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Is the European Union on the brink of disintegration?

Is the European Union on the brink of disintegration?

Is the European Union on the brink of disintegration?

A new INSEAD book analyses Europe’s ability to stay united

The path of European integration has never run smoothly, however the magnitude of crises experienced since 2009 has far exceeded those in the past. High levels of Eurozone debt, Russian military intervention in Ukraine, mass migration of refugees and the shock of Brexit, all raised questions over the EU’s future.

In his book European Disintegration? The Politics of Crisis in the European Union, Douglas Webber, INSEAD Professor of Political Science, takes a close look at the dynamics, character and consequences of these crises, and whether the union’s foundations are strong enough to maintain unity should new crises emerge or old ones flare up again.

“If history tells us anything, it is that the EU is a highly resilient entity able to manage, resist and digest crises; but Europe’s future is not set in stone,” said Webber.

 “While few political scientists, least of all scholars of the EU, seemed willing to contemplate the possibility that European political integration might prove reversible, it would be dangerous to conclude that ‘this time’ will not be any different. My thinking when writing this book was to understand to what extent and under what conditions it is conceivable that the European Union (EU) will disintegrate.”

Webber turns existing theories of the EU’s political integration on their head in his quest to discover the circumstances which could prompt the union’s disintegration. Theorists of the EU largely fall into two categories: the optimists who believe that tight socio-economic, legal and institutional constraints will ensure the EU ‘house’ is resistant to all prospective political disasters; and the pessimists who believe that the rise of identity politics and ‘Eurosceptic’ political movements and decline of the traditionally dominant ‘pro-European’ political parties will lead to growing political disintegration.

Both these theories come up short when measured against the recent crises, neither accounting for the divergent pattern of (dis)integration outcomes. The pessimists underestimated the severity of the constraints imposed on political decision-makers by economic and financial interdependence in the Eurozone, which emerged from its crisis more closely integrated than before. The optimists, on the other hand, could not easily explain the Brexit vote (or why the government called the referendum in the first place) or evidence of growing disintegration in respect of refugee policy and borderless travel in the Schengen Area.

Stabilising hegemonic leadership

Instead, Webber turns to hegemonic stability theory to show that European unity to date has relied on the stabilising hegemonic leadership provided by Germany (and up to 2009) its relationship with France.

The EU navigated its way better through crises where Germany provided this kind of leadership, bearing a disproportionate share of the costs and at the same time successfully mobilising support for its crisis strategy among other member states – in other words, by  ‘bribery and arm twisting’.

However, with Germany having begun to catch up with other member states in respect of Euroscepticism and this trend continuing if not accelerating elsewhere, the EU’s future will depend on the emergence of a new, broader hegemonic alliance willing and able to exercise influence over key decisions.

Webber provides three conceivable options:

  • A renewed Franco-German Coalition
  • A Franco-German coalition with the addition of Poland to represent the Central and Eastern members states
  • The Coalition of eight members states (including Germany) stretching from the Netherlands to the Baltic Sea.

The book looks at the strengths of each leadership constellation, the challenges they will face balancing common interests, and the very real possibility that the relative calm which has fallen across the continent in the wake of the 2017 election of pro-European governments in Germany and France, will prove to be the eye of the storm. A rejuvenated Franco-German coalition is the most likely of the three to materialise and also the one most likely to ‘work’. But unless leaders in Berlin and Paris exploit the window of opportunity that currently exists to weld Europe more tightly together, new crises could indeed unleash a process of growing European political disintegration.

“It behoves social scientists to see things not just how they would like them to be, but as they are or might be,” Webber notes. “To recognise that things are going wrong and to where this could lead is an indispensable precondition to putting them right. Much has gone wrong in the EU in the last decade and there may not be much more time to put them right”.


The book is now available here.

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