Jan Zielonka: "The EU today is hampering integration"

By Annamária Tóth | 15 October 2014

To quote this document: Annamária Tóth, “Jan Zielonka: "The EU today is hampering integration"”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Wednesday 15 October 2014, http://www.nouvelle-europe.eu/node/1854, displayed on 03 February 2023

In his latest book Is the EU Doomed? Jan Zielonka, Professor of European Politics at the University of Oxford and Ralf Dahrendorf Fellow at St Antony's College, analyses the future of integration in a crisis-ridden Europe. He talks to Annamária Tóth about the crisis and the way out, European integration without the EU and why the Juncker Commission should step down.

Your latest publication is an essay entitled Is the EU Doomed?. After reading it, the question seems to be a rhetorical one, as your answer is “yes”. In earlier works, you have described the EU as an empire. How did the EU move from empire to doom?

To start with, the previous book, Europe as Empire. The Nature of the Enlarged European Union, tried to look at the nature of an enlarged EU. Don't forget that I called it a neo-medieval empire. I wrote that book ten years ago. Today, we see more medieval than imperial aspects. In my latest book, I talk about a new Westphalian era or a new medievalism, referring to the rising plurality and 'hybridity' in the EU. This is characterised by overlapping authorities and sovereignty divided between different levels of governance, differentiated institutional arrangements and multiple identities. Instead of the national or European level, power and political allegiances are increasingly in the hands of transnational networks of NGOs, enterprises, cities and regions. In other words, non-state actors are increasingly gaining ground. This is why we need a new approach to integration, one that is based on genuine diversity and not so much on an “ever closer union”. This kind of integration is comparable to polyphony. I borrowed the concept from music, where it refers to two or more independent melodic lines employed simultaneously. So far, nation states have been the main actors of integration and they have only generated cacophony.

The concept of integration based on polyphony is the solution you propose to current problems. Let's go back to the roots of the problem. How has the current crisis changed things?

This crisis is one of coherence, trust and imagination. First, the EU is weaker than it was. Second, citizens' trust disappeared. Finally, the EU is unable to reform itself. I wrote the book on Europe as empire at the time the European constitution project faltered and tried to explain why that happened. Since then, there hasn't even been one attempt to introduce significant reforms. The only reform politicians managed to introduce was the Fiscal Compact, which is a symbol of dictatorship of the Merkozy tandem and is considered counterproductive in certain countries. Would the Union be able to reform itself, it would overcome the crisis, but unfortunately, I don't see that happening. Nobody talks about any serious reforms at all. They act as business as usual, but look at the results of the last European elections. In two big Member States Eurosceptics won. This is something serious which nobody seems to know how to tackle. That's why I talk about the crisis of imagination.

When I wrote the book on Europe as empire, everybody was talking about building a state but my argument was that we were going somewhere else, towards a new form of empire. Today I see even more reasons for giving up the idea of a European state. The centre is now even weaker than it used to be, not just because of the appointment of Mogherini and Tusk. They will not be worse than Ashton and Van Rompuy. Simply, they are captains of ships that are on stormy waters and they don't even know where to navigate to. This is the problem.

From what I see today, federation is not possible and you cannot go back to the nationstate as Eurosceptics argue. What is the alternative? I only hear from our political leaders in recent years that there is no alternative. If you are a European as I am, you shouldn't be happy with this explanation. It turns people against the Union and unless we change the course, it will all get busted. I don't say that my alternative is more viable but I want to have a serious discussion about alternatives.

To put it simply, your argument is that federalising would centralise everything in Brussels, while nationalising wouldn't work because many fields cannot be handled on the national level. So the alternative would be to look for other levels of governance and what they can do best. Is what you are proposing already there in the principle of subsidiarity?

It's not subsidiarity. It's about reducing the grip of the nation states over the integration project, about integration through independent agencies, not through Brussels. The states are important but they are not the only ones involved in the integration project. There are also NGOs, firms, cities, regions. We can discuss whether federation is a good option but I don't think this is the right question. The question is: Is it the workable option? And in my view, it is not the workable option because the states want to use the Union for their own advantage and they are not going to commit suicide and delegate all powers to Brussels and close down nation states. It is just as naive to think that we can go to Brussels and take everything back to national capitals and act as if we were living in the nineteenth century. I want to find the European integration model which can do with the European Union or even without it. If the EU is unwilling to change and unable to adapt to reality, I rather do without it because I don't want to sacrifice integration on the altar of a dysfunctional EU. As it is today, I think the EU is hampering integration.

In its current state, the EU is unable to solve problems people want it to solve. Look at the European elections: there were three issues in different parts of Europe which were crucial: in Northern countries, it was immigration. Does the EU do anything about immigration? The answer is no. In the East, it was Ukraine and Russia. Does the EU do anything about Russia? No. In the Southern countries, it was unemployment, particularly among the youth, and economic stagnation. Does the EU do anything about that? If it does, it only makes things worse.



But then, isn't that also because those who could decide about it, namely the Council, do not want the EU to do that?

Exactly. This means that this institution, the Council, is a hostage of national interests. My point is not to put blame on anyone. The European Commission does not even have the power in the fields we've just mentioned. My point is rather to ask: where could a question be best resolved? Let's take the question of social union as an example. Which actor is best suited to deal with social issues? Global markets? States? Regions? For me, it is not clear per se which is best. This is still an open question. You can say that the states still have the democratic legitimacy to deal with redistribution. However, in the EU money, people, services and capital move freely and they are all linked to social aspects, so why not delegate powers to Brussels? Or why not cities? Most of our growth is generated by cities and this is where hospitals and schools are.

Instead of jumping into a federation, I propose to decentralise powers, put less pressure on the EU as a European institution. The first option would be to have a drastic reform of the EU but this is unlikely to happen. This is why non-state actors, businesses, firms, NGOs, will take things into their own hands. They already do this because they cooperate with each other.

With all these networks of cooperation, what would make the EU any different from another region of the world? After all, these networks could also work on a global level.

In my view, who is part of a network is not the important aspect. The important aspect is that things work properly and that they solve the problems we have. Some of these solutions would have to be global, others would have to be regional, and yet others would have to be local. The idea that Europe is the optimal unit to solve these problems is just not true.

The new Commission wants to put an emphasis on leading Europe out of the crisis and focusing more concretely on what European citizens want. If you could give Jean-Claude Juncker an advice, what would it be?

Step down. Let the new generation run Europe. Enough of the old gatekeepers there. Now it's time for other people to do things differently. You have to stop talking to people about Europe in the language that the old generation does. I'm not even the best for this. Let the young people talk about it. Let's start talking about Europe in different ways. Let's start to have plan B, C, D and not to be told by Mr Juncker that there is actually no alternative.

Just to clarify one thing: I have nothing against individuals, against Juncker, or Ashton, or anyone else. They are doing their best. But the system doesn't work. We have to face the truth. We are losing the integration project as the EU is now. Look at the results of the European elections. We haven't even started a discussion yet on involving people into decision-making. All the EU is about the elites. Where are the people? Show me NGOs fighting for integration which are not being funded by the European Commission. There are many fighting for environmental protection, human rights, and many other issues. But not for the European cause. How come? Because we lost citizens' trust, as I explained before.

Even the elite isn't thrilled about the integration project anymore. I don't know any politicians who are going with joy to European Council meetings. A lot of my students are looking for jobs in Brussels, but I've never seen them being happy there. There are things which are working fine in the EU and things which clearly don't work and we need to find fix those issues. We have to start talking openly about those things because otherwise are losing the game and the xenophobes are winning. No-one wants to live in a Europe run by Farage, Wilders, Le Pen and so on. But this is where we are going.

Of course, I exaggerate my point. I understand that you cannot achieve everything at once. I understand that it's not so easy to find solutions in a complex situation. But I do not accept a situation in which we're not even allowed to say that we think differently because we are called Eurosceptics, anarchists, or simply out of mind. Those who say so are out of mind because they refuse to accept the reality around us and that there are different options. I don't want to say that my options work in this short book but I want to have a discussion about alternatives.

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Photo credits: Jan Zielonka and Reuben Wong at the Opening of the Alpbach Political Symposium 2013, (c) Philipp Naderer / European Forum Alpbach