recent months have left the EU struggling for more stability internally and more sovereignty externally. The dilemma is that the EU would have to act faster to be more sovereign externally and at the same time more cohesive to be more stable internally. The tension between sovereignty and stability is largely determined by the institutional balance of the following trade-offs:

  • Unity and heterogeneity: The unity of the EU depends essentially on the heterogeneity of the interests of its member states. If unanimity does not exist, it must be established politically through negotiation. In this sense, heterogeneity is expensive and requires central means of compensation.
  • Power and subsidiarity: Heterogeneity can be “solved” with subsidiarity, in that decentrally differentiated solutions can be found. In important fields, however, especially those that determine defense and strategic capability, more central power is needed for the EU to be perceived as a geopolitical actor.
  • Responsibility and solidarity: The pandemic has shown that there are events that can only be overcome together. However, greater solidarity to increase resilience to crises and disasters must not lead to false incentives for less individual responsibility.

The model of different speeds is not new. And as plausible as it may seem politically, it is difficult to implement institutionally. This is because it must strengthen and speed up the core of the EU as a “club of the willing,” while at the same time tying the periphery with states such as Ukraine, northern Macedonia or Bosnia-Herzegovina more closely to the EU.

Europe must now, as it is historically challenged, provide far-sighted answers. There is no alternative to this at a time when the priority is not to harmonize small-scale policies to complete the Union, but to strengthen a common idea of Europe in the incipient geopolitical system competition.


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