Are crises good or bad for the EU?

This week I’m in Oslo, to attend a small part of the celebrations of Norway’s bicentennial for its constitution, with a conference on democratic constitutionalism in the EU run by ARENA. Despite finding myself in a room with lots of constitutional lawyers, the experience the first day has been very positive and given much food for thought.

The consensus in the room was that the Union is in a crisis: as one speaker put it, no one can pretend that eight years of crisis is a blip.

For most, this crisis presents a serious challenge to the constitutional order (such as it is), not only at the European level, but also at the national. Indeed, Norwegian colleagues noted that this impact extends even to the ‘almost in’ states of the EEA, given the depth of economic and political interlinkage that exists.

Interestingly, the argument was also made that this crisis is at least partly explained by the nature of European integration.

The interaction of different projects, ideas and pressures produces a series of contingent compromises, that fit the moment without quite fitting into a long-term plan. To use Augustin Jose Menendez’s phrase, the mixture of experimentalism (building a novel political order) and the fragility of the ensuing outcomes produces a constant dialectic within the fabric of the Union.

To use a less elegant metaphor, it’s like a drunken man, always about to fall over, but just saving himself with another step: he’s not heading anywhere in particular and he’s operating on a mix of instinct and purpose, in a scene that isn’t terribly pleasant to watch.

Of course, if we can take the approach advocated by Kalypso Nicolaidis, then the transcendence of a intergovernmental-unified state dichotomy by the Union, via its creation of a transnational demoi-cracy, then the compromises that we so disdain are actually desirable, since they protect national demoi while letting them work together.

This leads us back to an idea I’ve discussed before, namely the use of crises as a mode of governance: there’s always something that’s in urgent need of addressing somewhere in Europe, creating conditions that might allow decision-makers to overcome resistance.

Certainly, Nicolaidis’ position was that isn’t hasn’t been the crisis per se that has been the problem, but rather the institutionalisation of the responses to the crisis. The need to act in a relatively precipitous manner (the previous remark about an 8-yr crisis notwithstanding) risks embedding new contingencies into the framework, that either become irrelevant or even counter-productive.

The crisis – and, by extension, crises in general – thus represent a double-edged sword for the EU and its constituent members.

Compounded these difficulties there is also the increasing challenge to the EU’s presentation; its ‘popularity deficit’ in Nicolaidis’ words.

Over lunch, I was discussing with a colleague the Commission’s communications policy, which we both agreed has been consistently awful, not least in its inability to accept that the problem is anything other than a lack of enough information. In part, such attitudes reflect the EU’s own inability to see options beyond “either Europe or the states”.

One of the most depressing aspects of the crisis has been the unwillingness of the EU (at all levels) to reconsider its strategy of popular engagement. Given the persistent failure to bring the Laeken agenda to genuine fruition, what is there to be lost in trying something different and new?

Key in this has to be a move away from laying responsibility for this at the door of the Commission: even if it were capable, it is not going to be able to build the horizontal linkages between member states that are a necessary part of the Union’s order. Instead, national actors (and transnational ones, where they exist) need to be active and involved. Without that, we risk another crisis, maybe even before this one is done.