What's the Point of the EU?

The massive European project has no clear goals.

For years we have heard almost daily about serious problems facing the European Union. On the strategic level, there are two ways to deal with those problems. One option is to play Whac-a-Mole, dealing with them one at a time and hoping that, in the meantime, a bigger problem does not arrive. This is basically what European leaders have been doing, at least since the debacle over ratification of the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe. Or else, leaders can understand the reason (or reasons) behind the majority, if not all, of these problems. The latter approach is not difficult, but it demands a level of political honesty that can be hardly seen in today’s Europe.

The European Union is a project in the making—one that has been very ambitious and, for several decades, quite successful. As any other project, it is supposed to have goals that answer the question of why it is being implemented. Currently, all the problems the EU is facing obstruct progress toward these goals. One can ask: what are these goals? And is there a better way to achieve them without encountering all these difficulties?

Surprisingly, today’s EU does not state its goals and mission clearly. There are, of course, various statements in different places explaining the EU’s undertakings; all common EU institutions, agencies and bodies have their roles within the European system. But what is the mission of the European Union as a whole? (Not to mention the simplest question: what is the European Union? Is it an international organization, a regime, a state, a confederation or a federation?)

On the official EU portal there is nothing about EU’s mission or its goals. It takes some education to know that the Treaty of Lisbon is the constitutional basis for the EU. But does that say anything about the EU’s mission? Here one can find a great deal about the respective missions of different EU bodies, but nothing about the mission of the European Union. The Treaty’s Article 2 says: “The Union's aim is to promote peace, its values and the well-being of its peoples.” But here, other questions arise: Is the EU promoting peace in Europe, on the planet Earth, or throughout the universe? In any case, the EU does not appear to be a peacekeeping organization. How many Europeans, especially in countries contributing to the EU budget, agree on the need to promote the EU’s values? The promotion of well-being seems more legitimate, but how successful is the European Union in implementing it?

One of the ways to deal with these questions is to study the history of the European Union. When the project of European integration was initiated, there was far less ambiguity about its goals and mission. The project was one of the direct outcomes of the Second World War. After all the death, destruction, rage and tragedies that the war wrought upon the continent, the leaders of Germany and France, whose rivalry was the major source of European wars for the previous seventy years, decided to attempt cooperation in the economic sphere—according to the official EU wording, “the idea being that countries who trade with one another become economically interdependent and so more likely to avoid conflict”.

It worked. There are numerous studies published on how European integration helped economic development: the bigger market allowed European companies to achieve better results. One of the best indicators of how attractive this model became was the UK’s decision to join in 1973. Even considering British national pride and traditions of imperial greatness, the economic benefits to the UK of participation were obvious and significant.

However, it would be an oversimplification to claim that economics was the only driver of European integration during the Cold War. Citing Boris Johnson, today “the Americans see the EU as a way of tidying up a continent whose conflicts have claimed huge numbers of American lives; as a bulwark against Russia.” There was some truth to this during the Cold War: after the Marshall Plan ended, European integration allowed the further enrichment of the European economy, making Soviet ideology less attractive by comparison.

That is why in the 1980s Greece, Spain and Portugal were included in the project. After the fall of dictatorships in all three countries, it was crucial to keep them in the Western camp. It is important to remember that in Greece and Spain communist and pro-Soviet forces were defeated in brutal civil wars, which then lead to the establishment of authoritarian regimes—in Spain as a direct result of the war, in Greece after twenty years of messy political developments. In Portugal, the democratic transition of the 1970s was especially difficult, with pro-Soviet forces threatening to consolidate power in their hands. There is no doubt that European integration imparted to all three countries the economic benefits needed to debunk pro-Soviet and extremist elements. Even though questions remain about these countries’ readiness for membership, especially in the Greek case, the political decision of European elites was certain.