By Kurt Hübner, Jean Monnet Chair for European Integration and Global Political Economy, Institute for European Studies, University of British Columbia
If it needed proof that the EU lost its mojo, then you only have to take a closer look at the recent fight about the size and design of the proposed recovery fund. What started as an ambitious initiative by the European Commission quickly turned into a messy battle, driven by national interests. Even a historical event like the Covid-19 pandemic did not hold back member states trying to maximize their net benefits. Council meetings always resemble bazaars. This time the highly civilized practices of bazaars quickly made room for harsh and egotistic practices of the head of states. Imagine a person is drowning, and you ask for a helpful financial hand out to keep the person above water, then you get an idea about the working oft the European Council. Like always over the last 50 years plus, the European Council eventually found a compromise that keeps the machine running. One may even make the argument that the final package is a step forward as it gives the Commission the first time a fiscal tool into its hands. The struggle showed, however, that economic polarization goes hand in hand with political and cultural divergence within the block. The common denominator is getting smaller, and as a result, the project of European integration is losing its magic. What some see as a step towards deeper integration came with a high political price that puts a dark shadow onto the future.
To a large degree, this development is the outcome of a long period of hyper-marketization that dominated the political processes since the late 1980s. The idea that the genuine liberalization of markets will make the EU globally competitive never had a lot of traction in theoretical terms. Still, it was the project of economic orthodoxy that became the hallmark of the EU. It is also the product of a European technocracy that lost identification with the initial spirit of the project where aspects of common European goods were critical. Rather than safeguarding European public goods, the Commission deliberately favoured commodification in the hope of creating new and promising capital outlets. More than ever, narrow national preferences dominate, reflecting inward-looking tendencies of member states and extremely short-sighted sentiments in core countries like the Netherlands and Austria - countries which simultaneously run successful tax oases. Eastern enlargement, once seen as a project of democratization and support of liberal values, has brought back authoritarian and backward-looking attitudes to the forefront, not only in Eastern Europe but also in core countries of the West (including the South and the North). European governments see the EU as a tool for their own political interests and needs, and no longer as a joint project that needs steady maintenance and support.
The project of European integration is in seriously bad shape. The EU, not so much. Business as usual is its running method, as the often-cited bicycle theorem stated. The cyclist may not fall but seems to paddle into the dark past of nationalism, camouflaged by utilitarian arguments—what a shame.
Kurt Huebner holds the Jean Monnet Chair for European Integration and Global Political Economy at the University of British Columbia. His research includes global and European currency regimes, international regimes of foreign direct investment, and the relations between innovation and sustainability. His latest research focuses on the economic and socio-political foundations of technical innovations in a transatlantic perspective, and the ongoing processes of currency competition and currency cooperation (Euro-Dollar-Renminbi).