Since the global economic crisis starting in 2007, and its aftermath in the Euro crisis from 2010 on, and at the latest since the refugee crisis of 2015, there has been growing talk of a crisis within the European Union as an institution. What are the challenges that shape the picture of an EU in crisis? And what possible future scenarios and alternatives are conceivable? Does the future of the EU lie in administration, separation, or preservation?

The narrative of the EU as a bloated bureaucratic behemoth has not only haunted Europe for years and been a relevant factor in the often misinformed Brexit debate, it has also been repudiated by Robert Menasse’s essay Enraged Citizens, European Peace and Democratic Deficits. A European Union that boasts fewer administrative officials than the city of Vienna, and which has a mere 0.06 percent of the European GDP available to it for administrative purposes, can hardly be broad-brushed as excessively bureaucratic. In purely structural terms, then, EU institutions can be considered cost-effective and lean, especially compared to the administrative machinery of its nation states. Hence, it is not alleged excessive bureaucratisation, veiling the urgency of contemporary problems, that should be foremost in our discussions of European policy, but precisely those questions whose answers will require a strong European Union. How long can we keep justifying global inequality as an inherent condition of our climate-damaging economic policies? And how can we continue to speak of migration policy without accepting current and future migratory movements for what they are? They consist of people fleeing from three things: centres of armed conflict; economic and existential hopelessness; and widespread destruction of environments and habitats. All three have been conditioned by centuries of Western colonial policies and the profit-oriented and climate-damaging demands of today’s mass-consumption societies. Thus we are dealing with highly interrelated topics that can be confronted only in a comprehensive assessment based on meticulous analysis. But what is standing in our way?

The abundance of challenges is disheartening. In many places, paralysis in the face of the complexity of the globalised world and its problems is evident. With globalisation, the scope of our decisions and the consequences of our actions has changed, or at least our awareness of them has: modern communications technology makes them visible to all of us. And at the same time, this is precisely where we find the possibility of identifying meaningful courses of action that are not evident in long-established local and national political structures. Without social media, global activist movements such as Fridays for Futures would likely be impossible. But there is no substitute for policy solutions, which are essential for dealing with immediate, pressing problems.

The trend in recent years back to heightened nationalistic attitudes is a partial result of paralysis in the face of global interconnectedness and its impact. It is an escape into the past and a rather dangerous venture, because rolling back globalisation is neither possible nor desirable. Inscribed in this political regression and the populist parties that succumb to it is vehement criticism of supranational organisations like the United Nations or the European Union. This is an attack on precisely those bodies that are predestined to find solutions to the challenges of our times, and which, moreover, have the scope required to properly implement them. Despite justified criticism of the current EU, its positioning as a thoroughly neo-liberal project and its still unfinished democratisation, there is simply no good argument in favour of fundamentally rejecting it, considering the disastrous consequences for practical policy that this would entail. The virtual end to military conflicts in Europe since the end of World War II in 1945 and the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC, forerunner of the EU) in 1952 speaks for itself. So do the looming consequences of the Brexit chaos, which the British tabloids persist in trying to reinterpret as “EU chaos”. Especially in uncertain, precarious times, people seem to resort to a simplification of the world and familiar ideas about identity, from which we should have learned long ago that nations as such are not natural or immutable, but changeable social constructs. In light of the challenges of the globalised world, these constructs appear to be increasingly obsolete; in fact, they are becoming impractical anachronisms.

Furthermore, we are seeing as a trait of Eurosceptical movements and populist parties an increasing tendency to question the successful multilateralism that has defined the period since the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The increasing establishment of uncompromising national policies with no further superstructure, which pawn themselves off as bringing redemption behind slogans like “America first” or “Austria first”, clearly opposes the fundamental principle of multilateralism while thwarting necessary international decision-making. Besides the inherent egocentrism or natiocentrism of such policies, and the wilful denial of impending threats like the climate crisis and the need to act on it, there is reason to presume a basic lack of competence for providing solutions. Former US president Trump, who acted unpredictably in foreign policy (and otherwise), also showed how essential it is to enhance the sovereignty of European foreign-policy initiatives and to present a common foreign policy. A “Europe of nations”, often called for by right-wing populist forces, would, by contrast, impede Europe’s ability to act and emancipate itself from US dominance in foreign-policy matters. Hence, the phenomenon of renouncing multilateralism is relevant not only to the international community, but also and especially to the ongoing erosion within the EU as well.

An inner split is thus making itself felt in Europe as well as in broad areas of global politics, between those who acknowledge the necessity of international and supranational policies for solving contemporary problems and those who simply refuse to accept this, preferring what seems to be a pathological retreat from this era of uncomfortable issues, in the belief that they can thus be avoided. With a population of over 500 million and a corresponding share of the global economy, the European project has a potential for global political influence that should be recognized in matters including the implementation of the Paris climate goals and sustainable restructuring with the goal of a CO2-neutral and liveable future. The influence of a united and resolute Europe must not be underestimated: it could have a progressive effect on global politics. A European Union that is splitting up and experiencing inner self-dissolution will hardly be able to achieve such an effect. Furthermore, the European Union will only become a credible European peace project again when it manages to take the step from a primarily economically oriented alliance to a social union that does not itself continue to cause and exacerbate the socio-political crises of its own population through an uncompromising austerity policy. And it will do so only when it counters the perversion of so-called and oft-cited Christian and Western values with a revaluation of the European Convention on Human Rights, instead of remaining an aggregate of nation states that lets thousands upon thousands of human beings drown at the gates of the richest continent in the world. It seems there is no purer paradox than universal human rights that can be relativised and negotiated. The critical aspect of the refugee crisis seems to be grounded less in the arrival of people at the outer borders of Europe than in the inability of the European Council, made up of heads of government, to come to decisions. I would not like to wake up in a Europe shattered by illiberal, authoritarian nation states and the denial or underestimation of the consequences of climate change, a Europe unaffected by the certainty of not having to intern countless climate refugees in the long century of the camps, and letting them drown in the Mare Nostrum of indifference, but which has gone over to shooting them behind dystopian border fences. I would not like to wake up in a world that has surrendered to authoritarianism and surveillance capitalism.

No. We need a renewal of European unity, clear affirmations of democratic principles, and a break from the neoliberal fetishes of eternal growth and social inequality that are understood as nature-given—a paradigm shift in times of upheaval. Resolutely continuing to democratise EU institutions—for example, giving more power to the European Parliament—is as essential to this as transforming our understanding of globally effective action. A pervasive and de-politicised individualism in the form of Foucauldian hidden power has already trained us to fight against injustices mainly by means of consumer choices. Today, however, it is more important than ever to push for pragmatic policy solutions and decisions, and to seek collective political practices.

Much will be decided in these unsettled times, which the former UN ambassador Wolfgang Petritsch, on the basis of the numerous upheavals that have been mentioned here in part, describes as an epochal change. We are now confronted with this question: are we facing a preservation of the status quo? A manic maintenance of the destruction of our biosphere, our democracies, and humanistic values? Preserving the current downfall? Or are we experiencing a Europe of an approach that will shape proactive and effective environmental and social policies? Perhaps it is precisely the opportunity of sheer necessity, appearing soundlessly amid the roar and thunder of the climate crisis, that is offering the impetus for this development. Looking at an auspicious picture of a future that appears apocalyptic, it is possible that paralysis in the face of the overwhelming complexity of global interconnectedness can be overcome. The future of the European Union will be measured not least by how ambitious its climate and reform programmes are.

Ultimately, there is no need to demolish the EU, or for nationalism to diminish it. Rather, it should be reformed and renewed. This is the only way we can properly face the issues of our times.

Translated from German by Geoffrey C. Howes


Menasse, Robert: Enraged Citizens, European Peace and Democratic Deficits: Or, why the Democracy Given to Us Must Become One We Fight for. Translated by Craig Decker. Kolkata: Seagull Books 2016.

Petritsch, Wolfgang: Epochenwechsel. Unser digital-autoritäres Jahrhundert. Wien: Brandstätter 2018.