European Union, a challenge of confused identity

14. December, 2016

Foto: Times Up Linz

Last autumn Eurobarometer opinion survey registered a sharp drop in people's trust in the European Union. Trust in EU decreased in every single member state and in countries that aspire to join the EU. Reasons for plunging confidence might seem obvious - inability to manage the refugee crisis. Nevertheless, I'd argue that there is a deeper reason: a case of confused EU identity. European public takes EU for more than it (already) is and, therefore, misattributes responsibility for problems in Europe.

EU is being judged as if the goals of European federalists were already reached, and as if EU already is a state with sufficient resources to provide security, growth and social justice across the Union. But let’s be honest – EU is not there yet! Even more so: its current identity is confusing.

There are different ways to perceive EU as an agent, – those different perceptions coexist, competing and complementing each other. A minimalist would perceive the EU as a supranational institutional superstructure, exemplified by common institutions (Commission, Parliament) and a budget that annually distributes around 1% of common GDP. In this vision EU is solely an add-on to national political institutions. At the other end of the spectrum there is the all-inclusive vision: everything that happens in any EU member state is attributable to the Union, including economic growth in a specific member state or income inequality in another. In between minimalist and all-inclusive extremes there are other visions where EU is seen as a complex structure that consists of shifting and ever-transforming layers. EU has a clear nucleus – supranational institutional superstructure and common budget – but its institutional borders and institutional reach are vague and contested. Confusion regarding EU’s agency has recently been exemplified by Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany – in her response to refugee crisis and to Brexit it is close to being impossible to disentangle Germany and European Union.

Unfortunately, confusion can not be cleared up by stating that EU is a work in progress – so are all the polities that have ever existed. Compared to regular polities EU is complicated: it has so many layers and actors that any clear-cut attribution of political responsibility is rather an exception than a rule. That’s why EU’s institutions will likely continue to receive both blame and praise for events in Europe that, strictly speaking, have not been in their power to control.

In a paradoxical way, it cannot be otherwise – especially, if one prefers to see more political vision at the EU level while keeping in place the current institutional set-up. Juncker’s Commission is a victim of its own chutzpah: spitzenkandidaten election campaign and Commission’s political ambitions inflated people’s expectations placed on EU’s supranational institutions, while keeping the real power diffused among national governments. Supranational institutions are quite powerless if national-level institutions block their ideas: for example, the creation of credible refugee relocation system or cooperation on intelligence sharing. When the public demand to solve some topical issue is not met, there will be loss a of confidence in EU.

And yet, the tension between unrealistic expectations and the facts of reality is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, it might lead to periodic disillusionment and loss of trust, but the tension might just as well have a reverse effect: heightened expectations could smooth the path for much needed adjustments in balance of powers between EU and national level. If European public is already under impression that EU can and should do more on migration and security issues – why not make this impression into reality?

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