What's the Point of the EU?

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.

After the end of the Cold War there were even fewer reasons to deny membership to countries of the former Soviet bloc. Also Austria, Finland and Sweden, which carefully maintained their neutral position during the Cold War, used the opportunity of the war’s end to join and enjoy the benefits of economic cooperation. During all those decades, participants understood where the integration process led, and what its costs and benefits were.

However, during the last decade there has been far less clarity. Europe has geographic, if not political, borders. There is also a finite number of countries that can become members, and most of them are negotiating to join the EU. At times, the negotiations are not easy—Turkey has been involved with European integration since 1959 and there is still no date set for full membership. If all these countries become EU members, what next? What will be integration’s next goal? Will the EU one day become a single, unified state?

No EU official or document has answered all these questions. We have seen only the brief description of the EU’s aim in the Lisbon Treaty, but even this short formula has the huge problem of suggesting that the promotion of EU values and the well-being of its peoples can always be coordinated. In reality, this is far from true. One example is energy security. For years, European officials have been discussing the need to reduce the amount of energy resources imported from Russia. Possible deliveries from Central Asia are always mentioned in this regard. But in reality, a quarter century has passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union; the EU still does not import any natural gas from that region, and oil deliveries are minimal. There are numerous reasons for that, but one is obvious: it is hard for the EU to develop cooperation with the former Soviet republics of Central Asia while also lecturing them on human rights and politics.

Of course, European officials may continue in this manner. It may appear possible in the thousands and thousands of pages of EU documents, but the current reality of international relations does not leave much space to implement these well-intended formulas, especially when European leaders themselves act in ways hardly reconcilable with high-minded official slogans. Take the recent decision to send refugees back to Turkey. While the EU states that the European goal is “to promote human rights both internally and around the world,” its decision on the refugees raises serious concerns among human rights advocates. It is easy to find reasons for this move in the domestic politics of EU member countries, where voters were not particularly fond of refugees and politicians wanted to win upcoming elections. But the question stands: how do you reconcile everyday politics with the high ideals of EU documents?

It is no surprise that citizens of European Union countries are confused, to say the least. Their leaders announce new, often complex plans, set and implemented by unelected bureaucracy in Brussels, yet they do not notice the numerous problems connected with their implementation. One may argue that nobody knows where the whole process is going. At the very least, the problems of communication are obvious. European leaders need to better answer their voters’ question, simply put: What is the point of the European Union? The urgency is clear: Dutch voters’ rejection of the 2,135-page treaty between the European Union and Ukraine spells trouble for future referenda on integration issues.

Another significant one is already on the horizon—on June 26, the United Kingdom will vote on whether or not it will remain in the EU. David Cameron has said that he hopes the result of the Dutch vote will not affect the British referendum. He and his peers among the European elites certainly hope so. But will they be able to explain the purpose and the value of the EU to voters?

Nikolay Pakhomov is a political analyst and consultant in New York City. He is a Russian International Affairs Council expert. You can follow him on Twitter @nik_pakhomov.