European Integration Is Not Either-Or

There are ways for Europe to move forward between the extremes of ever-closer union and disintegration.

Flags of European Union member states are seen in Brussels, November 16, 2015
Flags of European Union member states are seen in Brussels, November 16, 2015 (European Parliament)

Proponents of European integration too often only see one way forward and the alternatives as retrogression.

Wolfgang Münchau’s latest column in the Financial Times is a good example. He writes that after more than half a century of integration, Europe is now entering “the age of disintegration.”

He is not so alarmist as to predict a formal breakup of the European Union. But he does see it becoming less effective.


The migrant crisis has brought home a contradiction at the heart of the project, Münchau points out.

The political impasse over migrants tells us that the EU’s open borders are inconsistent with national sovereignty over immigration.

He could have said much the same about the euro: a single currency does not work if the countries that use it refuse to share control over their finances.

What makes the refugee crisis politically more fraught, though, “is that this time France and Germany are at opposite ends of the argument.”

Germany, the largest economy in Europe, has opened its doors to refugees. France, the second-largest, has mostly kept its closed.

Münchau worries that this disunity will come to a head.

“The member states will have to choose,” he writes: between European and national solutions. “They will choose sovereignty.”

Lesser of evils

Münchau’s mistake is to leave no room in the middle. He considers ad hoc cooperation between some, but not all, member states a setback and multispeed integration a failure.

There’s another way of looking at it.

When Austria convened a summit of Balkan nations last week to restrict the flow of migrants across the region, it exposed a lack of European unity. But it also allowed something to be done despite the intransigence of some. Should rather all 28 member states accept inaction when only one of them (Germany) insists there must be a pan-European solution and only some (in Central Europe) refuse to help at all?

The reforms negotiated by British prime minister David Cameron, which put even more distance between his island nation and the continent, are a step toward a two- or a multispeed Europe in which countries can variously opt in and out of integration schemes. But that is surely preferable to the alternative: a British exit?


The type of thinking Münchau exemplifies — we must have “more Europe” or catastrophe — is what so exasperates voters across Western Europe. Most are dispassionate about European integration. If it works and makes their lives better, like the single market does, they’ll support it. If it starts to cost more than it’s worth, like the euro or open borders, they will turn against it.

Stubbornly insisting on an abstract ideal in the face of practical difficulties and growing popular resistance would be fanatical. Better for Europeans to deepen integration where possible and pause where it’s too contentious than risk support for the whole union.

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