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“Europe will be forged in crises”: How crisis has shaped EU integration

Europe in crisis - Brexit & EU flags in sandcastle

“Europe will be forged in crises, and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises.” – Jean Monnet

Jean Monnet’s quote inspires reassurance that so-called crises in Europe are nothing new and are indeed surmountable. However, politicians and the media are quick to dramatise and label every obstacle as a ‘crisis’. I shall look at two examples that were contemporarily considered as crises, but later resolved: the Empty Chair Crisis from 1965-6 and the Constitutional Crisis in the 2000s. I will explain what impact they each had on the European integration process and analyse the solutions to these crises, before identifying why the current European membership crisis is different.

         One example of a historical crisis is the Empty Chair Crisis, triggered by French President Charles du Gaulle in June 1965 in protest against the move towards supranationalism, through the introduction of qualified majority voting in the European Community (EC). By withdrawing French representation from Council meetings, De Gaulle paralysed decision-making for six months and forced the EC to agree to the non-binding Luxembourg Compromise in January 1966, which served to preserve unanimity as the norm in decision-making. This compromise ensured that the EC remained primarily intergovernmental and in fact restricted European integration for the next two decades, until the Single European Act in 1987. Related to this was De Gaulle’s strong opposition against UK accession, which was blocked by two French vetoes in 1963 and 1967, delaying the first enlargement of the EC by ten years until 1973. The role of France in the Empty Chair Crisis demonstrates the level of tailor-made compromise the EC was prepared to make in the 1960s to resolve crisis and accommodate national interests.

         A second example of crisis occurred in the 2000s, when the 2004 Constitutional Treaty (CT) proposed institutional reform of the EU to accommodate enlargement from 15 to 27 member states between 2004-7. However, the CT was rejected in spring 2005 by referenda in France and the Netherlands, triggering a so-called Constitutional Crisis and a period of reflection. In 2007, the CT was amended and revived in the form of the Treaty of Lisbon, which signalled a shift away from constitutionalisation in European integration. However this amending treaty again suffered defeat, this time in a 2008 Irish referendum. The Council’s solution to these continuous setbacks was to offer various Irish legal guarantees, and later also concessions in the Czech Protocol, to satisfy the concerns of these two member states and allow the Lisbon Treaty to pass ratification and enter into force in December 2009. Like the Empty Chair Crisis before it, this bespoke solution of compromises, guarantees and concessions again demonstrates the EU’s willingness to cater to the demands of national interests on a case-by-case basis.

         The present context can be conceived of as a European membership crisis, characterised by the UK’s 2016 referendum vote to leave the EU and the rise of eurosceptic political parties in other member states, partly in reaction to the eurozone crisis since 2008. In contrast to the two crises analysed above, we now observe a distinctive reluctance of the EU to offer à la carte or tailor-made solutions to appease individual national interests. The EU did engage in some bargaining with the UK on aspects of its membership prior to the referendum, but ultimately it was considered to have conceded insufficient ground to convince the UK population to remain in the EU. This marks a significant departure from the EU’s previous approach to solving crises.

         This evolution of the EU from an initially more flexible, bespoke approach to solving crises such as the Empty Chair Crisis and the Constitutional Crisis, to a more uncompromising, hard-line position regarding the current European membership crisis, points to two developments in European integration: firstly, a move towards supranationalism through the declining influence of member states, and secondly, the EU’s wish to pursue uniform integration and avoid the cherry-picking of policies by member states. We can conclude that the shift in the EU’s attitude to solving crises will undoubtedly play a role in the future shape of European integration.

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This short essay was written in October 2016 for a course in ‘Political Construction of Europe’, completed as part of the University of Groningen’s Master’s degree in Euroculture: European Society, Politics and Culture in a Global Context.

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