The End of the European Supernation?

MADRID – Since the eurozone crisis began in 2008, the European Union has, from a political perspective, led an intergovernmental life in supranational clothing. But as the EU prepares to negotiate Britain’s exit, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the Union no longer has any clothes at all. The question now is whether the EU’s status as an enterprise dominated by its member states is permanent.

The supremacy of member states – especially Germany – in EU decision-making is far from new. It was evident throughout the euro crisis, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, along with the European Council’s then-president, Belgium’s Herman Van Rompuy, took center stage.

But the myth of European supranationalism persisted. In particular, after Jean-Claude Juncker took over as President of the European Commission in 2014, the EU’s executive branch began to bill itself as a Brussels-based institution capable of leading the way toward what Juncker called in his 2015 State of the Union speech “more Union in our Union.”

This year, Juncker delivered a far more sober speech. Indeed, it seems that the June Brexit vote has chastened not only Juncker, but all of the Commission’s Europhiles, who have largely been sidelined in the ensuing battle over what Europe will look like. (The notable exception is Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager’s very public stand on taxation, the outcome of which is still to be determined.)

Instead, that battle has been playing out largely within the European Council, with Merkel assuming a central role. While it is impossible to say exactly what the EU that emerges will look like, it seems clear that it will look nothing like the Brussels-centric, deeply integrated Shangri-La long sought by many at the Commission.

Council President Donald Tusk has been especially adamant on this point, criticizing “naive Euro-enthusiastic visions” and calling for a more modest Europe that promises less and delivers more. Tusk reiterated this position just before the recent informal European Council summit in Bratislava – the first not to include the United Kingdom – declaring that “giving new powers to European institutions is not the desired recipe.”

Merkel, for her part, spent the summer preparing a member-state-led approach to the Brexit negotiations and Europe’s future. The discussion and outcome of the Bratislava summit underscored these efforts.

As for the Commission, its only real action in recent months was to appoint Michel Barnier in July as its chief representative in the Brexit negotiations. With the Council taking command of that process, it is far from clear what Barnier will actually do. In fact, with member states’ domestic politics playing a more important role than the European Council in driving whatever EU policy momentum exists, even an intergovernmental EU may be too much to hope for.

Consider Germany, where the dreadful performance of Merkel’s Christian Democrats in a string of regional elections, including in her home state of Mecklenberg-West Pomerania, has caused many to question the country’s trajectory. Now, the wait is on for next year’s federal election, which may send the country – and its approach to EU leadership – in a very different direction. Uncertainty is also coming from other directions: Italy will hold a constitutional referendum by the end of this year, and France and the Netherlands will hold elections next year.

None of this is to say that supranationalism is a thing of the past. But it is likely that parochial interests will become even more dominant, at least until major elections are complete. An opening for a European approach may follow, but only if the current torpor does not lead to institutional atrophy.

Earning the public’s trust is crucial. In the past, the EU has forged ahead, as if the public approved. It does not. As Hubert Vedrine, a former French foreign minister, recently estimated that only 15-20% of Europeans are Europhiles, another 15-20% oppose the EU outright, and the remaining 60% are “euro-allergic.” It is a rough but fair portrait.

Put simply, for much of the public, EU institutions lack legitimacy. The reasons are well known: poor communication, a democratic deficit, finger pointing between member states and the Commission, a flawed institutional architecture. Juncker and Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, can speak about méthode communautaire until they are blue in the face; it is not happening in the foreseeable future.

The result is clear: in the struggle over how Europe will develop, the EU institutions lack the authority or support to put up much of a fight – or even fully enter the ring. But this moment of national navel-gazing among the member states may actually present an important opportunity for EU institutions to work on closing the legitimacy gap.

This means resisting the urge to wax poetic about future actions that never actually materialize, or to roll out impressive-looking programs with few real-world effects. It means, instead, completing key initiatives, most urgently the banking union; improving accountability; and ensuring that the public understands what the EU institutions are doing. And it means staying out of political conflicts, which neither the European Commission nor the European Parliament are in any position to win.

If this approach seems cautious, that is because it is. Now is the time not for risky shortcuts, but for meticulous, well-planned, incremental measures that gradually and consistently earn the public’s trust. The relatively modest list of concrete priorities issued by Juncker and Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans is a good start.

Most people are not stupid. They can generally tell when they are being strung along, and they are tired of empty rhetoric and half-baked initiatives. Only if the EU institutions deliver genuine action, in a credible and transparent manner, can they ensure that the current inter-governmentalism is just a phase and that the future of Europe is Europe.