Disagreeable union: Is the EU at risk of a slow disintegration?

A political scientist believes member states may increasingly stop complying with rules

Brexit is the fourth major crisis to hit the European Union in a decade, Douglas Webber, professor of political science at Insead business school, reminds readers in his new book, European Disintegration? The Politics of Crisis in the European Union.

The previous crises were provoked by debt in the euro zone, Russia's annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, and the mass influx of migrants. They have subsided, at least for the time being.

Webber examines each crisis in terms of political integration or disintegration. The euro-zone crisis was the only one that resulted in closer integration, with the establishment of a bailout fund, a still incomplete banking union and increased European supervision of national fiscal policies.

'We're not heading back to the days of the British empire, which is what I often fear lurks in the minds of the most ardent Brexiteers'

In the Ukraine crisis, Europe managed to agree on trade and financial sanctions against Vladimir Putin's Russia. But those sanctions have had little effect. In terms of political integration, it was a draw, Webber said in an interview with the Anglo-American Press Association in Paris.


The refugee crisis "produced a limited amount of political disintegration", Webber said. "The EU still has no semblance of a common refugee or political asylum policy" and a number of countries, particularly in central and eastern Europe, ignored attempts by EU institutions to exert their authority.

Webber sees “significant political disintegration” in the UK’s departure. “Should there be a no-deal Brexit, the consequences will be hard, tough, disruptive,” he predicts. “We’re not heading back to the days of the British empire, which is what I often fear lurks in the minds of the most ardent Brexiteers.”

The UK began turning away from Europe in 1990. The Franco-German couple was the driving force behind all major steps in European integration

A majority of political scientists believe Europe is too interdependent to break apart. A smaller number observe the progression of nationalism since the end of the cold war and say that “national identity politics will beat economics any time”.

Webber places himself in a third, more nuanced category. He bases his research on the theories of the US economic historian Charles Kindleberger, who said the Great Depression occurred "because Britain was no longer capable of playing the international hegemonic power and the US was not yet willing to do so".

Germany's hegemony

Germany is the contemporary hegemon in Europe, Webber says. Starting in the late 1960s, its economy flourished, the Deutsche Mark appreciated, the country was reunified and enlargement to central and eastern Europe expanded its influence.

Only the UK and France could rival Germany after the second World War. The UK began turning away from Europe in 1990. The Franco-German couple was the driving force behind all major steps in European integration, but France "is simply not what it used to be", Webber notes.

Germany has been a “reluctant hegemon” that has not always been able to influence its partners or rally their support for policies it favoured. Most of all, Germany has not wanted to assume a disproportionately large share of the burden or cost of crisis management.

In any system comparable to that of the EU, Webber says. “There is fiscal redistribution between poor and rich regions or states, or crisis-stricken regions and those doing better. Until such time as Germany has made the step, to which German conservatives are extraordinarily hostile, I don’t think the euro zone can be resistant to crisis. You might describe it as the $64,000 question. What is Germany’s commitment to the euro, and how far is it prepared to go to make sure it survives?”

Webber believes it unlikely other countries will follow the UK, but fears the EU will be less able to agree within itself, and that countries will refuse to comply with EU rules

Webber asks whether the Franco-German couple can continue to lead Europe. “In France you have the political will, but not the financial and material resources ... In Germany you have financial and material resources to play a bigger role, but not the political will.”

French example

Webber regrets that European leaders have been so slow to support president Emmanuel Macron’s European initiatives. “Probably the most important factor is that they don’t think there is domestic political advantage to be gained by standing up and speaking out for the EU or promoting greater European integration,” he says.

Webber concludes his book on a sombre note, saying that Europe desperately needs strong, central leadership to counter rising nationalist populism, as well as the likelihood of further crises.

He believes it unlikely that other countries will follow the UK’s example, but fears the EU will be less and less able to agree within itself, and that countries will increasingly refuse to comply with EU rules.

“This would be the more likely trend, the route by which the EU could disintegrate,” he says. “Bit by bit, step by step, not with a bang, but the gradual and slow decline of the EU by a thousand cuts . . . I don’t think there will be a single day when the whole thing falls apart. But if we meet again in 2040, I would expect the EU to look a great deal more messy and much less coherent than at present.”