What does an ever closer union really mean?

European construction sites

Ulrich Brasche

To person

is Professor of Economics at the Technical University of Brandenburg. His main research interests include the integration and expansion of the European Union. [email protected]

Much is generally expected of the European Union, it has to meet high standards and meet a wide range of requirements: It should protect its citizens and their fundamental rights, bring about economic success, secure peace, control external borders, promote weak regions, and ensure compliance with democratic ones Ensure standards and "European values" and much more. At the same time, it should respect the diversity of cultures and views of life and not interfere with the sovereignty of the member states. In its current constitution, however, the EU cannot meet these complex expectations because it has neither the mandate nor the necessary resources to do so. Instead of stronger supranational cooperation and deepening, European integration has also been characterized by stagnation in recent years. Brexit actually means a considerable step backwards. Bold steps are required if one wants to overcome this "sclerosis" and develop the Union productively, even if it involves risks. [1]

European integration is an ongoing process that depends on the willingness of all members to tackle problems together and to hand over parts of national sovereignty to "Brussels". So far, it has primarily placed markets and currencies under the common set of rules of the European Treaties, which on the one hand empower the EU, but on the other hand also limit its flexibility. The mandate specified in the contracts can only be expanded unanimously. However, the world has changed a lot since the Union began. The pressing issues today include climate and the environment, demography and migration, geopolitical shifts, social divisions and the financial crisis that has not yet been overcome from 2008. The corona pandemic and its consequences have added another urgent problem this year. All of these issues are associated with new challenges for business and politics. For many of these problems and newly emerging crises, however, the existing contracts hardly offer any concrete procedures or means for dealing with or even coping with them. Important policy areas are not communitized, which is particularly noticeable in times of crisis - currently, for example, in the case of health policy.

In the following I will look into the question of how the EU could develop productively under these conditions.

Priority for "European added value"

The EU should focus on tasks where it can create "European added value". To do this, at least the following three criteria must be met. [2]
  1. To have to Economies of scale arise: Some tasks can be done better or more efficiently in larger units. This applies, for example, to the expansion of infrastructure, technology development or military equipment.
  2. It must be about Common goods act: This is the case when the usability of a good or a service does not decrease, when the number of users increases. In addition, no one can be excluded from use, even if no contribution is made to the financing. Examples of such goods are security and research.
  3. It must cross-border effects Giving: This is the case when acting (or failing to act) in a country has significant effects beyond its own borders. This is often the case with environmental issues, for example.
From these three criteria alone, however, no consensual assignment of a policy field to the competence of the EU can be derived. Because again and again "economic reason" and the political ideas of the citizens are contrary to each other. For example, the economies of scale and the cross-border effects speak in favor of joint development, manufacture and joint sale of armaments, while the different national preferences in foreign and defense policy allow only one national competence. [3] The same applies to financial policy or the role of the state in the economy.

Always closer, always better?

Often the completion of an "ever closer union" is considered desirable or even necessary. The Treaty establishing the European Economic Community (Treaty of Rome, 1957) already speaks of the "firm will to create the basis for an ever closer union of the European peoples". The determination to continue "the process of creating an ever closer union of the peoples of Europe" is also expressed in the Treaty on European Union (Lisbon Treaty, 2009). This is linked to the hope that a European central power would be free from negative forms of nationalism and only represent the common good. The conflicts between nation states, which had unfolded terribly in two world wars, were to be overcome. In a speech in autumn 1946, Winston Churchill proclaimed the "United States of Europe" as the goal of a peaceful union. It remains unclear and controversial to this day whether it should be a "Union of Peoples" or a "Union of States", i.e. whether a federal EU state should necessarily be the goal.

In selected areas, the EU has definitely moved in the direction of a "closer union". For example, the regulation of the cross-border exchange of goods, services, labor and capital, competition supervision and the currency are no longer in the sovereignty of the member states. In all other areas, however, the states have not given up their sovereignty, but are at most ready for mutual coordination and cooperation within the framework of the treaties. Even if the transfer of responsibility to the EU promised "European added value", the following problems remained unsolved.

Promised too much? In many policy areas, the desired success has so far not been achieved, even at the national level. Neither the elimination of the large regional differences in prosperity nor the management of the financial crisis or the current infection crisis nor the management of the economy in the member states have been satisfactory. This is partly due to a general overestimation of the efficiency of politics in complex societies. But why should this efficiency increase in principle when politics and administration are centralized across national borders? At most, if a single country is affected by a negative shock and is in a network with other member states, centralization based on the insurance principle can prove to be superior. An "insurance" should, however, only be taken out between partners who have the same probability of damage; otherwise there will be unplanned or politically unwanted transfers.

Too unequal for togetherness? The societies of the Member States - from Finland to Greece, from "East" to "West" - differ in many ways. The diversity of their history, traditions, views of life, specializations, preferences, economic strength and problems make up the "unity in diversity" respected in the treaties. At the same time, uniform rules and solutions are hardly accepted as appropriate. While some tend to operate economically, others see more generous spending by the state as the right way to go. There are also incompatible positions among the members on the sale and use of military technology to secure geostrategic interests, although this is a policy area that - with a view to the possible "European added value" - should ideally be the responsibility of a central authority.

Acceptance for a transfer union? From an economic policy perspective, for example, in a "closer union" there could be joint unemployment insurance, security for bank accounts and joint liability for national debts and fiscal policy, for which a "European finance minister" would have to be provided with sufficient funds from the member states. Since the differences in prosperity and economic strength among the 27 member states are considerable, this would result in a "transfer union" from the "rich" to the "poor". A prerequisite for this would be the democratically legitimized consent of the (paying) states; however, this is not to be expected.

Democratic legitimation? The establishment of a "European Republic" would require the transfer of national sovereignty and national tax revenue to a central institution. Such a far-reaching step could only be legitimized by the unanimous decision of all participating states and by a constitution-changing majority in each state as well as by referenda in some states. Approval for this is unrealistic from today's perspective. Communityization in a central office would also result in new problems. The larger the unit, the less subgroups feel considered and represented. The alienation between citizens and political leaders could grow, and separatism, which is already virulent within individual member states (for example in Spain or Belgium), would probably gain support.

Fading vision: While representatives of the central European institutions (European Parliament, European Commission) often advocate deeper integration, representatives of member states usually tend to reject it. The former would gain influence through further communitarization, the latter would have to give up power. The fact that the vision of an "ever closer union" is finding fewer and fewer supporters is also likely to be due to the financial crisis and the persistent inequality within and between the member states. The positive role and importance of the nation state is being recognized more and more. The formula "national, where possible - European, where necessary", which is attributed to the former Dutch Foreign Minister and current Vice President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans, should not be equated with isolation and withdrawal from international cooperation or even with nationalism.

The integration of Europe is not an end in itself, but a means of organizing peaceful and constructive coexistence between European states and peoples. Former President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, put it in a nutshell in 2016: "It is not a fitting answer to our problems to force the enthusiastic and genuinely naive Euro-enthusiastic visions of total integration, no matter how good their advocates mean. First, because that is simply impossible, and second, because, paradoxically, promoting it only tends to increase eurosceptic sentiments, not just in the UK. "[4] The form and configuration of future EU integration can and must be debated .

Cooperation inside and outside the EU framework

The alternative to the federal state of an ever closer union was and is the confederation of states as a cooperation of strong, independent states. In the current structure of the EU, the member states form part of the "triangle of power", which consists of the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council. The member states form themselves on the technical level as (Council of Ministers) or on the strategic level as the European Council of Heads of State and Government. In the Council, the states are looking for a common position in the formulation of European laws.

A majority in the Council must be found in accordance with the detailed requirements of the European Treaties. First Decisions may only be made on policy areas that are not solely national responsibility. Secondly Only legislative initiatives that have been introduced by the European Commission may be discussed. Third is specified for each policy area what is to be recognized as a majority. Some issues require unanimity, while others require a qualified majority or a simple majority of states. In general, unanimity is required for "sensitive" issues - for example when it comes to finances - so that every state can exercise a veto. Qualified majority voting requires that the minority respect the outcome. In order to avoid tension, the Council usually tries to negotiate until all states can agree. Issues that are particularly controversial can be raised from the ministerial level to the level of the heads of state and government in order to find a workable compromise there.

The unification process in the Council turns out to be particularly difficult and slow when the conflicting interests between the states are great. During the negotiation of the EU's seven-year financial framework, for example, informal groups are formed in order to jointly enforce partial interests. The solution of urgent problems is then delayed, and the impression of a quarreling EU with little capacity to act grows among the citizens.

The EU can neither acquire new competences nor additional resources for itself. This would require a unanimous amendment to the European Treaties, which, however, could only be achieved with great difficulty - if at all. The EU usually has neither the responsibility nor the resources to deal with acute crises - most crises cannot be planned in advance in contracts. [5] But how can the EU states react to unforeseen crises with cross-border effects? The EU institutions are valuable because they provide a platform for the heads of state and government to manage crises. But they must also look for solutions outside of the European Treaties if a quick and unanimous agreement cannot otherwise be reached. In most cases, a few large states take the lead informally, which is ambivalent for many member states: on the one hand, strong leadership is desired in the crisis, on the other hand, the dominance of large states should not grow any further. The European Commission tries to coordinate the member states, but they do not have to take this into account. Both in the financial crisis from 2008 and in the so-called refugee crisis from 2015 as well as in the current pandemic, the limits of the joint capacity to act became clear.

In the end, during the financial crisis, a troika made up of the European Commission, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund developed and enforced the conditions to prevent national bankruptcies. In countless crisis meetings, the governments of European member states agreed on two measures that were considered unthinkable before the crisis: a European Stability Mechanism (ESM) - the "rescue package" - and a banking union in which essential national rights to supervise the financial system were transferred to the ECB . Both measures were codified outside of the European treaties, but are to be integrated into them in the future. It remains to be seen whether and when this can be achieved.

During the refugee crisis, the EU did not find a common line in dealing with irregular migration. The mandatory requirement of the Schengen Agreement for the elimination of internal European borders is the control and securing of the external borders of the EU. This was left to the respective member states, and a joint, viable institution could not be politically implemented: the border protection agency Frontex does not yet have the necessary resources and competencies. When a large number of people entered the EU via Turkey in 2015 and Hungary did not want to or was unable to enforce the agreed procedures, a few countries accepted large numbers of people for humanitarian reasons. This solo effort, which was not coordinated in the EU, resulted in pressure to cooperate on the remaining member states, which revealed a profound disagreement on fundamental issues and the inability to deal with it jointly. Council resolutions on the distribution of refugees, which were legally made but perceived as illegitimate, were not followed. The "EU-Turkey Deal" was also initiated by a few member states.

The corona pandemic that arrived in Europe in spring 2020 shows the need for joint disaster risk management. Sufficient supplies of protective materials and medical capacity need to be pooled to be distributed across the EU as needed. A joint European capacity for the production of drugs is also lacking so far.The cross-border balancing of treatment options was slow in the pandemic and reached symbolic proportions at best.

Flexibility creates the ability to act

So far it has been found that first a far-reaching transfer of sovereignty into an "ever closer union" would neither be promising nor politically achievable, Secondly the currently agreed cooperation procedures are too cumbersome, and third the EU cannot respond adequately to new challenges and crises. The EU cannot meet the expectations that are placed on it and threatens to continue to lose acceptance and weight. One of the main reasons is the need for unanimity, which, in view of the diverging situations and interests of the member states, acts as a brake or even a blockade.

One way out of this situation can be to make the EU more flexible and differentiate itself. [6] That would mean that all states no longer have to take the same steps at the same time, but only the "core" of a community of values ​​and the internal market would be mandatory for all. This would also be conceivable with a view to new memberships: on the one hand, the EU is striving to accept further members, on the other hand, the current candidate countries have concerns about their equal inclusion in the circle of voting members. Here, concepts of tiered membership are preferable.

A certain flexibility is already provided for in the contracts today. The "enhanced cooperation" procedure allows groups of at least nine Member States to work more closely together on an issue within the framework of the EU. A qualified majority of the member states must agree to the formation of this group beforehand. Other members of the group can join at any time. So far, however, this path has only been taken for a few topics; these include European patent law, divorce law for international couples, the European public prosecutor's office and constant structured cooperation in military projects. However, reaching an agreement according to this procedure also takes a long time.

One of the lessons from Brexit should be the willingness of the EU to handle conflict-ridden topics more flexibly - which is not possible under the current legal situation and is seen as a taboo in the political arena. For example, the freedom of movement for workers must be put to the test, because it can lead to considerable social upheaval in the countries of origin and in the countries of destination. These include the emigration of health workers from the poorer to the richer Member States, as well as wage competition between the low-paid workers in the countries of origin and destination.

Another conflict issue is the obligation to adopt the euro. The economic justification for this is not convincing and is already being eroded: The United Kingdom and Denmark were exempted from adopting the euro in the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, and Sweden has also found ways to keep its own currency. Some Central and Eastern European countries are also hesitant, although they might meet the convergence criteria for admission to the euro area.

Decisions based on the principle of the (qualified) majority in the Council can also be described as undemocratic, since the legitimacy between the elected governments of the member states and the decision in the Council is "watered down". [7] The EU might be more democratic and more capable of acting if the return to the principle of unanimity in the Council were combined with a simplified option for sub-groups of member states to cooperate. This is outlined below.

Two scenarios

Fixed subgroups
In the public discourse, different sub-groups are often formed from the 27 member states, which supposedly have a lot in common. They could therefore - so the assumption - agree more easily on joint action if they formally join forces and form fixed groups. But this concept has limits, as the widespread attributions and constructed opposites along the four cardinal points show.

North South: "The North" is often seen as technologically highly developed, economically successful and committed to a liberal market model. Compliance with rules, paying taxes, and limiting national debt are accepted. In contrast, the opposite properties are ascribed to the "south". Even if a grain of reality is captured in each stereotype, no Member State can be clearly and permanently assigned to one of the two groups.

East West: Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the EU was a Western European union with the centers of power Paris, Bonn and Rome. With the accession of eight Central and Eastern European countries (2004/2007) tensions have built up between some countries in the "East" and the "West" in connection with the issues of flight and asylum as well as the rule of law. However, neither “the West” nor “the East” is a homogeneous bloc on these issues. In foreign policy, especially with regard to the attitude towards Chinese expansion and Putin's Russia, the positions in the East are just as different as in the West. Not even the so-called Visegrád states (Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary) manage to take a unified position.

There is also no political, economic or ideological homogeneity within the member states. Interest groups and opposites run across political views and nationalities regardless of state borders. Any group formation would encompass very heterogeneous states in themselves and among themselves. A joint decision would not be easier than among all 27 members.

Open clubs The idea of ​​making greater use of cooperation between Member States outside the framework of the European Treaties goes even further. For common policies in selected subject areas, some states could join forces to form temporary and open clubs, [8] which conclude international agreements with one another outside of the European treaties, without being bound by the consent of the other EU members. All other member states should be given the opportunity to later become members of the clubs. Power in the clubs would rest with the participating states; neither the European Commission nor the European Parliament had a position on this. The concept of the clubs is thus contrary to an "ever closer union" with its centers in Brussels and Strasbourg.

Renationalization or withdrawal to the nation-state is not proposed here. It is not about the dissolution of joint action by the states of Europe, but about flexible and temporary amalgamations of different EU member states into units capable of acting. The open clubs leave the basic structures of the EU untouched and reinforce already established procedures, such as "increased cooperation" or the possibility of "opt-out". When forming a club, as many commonalities as necessary should be looked for on a topic-related basis in order to achieve as much problem-solving as possible. The EU as a community of values ​​must always and in every configuration remain the basis. Also, goals agreed among the 27 members must not be jeopardized.

The policy areas for a (future) application of the open club procedure are primarily those for which the criteria of economies of scale, common goods and cross-border effects apply, namely:
  • Infrastructure (transport, energy, communication)
  • Climate change and energy supply
  • Asylum and migration
  • Military, foreign policy and geopolitical changes
  • Secret service, terrorism
The open clubs, however, also harbor dangers for the cohesion of the previous EU. Such an inconsistent structure, consisting of the "core of the EU" and numerous, partially overlapping sub-groups, would hardly be governable. Individual clubs could also solidify into exclusive "rigid subgroups" and thus split the EU of 27. This also meant that shared responsibility and the willingness to stand up for one another and to settle differences were lost. If it is possible to evade dissent in groups, this also endangers consensus-building in the EU.

Despite these risks, the open club procedure should be freed of its stigma in the European political debate in order to apply it to the pressing problems - in the hope of increased capacity to solve cross-border problems and the ability to learn from international politics.


The EU offers its member states a platform on which they can negotiate their interests and seek compromises. In addition, the members can better tackle global challenges together - be it climate change, geopolitical changes or a pandemic. Every country in itself - even a large one - is too weak on its own for an effective policy.

Although the citizens support the European Union because of its achievements, they still do not always appreciate them adequately. Brexit shows that feelings and populist distortions can dominate real interests. An open and transparent discourse about what "Brussels" (cannot) can and where it achieves good results for everyone counteracts this.

As a consequence of Brexit and the acute problems of the pandemic and its consequences, the EU and its member states should in future
  • review the need for uniformity and unanimity and allow more flexibility and differentiation. In this way, the populist and powerful story of "foreign infiltration and subjugation by 'Brussels" "can be invalidated.
  • Get faster results on topics where working together is beneficial.
  • Increase their effectiveness through "coalitions of the willing" without endangering European integration in the fundamental areas. The concept of open clubs can contribute to this.
  • Provide more generous cross-border help in acute emergencies and overcome the reflex to withdraw behind one's own borders.
  • be prepared to make limited financial transfers, provided that the receiving states make enough efforts of their own.
The integration of the European Union was and remains a conflict-ridden process full of crises. The EU has been predicted many times before, but there is and will remain enough interest in its survival to find viable solutions again and again.