Will the EU Fall? Three Scenarios, Four Explanations

Frédéric Mérand 
Université de Montréal

The death of states, empires and international organizations is an exceedingly rare phenomenon. My generation witnessed the end of the Soviet Union in less than two years (1989-1991). But contemporaries of the fall of Rome probably didn’t realize it was happening because it took too long. Unless they are defeated militarily, political structures tend to be extremely resilient. Will it be the same with the European Union?

Less than a year ago, few observers would have predicted the end of this project launched after World War II by two historical enemies, France and Germany, soon joined by Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Luxembourg and 22 other countries. Since then, we have entered the “polycrisis,” a term used by European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker to describe a dysfunctional Eurozone, a catastrophic refugee conundrum, the unpicking of the Schengen area, the threat of Brexit and the coming to power of Euroskeptic governments in Hungary, and Poland.

Three scenarios

The first scenario, hoped for by the European Commission, Chancellor Merkel, and intellectuals such as Thomas Piketty, would be a federal step forward. For them, the EU was born in a difficult environment and has emerged stronger from every crisis it faced. In the face of adversity, the EU’s aim remains the Treaty of Rome’s “ever closer union among the peoples of Europe.” To find a way out of this crisis, European democracy should be deepened by giving the supranational Parliament new powers over a beefed up common budget. Right now, the EU budget is limited to 1% of GDP, which doesn’t enable the EU to assist countries and regions, such as Greece or Northern France, that are going through tough economic times. With a budget similar to other federal states, allowing for equalization, public investment and perhaps even a common unemployment insurance scheme, the economic union would probably apply only to a core group of states that want to affirm their solidarity, for example the 19 Eurozone countries. Brexit would no longer be an issue since the UK would not be part of this group anyway.

The second scenario is bricolage, a series of unsatisfying but inevitable compromises among member states that have become economically, but also socially and politically interdependent. The creation of the Euro in 1999 was the result of such a compromise between France, which wanted a single currency and a common budget but no federal institutions, and Germany, which accepted a single currency but didn’t want a common budget without federal institutions. The odd compromise of a monetary union without a budget and without federal institutions did not prevent the Euro to thrive as a world currency. Much the same story can be told about the Common Agricultural Policy and its zillion reforms, the Schengen area or fiscal cooperation. It is possible that the EU will come out of the crisis with economic policies that are as national as they ever were but include more generous funds to assist members in need, which would look like the beginning of an economic union. We should see more frequent border controls than has been the case since the past 20 years but also more cooperation among border agencies, which would make it look like Schengen has been salvaged. In the best scenario, a smooth Brexit would be followed by a new partnership with the UK, as is the case between the EU and Norway or Switzerland. In other words, we may see small steps that solve none of the structural problems but do not bring the end of the EU about.

The third scenario is the EU’s implosion. With the growing defiance of public opinion vis-à-vis the European project but also the unprecedented lack of trust among governments, it can no longer be excluded. We would then see the Euro replaced by former national currencies during a dangerous transition period. Border controls would be re-established and millions of European citizens would lose their automatic right of residence in other member states. East European countries, but also Portugal, Ireland and Spain, would lose their benefits and have to deal with significant gaps in their national budgets. On the global stage, former EU member states would be disorganized when it comes to climate change or international trade negotiations. Europe would be weakened vis-à-vis China, Russia and the U.S.

We also cannot exclude that the frustration accumulated during the divorce would reignite old quarrels, for example between Germany and the Czech Republic about the expulsion of Sudeten Germans. In any case, one thing is certain: it would become a lot more difficult to move, work and cooperate in Europe. A sequel to Adrian Favell’s Eurostars could not be written.


While the bricolage scenario is the most probable, implosion has not been such a serious option since the 1960s. How did the EU get there? I see four possible explanations.

The first explanation is what the French call “fuite en avant,” which translates uneasily as “flight forward.” Or, to use Frank Schimmelfennig’s expression, the EU lives with the consequences of the “rhetorical entrapment” of ill-considered commitments. In 1999, the EU launched a monetary union that it knew was incomplete because there were no federal institutions to cushion asymmetric shocks. The idea was, let’s commit now, and economic union will come later. Between 2004 and 2007, the EU also admitted 12 new member states with lagging economic development, unstable democratic institutions, and weak rule of law. Again, we were going to deal with this later…

Today, Greece and Portugal are about to collapse while Hungary, Poland and Slovakia are ruled by authoritarian and xenophobic governments. But these are problems for today’s politicians, not for the ones who made careless decisions 15 or 20 years ago.

The “constraining dissensus” is a second explanation, put forward by Liesbet Hooghe and Gary Marks. While the EU enjoyed a “permissive consensus” until the 1990s, national leaders are now scrutinized by citizens whose trust in political institutions is at an all time low. In this context, finding compromises is a lot more difficult, especially when they imply sacrifices about technical questions and are crafted by unknown diplomats speaking a foreign language in Brussels.

The third explanation, which may not be liked by sociologists, is the mediocrity of today’s political leaders. For 40 years, European politics was the outcome of deals struck by two equal states, France represented by Charles De Gaulle, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and François Mitterrand, and Germany by Konrad Adenauer, Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl. Benelux countries made ambitious proposals and Southern countries were just happy to be part of the democratic club.

Today, Angela Merkel is alone on the frontlines. French president is just not there, while Italian Matteo Renzi is busy reforming Italy and Spain has no government. There is a power vacuum in the Concert of Europe.

That said, I believe a fourth explanation is too often neglected. Xenophobic movements and populist forces are growing everywhere along what Hanspeter Kriesi, Romain Lachat and their colleagues call the “integration-demarcation cleavage”. The problem in Europe is that the EU is much more fragile than nation-states as an institution because it was not legitimized by centuries of nation-building through schools, the army, post, television, religion, language, etc.

As Ernest Gellner and Michael Mann have shown, national identity followed state-building but preceded democratic politics almost everywhere. In the EU, exactly the opposite happened: supranational democracy came first because, in the late 20th century context, it could not be otherwise. The EU’s legitimacy, Kathleen MacNamara argues, was built through a “banal cultural infrastructure,” which was unlikely to foster transnational social solidarity.  Now, asking citizens to share their lot with people they still consider as foreigners was bound to be challenging. For a while, it didn’t matter so much. But when the polycrisis hit, the EU was in for a ride.


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One thought on “Will the EU Fall? Three Scenarios, Four Explanations

  1. Interesting thoughts, Frédéric. The future of Europe is very unclear. From where I sit, in England, one salient fact I would add to your discussion is that there is a big generation divide here, with younger people significantly more comfortable with European integration. (In the UK, in the referendum on EU membership coming up in June, it’s clear that if voters’ preferences were weighted by the number of years they will live with the consequences, Brexit would lose in a landslide.)
    As such, it seems that cohort replacement points towards outcomes that European gerontocracy will veto.

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