European integration has been enabled, first and foremost, by its flexibility as a concept. The European Union (EU) has been everything to everyone; from the staunchest socialist to the strongest advocate for free markets. This flexibility is the EU’s greatest advantage, allowing it to grow from a loose alliance of countries harmonising their coal and steel industries to a supranational government presiding over half a billion citizens.
This flexibility, however, is also the EU’s greatest weakness. Trying to satisfy different or conflicting parties inevitably leads to incoherence, ultimately satisfying no one. As a result, euroscepticism—resistance to continued European integration—has many faces and a multitude of motivations, and the EU is poorly equipped to address any of them.
How European integration has been everything to everyone
Generating consensus between many factions across a continent is no small feat. Beyond the national interests of 28 27 member states, the EU has also had to appeal to narrower interests within or across states. These include political parties, trade unions, businesses, and advocacy groups, to name a few.
Faced with the deregulatory policies espoused by leaders like Margaret Thatcher, labour organisations looked to Brussels to champion their cause. Indeed, the 1989 Community Charter of the Fundamental Social Rights of Workers includes stipulations on everything from paid annual leave to the right to strike (which, incidentally, already existed in many member states). This affinity for EU policies on workers was echoed in the lead-up to the UK’s referendum on EU membership, when Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn evoked a “bonfire” of workers’ rights following Brexit.
Somewhat paradoxically, the very same champions of deregulation opposed by socialist and labour movements have also backed European integration. The construction of the European Single Market, with its four freedoms (free movement of goods, services, labour, and capital across member states), was and remains backed by pro-market forces from industry to politics. For instance, many in business reacted negatively to the UK government’s intention to leave the Single Market after Brexit.
A more recent addition to the push for integration is the environmental movement. In the years and decades following the 1972 Paris Summit, the European Communities and the EU after them produced hundreds of directives on everything from water quality, to biodiversity and habitat protection, to the Emissions Trading System. Many environmentalists view national action to protect the environment as ineffective, due to the global nature of some environmental problems. As they see it, the EU provides a natural stage to tackle climate issues, perhaps explaining why their presence is stronger in the European Parliament than in many national parliaments.
There are many other factions favouring or benefiting from European integration, including ethnic minorities like Roma and other Traveller groups, as well as regions trying to assert their identities and languages. Such a wide coalition remaining intact over decades is a rare accomplishment, especially in light of the contradictions inherent to pleasing all parties.
How European integration has become nothing to anyone
It doesn’t take much scratching under the surface of the coalition that has supported ever-closer union to reveal the impossibility of continued integration. The semblance of consensus nurtured since the Second World War is eroding now more than ever, and for good reason.
Traditional socialist parties and labour unions have been steadily losing support in recent years. France’s Socialist Party, Germany’s Social Democratic Party and the UK’s Labour Party have all experienced steep declines in both polling and elections. The Dutch Labour Party stands to lose the majority of its current seats in the upcoming election, and Greece’s once mighty PASOK has all but ceased to exist. Similarly, labour union membership has been in steady decline in most European countries.
This does not necessarily indicate the triumph of free-market ideas, or a rejection of workers’ rights. Rather, it mirrors widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo. It has become all too apparent to many on the traditional left that political parties claiming to be socialist cannot believe in fiscal austerity, or in multi-billion euro bank bailouts (either direct bailouts, or by bailing out indebted Eurozone governments). This sentiment has underpinned the rapid rise of new, more eurosceptic socialist and anti-austerity political movements—most evidently in Greece’s Syriza party. Similar momentum is gathering behind Spain’s Podemos, and to a lesser extent France’s Left Front and Germany’s Left Party, all of which are unlikely to compromise with the likes of German Chancellor Angela Merkel or the European Commission.
The collapse of Europe’s old social democratic movements was the first blow to the illusion of consensus driving integration. The next face of euroscepticism comes from the many disenchanted conservatives, who no longer see themselves in the policies of their traditional political families. Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats have steadily dropped in opinion polls and state elections since the summer of 2015, when their government decided not to control Germany’s borders during the migration crisis. Similar dips can be found in the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Austria and France—to name a few. This disavowal of traditional conservative parties coincides with the rise in a wide range of new political movements, loosely sharing a mistrust of the EU, as well as the promise to reinstate control of national borders. The best-known examples include the National Front in France, The Freedom Party in the Netherlands, and the Northern League in Italy.
Even some of the pro-market advocates or libertarians traditionally aligned with centre-right political parties no longer see themselves in the EU. Its growing bureaucracy and regulatory encroachment are less reflective of integration through a removal of barriers (sometimes called negative integration), and more akin to government needlessly duplicating itself. Even Margaret Thatcher expressed buyer’s remorse when she famously exclaimed: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels”.
There also is far from being a clear consensus on European integration among environmentalists. The EU may present an attractive platform to tackle global issues, but it also flouts many of the environmental movement’s basic tenets. The EU’s agricultural policy promotes overproduction of food, leading to waste. It also benefits larger producers, undermining its goal of preserving biodiversity (see more on the debate over agriculture here). In fact, Iceland’s Left-Green Movement (the country’s second biggest political party) opposes EU membership, in the name of protecting natural resources.
There are many more examples of movements traditionally favourable to European integration that, knowingly or not, oppose ever-closer union. Independence movements in Catalonia and Scotland wish to break ties with Spain and the UK, while happily maintaining (if not deepening) ties with Brussels. The EU has made clear that this is not possible, meaning Scottish or Catalan independence would further undermine the European project.
What is clear is that many of the groups traditionally favouring integration are just as likely to oppose it, either explicitly or implicitly.
Conclusion: What caused the EU to rise will also cause it to disappear
European political and economic integration has been enabled by broad consensus across many parties and nations. Socialists, conservatives, industry, environmentalists, and cultural minorities all saw their aspirations reflected in the European project. This has always been the EU’s greatest advantage.
Being everything to everyone also carries enormous risk. It is impossible to meet the expectations of all parties invested in European integration, especially when their expectations clash. Industry wants access to a wider pool of (often cheaper) labour, while workers’ rights advocates want the higher social standards ingrained in western European countries extended to newer member states in the east. Environmentalists want the EU to help protect natural spaces and reduce pollution, while member states want it to invest massively in new highways, docks, and airports. Many across Europe are catching on to this mismatch, and are beginning to push back.
The explosion of euroscepticism in recent years comes from all parts of society. Socialists are becoming disillusioned by the austerity policies associated with continued EU membership; conservatives are unhappy with the disappearance of borders and the erosion of national identities; environmentalists are increasingly accepting that the EU benefits large food producers and polluters more than it protects biodiversity; businesses and market advocates are unhappy with the torrent of often unnecessary regulations coming from Brussels. These and countless more are the many faces of euroscepticism. Being everything to everyone is how the EU came to be; being nothing to anyone is how it will cease to exist.