30 August 2022

Ever closer union? Why some crises lead to more and others to less Europe – and what that means for the EU’s response to the war in Ukraine

By Lucas Schramm
Gasfackel einer Förderplattform
To prevent the energy crisis from dividing the EU, European solidarity and bold political action are needed.

Russia’s war against Ukraine and its implications for European security and energy supply have again stimulated public and academic debates about the impact of crises on the European integration process. Jean Monnet, the founding father of Europe’s earliest political institutions after the Second World War, famously believed that “Europe will be built through crises” and would be “the sum of their solutions”.

For Euro-enthusiasts and neofunctionalist scholars, this assumption was to lead to ever-closer cooperation between member states, a European federation, or at least a state-like European polity. Crises are believed to reveal pressing problems and shortcomings in existing structures to which only the European level could give adequate answers.

Europe doesn’t always find a common response

However, looking at the history of European integration crises and their outcomes, one notices remarkable variation. Consider, for instance, the 1973 oil crisis in which the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC), following the Yom Kippur war and European support for Israel, drastically reduced the production and supply of oil to the Western world including the European Economic Community (EEC) at the time.

OAPEC knew how to divide EEC member states: While France and the United Kingdom as “friendly countries” hardly experienced any energy shortage at all, the Netherlands were the only member state experiencing a full Arab oil embargo. Ignoring calls from the European Commission for a solidaristic mechanism of energy-sharing, national governments restricted the export of energy and unilaterally negotiated favorable oil deals with the OAPEC countries.

A common European crisis response also remained absent at the Washington Energy Conference in February 1974, led by the United States. The Conference paved the way for the creation of the International Energy Agency, in which, however, not all EEC member states participated.

Some crises lead to more integration, others to less

The 1973 oil crisis thus did not lead to more Europe. On the contrary, unilateral national measures and the open undermining of Commission authority signalized a European disintegration, both with respect to the European single market and previous plans to create a common energy policy. Strikingly, most concepts and theories of European integration, due to their legal-institutionalist understanding and primary concern about formal shifts in policy competences, do not adequately reflect such disintegrative tendencies.

The outcome of the 1973 oil crisis, of course, stands in stark contrast to other crises like the security crisis at the end of the Cold War or the Euro crisis from 2009 to 2012: While the former enabled the introduction of the single currency, the latter led to more financial risk-sharing and a more powerful European Central Bank. Some crises thus indeed lead to more Europe.

Quasi-constitutional crises

Until recently, today’s European Union and its various predecessor organizations arguably faced eight major integration crises: Next to the oil crisis of 1973/74, the end of the Cold War in 1990/91 and the Euro crisis in 2009-12, scholars noted the crisis of the European Defense Community of 1952-54; the empty chair crisis of 1965/66; the budgetary rebate crisis of 1979-84; the crisis of the Constitutional Treaty of 2005-07; and the migration crisis of 2015/16. One might add the Brexit crisis of 2016, the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020/21, and the simmering rule-of-law crisis in several EU member states since 2010.

What these crises have in common is that they concern more than a single member state or policy field but threaten key features, principles and declared objectives of European integration. I suggest the term ‘quasi-constitutional’ crises to refer to those instances which go beyond simple decision-making blockades or delays in the implementation of EU law and get to the heart of what the EU is or supposed to be.

Four possible crisis outcomes

In order to assess the consequences of these crises and to better capture their variation, I propose – drawing from a wide range of scholarly literature including the fields of international relations and public policy – four outcome categories:

  • Transformation implies an overhaul of the entire EU system – as in 1991, when the post-Cold War crisis led to the Maastricht Treaty, or during the Euro crisis, which fundamentally changed the functioning of the monetary union.
  • Adaptation brings with it smaller adjustments to the current system – like the Luxemburg compromise as a response to the empty chair crisis in 1966 or the introduction of the budgetary rebate system in 1984.
  • Stagnation means that the current system is not being replaced by a new system – as after the failures of the European Defense Community and the Constitutional Treaty, for which the functionally similar Western European Union and Lisbon Treaty were substituted.
  • Regression implies that the EU system fulfills less functions after, compared to before, the crisis – as happened during the oil crisis, but also during the migration crisis, when many Schengen member states reintroduced national border controls.

These categories follow a more political understanding of crises and crisis outcomes than the institutionalist or even legalist approaches dominating European integration scholarship. They help us to analyze the political dynamics and contingency at work during moments of turmoil and high threat.

Exogenous and endogenous crises

But how can we explain the variation in crisis outcomes? Here, I suggest three key explanatory factors: the nature of the crisis, the level of member-state interdependence, and political leadership. These explanatory factors correspond to the three (temporal) stages characterizing a crisis, namely their origin, management, and resolution.

Regarding the first stage – origin – one can distinguish between the exogenous or endogenous nature of a crisis. This distinction is not just an academic exercise but has real-world implications: While exogenous shocks, generated from outside, tend to hit the EU rapidly and unexpectedly, endogenous crises come from the inside and are often the culminating point of longer-term developments and tensions.

As a consequence, policymakers must find fast and potentially far-reaching answers to exogenously triggered crises, while political and institutional blueprints and structures usually exist for how to deal with endogenously caused crises. The scale of change brought to the system thus tends to be larger in the event of exogenous as opposed to endogenous crises.

Symmetric and asymmetric crises

The level of interdependence, in turn, determines how badly member states together are affected by a crisis and how evenly each of them is affected. In the event of a symmetric crisis affecting all member states to a similar degree, policymakers across the EU tend to judge the crisis as a common threat requiring a common European response.

In the case of an asymmetric crisis, by contrast, some member states are affected much more severely than others. While some member states might call for a common European response to the crisis, others have available more attractive individual alternatives. The migration crisis of 2015/16 is a case in point: With a small number of member states faced unprecedented numbers of arriving asylum seekers, the majority hardly felt any migratory pressures and/or had the possibility to divert migratory flows to other member states through the tightening of national asylum laws or a ‘waving through’ approach.

The role of France and Germany

With respect to the third explanatory factor, political leadership in the EU most of the times comes from the member states. This is even more the case in times of crisis, where only the national governments can provide the necessary material resources for crisis resolution, such as funds for European bailouts or administrative capacities for the reception of refugees.

As the Dutch political historian Luuk van Middelaar reminds us, crises in the EU are the hour of the executives, especially those of the EU’s two largest member states, France and Germany. The history of European integration crises shows that France and Germany, due to their large resources and capacities, both individually and jointly, can make a decisive impact on crisis resolution.

Political scientists have suggested different forms of bilateral French-German leadership, ranging from agenda-setting to compromise-building, to the forging of coalitions among like-minded member states. The bottom line is that if France and Germany do not have the same take on the crisis and do not share the same vision for resolution, a common European crisis response remains unlikely.

And today?

What are the implications of the history of European integration crises and the theoretical assumptions developed above for the looming European security and energy crises following Russia’s war against Ukraine?

The exogenous nature of the crisis suggests far-reaching consequences for the EU polity. Indeed, in view of the immediate shock following the Russian attack, member states adopted unprecedented sanction packages and, for the first time, directly financed the delivery of weapons into a war territory. Discussions about European defense efforts and spending, together with the concept of ‘strategic autonomy’, have arguably witnessed the biggest push in years.

No good signs for the coming energy crisis

By contrast, establishing and keeping a common European front on energy will be more challenging. Similar to the 1973 oil crisis, member states’ energy mix and reliance on the supply of energy from third actors continues to vary greatly. Given their asymmetric interdependence, in 1973 Arab countries managed to divide the Europeans.

The history of European integration crises indicates that the convergence (or divergence) of member states’ takes on a crisis, and thus the likelihood of a common European response, is the result of both interdependence and political leadership. Given member states’ different priorities and needs in energy, the signs seem not too great.

European solidarity

However, there are two avenues how EU member states can still tackle the energy crisis as a common threat requiring a common response and effective European cooperation. One is true solidarity with the most vulnerable countries. In the end, no crisis is fully symmetric in the sense that it affected all member states to the same extent. The pandemic crisis too, despite being an exogenous common shock, led some member states exposed more vulnerable than others due to different fiscal resources.

Therefore, the common recovery fund NextGenerationEU, inspired by solidarity and led by the notion that nobody was to blame for this crisis, directs disproportionate funds to the member states most affected and with the least favorable conditions. Moving beyond short-term material self-interests, which underlay the concept of interdependence, will be essential in the energy crisis too.

Bold political action

The second avenue relates to bold political action. There is a clear tradeoff in the sense that the less interdependence is given, the more political leadership is needed. Europe needs actors with the necessary resources and political will to provide guidance, define objectives and enable common action. Historically, political leadership has come most of the times in the form of explicit French-German crisis management or at least endorsement of other actors, such as the ECB, taking the lead.

In view of Germany’s vulnerable position with respect to the import of Russian energy sources and member states’ suspicion, primarily in Eastern Europe, of President Macron’s political rhetoric on the war in Ukraine, France-Germany must step up their efforts and look for allies. French-German bilateralism in an EU of 27 member states and in a crisis as complex as energy, will not be enough.

Europe needs a grand bargain

To get all member states on board, Europe might need a grand bargain – including the mix, supply and security of energy as well as reforms in EU fiscal governance and more determined efforts in European defense, also in relation with the United States.

In these latter two policy areas, Germany and France again have much to offer. A hesitant and vacillating approach, on the other hand, will help neither them nor Europe.

Porträt Lucas Schramm

Lucas Schramm is a PhD researcher at the European University Institute in Florence and will be a post-doctoral researcher at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich from October 2022.

This article is based on his doctoral dissertation, in which he analyzes crises of European integration and explains the variation in their outcomes.

Pictures: Gas flare: Varodrig [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons; portrait Lucas Schramm: private [all rights reserved].

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