The European Union is Dead

The European Union is Dead

Mini Teaser: Getting over Europe in five easy steps.

by Author(s): John C. HulsmanWilliam L. T. Schirano

IN 1865, Viscount Palmerston, prime minister of England, lay dying. As is only too human, the great man desperately rejected the diagnosis. When Palmerston's physician broke the news to the elderly statesman that he was about to expire, he replied defiantly, "Die, my dear doctor? That's the last thing I shall do!"

This mixture of hubris and denial signaling the end is often as true of institutions and dreams as it is of men. And there is little doubt, following the twin "no" votes in France and the Netherlands, that the European Union, long proudly proclaimed as the future model of international relations, is dead. Throughout our travels this year in a Europe in crisis--to the European Parliament, the German Council on Foreign Relations, the French Army War College, the British Defense Academy and the Harvard University Seminar in Talloires, France--we have heard the same generic rebuttals from Europhiles everywhere: "The EU always manages to muddle through; the process of ever closer union has gone too far to be reversed; in a few years the EU will regroup and be stronger than ever."

Nonsense. It has long been our view that the EU, or rather the notion of ever-closer political union that has been at its heart, is the primary faith-based project in the Western world. Predicting the slow demise of the European constitution was not that difficult: A dreadful document, an economic malaise discrediting the entire European elite, political aloofness that wholly disconnected Europe's rulers from the ruled, and a willful ignorance of the Continent's amazing diversity assumed in an effort to force an artificial one-size-fits-all approach were there for all to see.

But Euro-cheerleaders could not see it. Emotionally driven, their failure of analysis was not an act of deception--rather, it was one of self-deception. So, to understand what is happening here, we must think unconventionally about the end of the dream of ever closer union--about death and the process of coming to terms with it. In 1969, in her seminal work On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross eloquently detailed the five stages of dying--denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally, acceptance.1 It remains one of the most important contributions to our understanding of the final phase of life and will do much to explain the otherwise baffling lack of self-awareness characterizing European elites' approach to the entire EU project.


DENIAL PROTECTS us from those truths that fundamentally challenge our conception of the world. In the case of dying, denial is an attempt to protect the fundamental assumption that the individual is, and will continue to be, a part of the world. Denial thus acts as the initial stopgap to the catastrophic collapse of the individual's worldview.

The cataclysm of the constitution's dual rejection represents such a threat to Euro-federalists across the globe. Mark Leonard, of the Centre for European Reform, challenged, "I think this is a storm in a teacup. People won't remember it in ten years time", as though dismissive words could take the place of a reality too bitter to bear. As Kubler-Ross said, "death is never possible to regard in ourselves."

For what is dying here is a worldview. Anyone who speaks with European elites notices that certain terms regularly crop up when they describe the European project--postmodern, post-Westphalian, post-nation-state--as though Europe had evolved beyond the structures of the national system and is at the vanguard of a future international order. What is striking in hindsight is how little doubt there was as to the outcome of the referendum exercise.

As the Laeken Declaration, which set out the ambitious goals for the constitution, made clear, "The unification of Europe is near." The declaration goes on: "The image of a democratic and globally engaged Europe admirably matches citizens' wishes", without giving much empirical evidence for this rather sweeping certainty. The facts, however, have been starkly at variance with this grandiose creed.

To those of us who have studied economics, Europe's present travails are not a blip on the triumphant road to a better future. Rather, they amount to a system that isn't working. Since the late 1980s, Europe has been in the economic doldrums. In 2005, Italy expects to experience no growth, and the country's debt-to-GDP ratio is a monumental 107 percent. German unemployment hovers near five million, with eastern Germany falling ever further behind western Germany, despite receiving billions of euros. Even in France, which has fared marginally better, unemployment remains over 10 percent, and over 20 percent among the young, who voted against the constitution in droves. Economic sclerosis has discredited continental elites, who, rather astoundingly, failed to notice the cancer at the heart of their project.

How could this be possible? Gisela Stuart, herself a British Labour member of the drafting presidium of the EU constitution, has an acute answer:

The Convention brought together a self-selected group of the European political elite, many of whom have their eyes on a career at [the] European level, which is dependent on more and more integration. Not once in 16 months I spent on the Convention did representatives question whether deeper integration is what the people of Europe want, whether it serves their best interests or whether it provides the best basis for a sustainable structure for an expanding Union.2

It is a very human trait to throw out an aberrant and unsettling fact, rather than rethink one's worldview--all the more natural when the fact is as cataclysmic as rejection of the constitution, and with it the worldview predicated on an ever closer European Union. It may be understandable, but it is, as Kubler-Ross explained, the first step in the dying process.


KUBLER-ROSS tells us that denial is replaced by feelings of "anger, rage, envy and resentment." Anger usually begins innocently, with a thought such as "why me, why not him or her?" With no answer to be found, patients may lash out at their family and friends as they attempt to come to terms with the simple reality that their life is at an end.

For proponents of ever closer union, ratification of the constitution was an absolute necessity--even if it meant subverting democratic norms. As Jean-Luc Dehaene, former Belgian prime minister and vice president of the EU Constitutional Convention, put it, "We know that nine out of ten people will not read the Constitution and will vote on the basis of what politicians and journalists say. More than that, if the answer is no, the vote will probably have to be done again, because it absolutely has to be yes." The former head of the rotating EU presidency, Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg, was no less blunt: "The countries that have said 'no' will have to ask themselves the question again." It never seems to have entered either of their heads that European decision-makers were themselves a major part of the reason for the "no" vote. In a democracy, wanting a political outcome badly can never be a rationalization for flouting democratic norms. The curse for adherents of ever closer political union is that it has always been a very elite-driven project. This reality finally caught up to European leaders.

In his last, forlorn plea before his people, French President Jacques Chirac finally snapped. Directly addressing the television camera, his anger finally got the better of him. "Do you believe we could defend the Common Agricultural Policy--of which French farmers are the major beneficiary--with as much influence? Do you believe we could defend our social model or our cultural exception as strongly if France is weakened, if the Franco-German tandem is weakened?" A supreme sense of ever closer union's inevitable triumph had given way, in the recognition of the political disaster facing him, to an angry attempt to characterize a constitution-free world as one of greater peril for France. For Chirac, it was all slipping away--he behaved exactly as Kubler-Ross would have predicted.


WITH THE inevitable psychological collapse undeterred by the previous two defenses, the only remaining strategy is to attempt to strike a deal with those forces that are out of the patient's control. Oftentimes, the basis of such a negotiation is built around the patient offering something in return for a way out or even a postponement of the predicament they are facing.

At some deep psychological level, even the most ardent supporters of ever closer union know that delusion and anger are not good political responses to the cataclysm of the "no" votes. This is where bargaining comes in. And the higher power the European elites must bargain with, to their surprise, is the electorate.

The statements of Gunter Verheugen, vice president of the European Commission, are illustrative. Following the "no" votes, he pleaded, "It would be wrong to impose tight time limits at this point. A whole series of countries simply need more time for discussion to restore public trust in Europe." Offering to trade time for a change in outcome is, of course, a classic bargaining mechanism. Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of Germany follows in much the same vein: "Definitely, it is a setback. But on the other side, I think we need some more time, some more years, maybe a decade but not more. It's not a historical setback in the way that

European integration is really questioned and that there will be an alternative going back to the old European system."

In return for letting his cherished dream of ever closer union live, Fischer is prepared to accept that there is a problem, to accept that a lot of time will have to pass for things to go his way and to state the obvious--that Europe will not revert to a pre-Treaty of Rome state of being. He is rational, prepared to make concessions to time and different points of view--everything except agree to what has happened, the reaching of the high tide of ever closer union. On the surface, this comment makes little sense. The elites who drew up the rules for ratification know well that it takes only one "no" vote to negate the constitution. The old anti-democratic process of making recalcitrant states vote again on the matter does not work here either, as both the current Dutch and French governments have said they will not attempt to override the wishes of their voters. For true believers, playing for time becomes the principal tool of bargaining the "no" result away.

Wishing individual states' vetoes away, saying they can be swayed by a mythical "yes" turnout in the rest of Europe, and then waiting for different governments to emerge in France and the Netherlands that will successfully overturn the "no" votes are pipe dreams in one sense. But what they really amount to is an effort to mitigate the calamity in which believers in ever closer union find themselves. As is true of the dying, in the end it is a forlorn plea for more time. History simply does not work like that.


DEPRESSION IS the logical result when all of the patient's defensive strategies have failed to overcome reality. When the patient is finally ready to accept their condition, they will likely be overwhelmed by not only what they fought so hard to discount but things that they probably had not considered until this point.

Though it is early, a few members of the European elite have reached the fourth stage: depression. Former French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier has said, "It will be harder for us now. It will also be harder for Europe. The globalization is still there. Nobody will wait for us." A major article of faith amongst those committed to ever closer union is the notion that without a politically integrated Europe to manage the common market, large, established and successful economic entities like the United States and rising political and economic powers like China and India will overwhelm an uncompetitive and divided Europe. While this flies in the face of recent economic history, which shows Europe's outer core doing comparatively well in the global marketplace, it is taken as a given in the laggard countries of France, Italy and Germany. Some believers in this position, confronted with the rupturing of their worldview, have now accepted the enormity of what has happened in the Netherlands and France--and see the ruination of their way of life. Juncker stated the gloomily obvious: "People will tell you Europe is not in crisis--it is a profound crisis."

It is at the level of depression that, ironically, European elites at last share something with their oft-neglected electorates. Dominique Berrehar, a country doctor based in the small French village of Prunay, was surely on to something when, while campaigning for a "yes" vote, he observed, "When a person is depressed, they close in on themselves and nothing interests them and they say no to everything. So France is in a state of depression." And indeed, part of the reason for a "no" vote is a reactionary fear of globalization, as though, like the old British King Canute, Europeans can somehow order the tide of globalization away.


WHETHER THE patient is capable of reaching acceptance is an open question. Kubler-Ross tells us that the individual, "will reach a stage during which he is neither depressed nor angry about his 'fate.' He will have been able to express his previous feelings ... his anger at those who do not have to face their end so soon.... It is not a hopeless 'giving up', a sense of 'what's the use' or 'I just cannot fight it any longer.'"

While Tony Blair, quietly relieved at the death of the continental dream of ever closer union, has gotten much of the press for speculations on what may come next for Europe, it is the French interior minister and the country's most popular politician, Nicolas Sarkozy, who, alone among European elites, has genuinely grasped what has happened here. Immediately after the vote, Sarkozy observed, "By saying 'no', the French are calling on us to act quickly and vigorously to change the status quo." By accepting that the European elite's dream of the past forty-five years is dead, Sarkozy has implicitly realized that the comfortable status quo in Europe, be it cozy corporatist economics in the face of globalization or political elitism instead of broad-based support for Europe, can no longer be sustained. Europe will have to rise phoenix-like from the dying ashes of an unrealistic dream.

Death and Birth

THE EURO-elites are not alone in failing to deal with the loss of the notion of ever closer union. American neoconservative critics of the project are already beginning to worry about a constitution undead, coming back like Dracula in another diabolical form. It is hard for both Euro-cheerleaders and Euroskeptics to let go of such familiar points of reference, but it is vital if the transatlantic relationship is not to decay into a state of irrelevance. The way forward is not to concentrate on reviving the constitution. Instead, both Europeans and Americans must accept the reality of a Europe comprised of nation-states, where the EU plays a continuing but secondary role in determining the political fate of the Continent.

We do not accept the standard "either/or" dichotomy--that the only choices before us are the EU of the constitution or the Union's total collapse. Simply put, a one-size-fits-all approach does not conform to the modern political realities of the Continent--European countries have politically diverse opinions on all aspects of international life: free trade issues, attitudes toward NATO, relations with the United States and how to organize their own economies. For example, the Netherlands is a strongly free-trading country, traditionally pro-NATO and pro-American. France, by contrast, is more protectionist, more skeptical of NATO, more statist in organizing its economy and more competitive in its attitude toward America. Thus the two European renegades actually have very different political cultures--there simply is no common "European national interest." The EU should function as a political clubhouse--coordinating an intra-European consensus where one exists.

However, while the EU will no longer even potentially threaten America with the prospect of evolving into a neo-Gaullist counterweight, it should not be counted upon as a steadfast friend of the United States. European political differences are simply too great for either of these options to be likely. While it is true that the British view of a more decentralized, more economically liberal, more pro-American Europe looks increasingly attractive, it is at best a contentious view.

Tony Blair--while stronger than German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder and Chirac, who are little more than political zombies--is damaged goods as well, as his recent one hundred-seat slide in the British election attests. Iraq, and the closer ties with America it represents, remains deeply unpopular in London. It is unlikely the prime minister can use the UK presidency of the EU to bully his corporatist rivals to give up the game. What then of the coming of Angela Merkel and Sarkozy? Certainly from an American and British perspective, they are both steps in the right direction. But this is a very relative evaluation. Merkel, likely to become chancellor in the fall, has backed away from the radical reform Germany so desperately needs and so desperately does not want, even if she is more receptive to CAP reform. While she certainly intends to be more pro-American than Schroder, she strongly disagrees with both the United States and the UK about the prospects for Turkish accession to the EU, a fact that happens to be in line with Sarkozy and the French people. On this vital matter, we again find France and Germany at loggerheads with the Anglo-Saxons.

Sarkozy is even more politically constrained. He is a populist who will constantly keep French fears of a too-liberal EU in mind. His brief tenure as finance minister, when he talked liberalization and acted far more like a statist, sets the precedent. Sarkozy's no-nonsense approach to America ought to be strongly welcomed by Washington; however, in the cases of Iraq, Turkey and the Doha free trade round, it has decided limits. To sum up, the EU, given the empirical realities of the no votes, the failure of the recent budget talks at the EU summit, and huge strains over enlargement, is likely to remain in stasis, not coherent enough to be either strongly pro- or anti-American.

So what is America to do? For America's transatlantic policy to be successful, Europe must be evaluated, warts and all, not viewed as many of the European elite or its enemies might wish. While at the state level Europe remains vital, collectively it is far less than the sum of its parts.

The United States ought to remain studiously agnostic as Europe tries to find another dream and should work with Europe at whatever level the people of the Continent decide is appropriate. At the same time, the United States should make it clear that no European country will be penalized for working with the United States at the state level, where most of the significant interactions are likely to take place.

Ever closer union is now a matter of history. It will take time for the great majority of Euro-federalists, confronted with the death of their worldview, to go through the stages of coming to terms with its demise laid out so well by Kubler-Ross. For, like all relationships, the transatlantic tie, if it is to continue in this new era, must be based on the acceptance of reality--not delusions--leading to denial, anger, bargaining and depression. There is no going back.

1On Death and Dying (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1969).

2"The Making of Europe's Constitution", Fabian Society Pamphlet, 2003.

John C. Hulsman is senior research fellow in European affairs at the Heritage Foundation. William L. T. Schirano is research assistant in foreign policy at the Heritage Foundation. A longer version of this piece can be found in "A Challenging Partnership", which will be published by the European Union Institute for Security Studies in September.

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