Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Renationalizing Justice: The European Union’s Identity Crisis

Steven E. Meyer


When French diplomat and philosopher Jean Monnet and French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman pushed for the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1950, they were doing much more than backing an economic and industrial trade pact. They were trying to change both the anthropology and teleology of the way Europe had evolved over centuries. In doing so, they were attempting to establish an unprecedented system of justice. It was the largest effort so far to move past the nineteenth century concept of justice for individuals to a concept of justice for an entire political community whereby a whole system would benefit from and be responsible for defining and administering justice. 

Europe’s Troubled Past

With Germany and France already disagreeing on access to resources in the Ruhr Valley immediately after World War II, Monnet and Schuman were searching for a way to get past centuries of virulent nationalism and almost relentless European warfare. Their goal was to construct a new political legal teleological superstructure that would make war unthinkable and materially impossible. The new ECSC was truly an international organization, governed by a “High Authority,” members of the parliaments of the six participating countries, and even its own independent judiciary. With the passage of time and effort, the ECSC expanded to become the European Community (EC) and ultimately the European Union (EU).

But more was needed. What was needed was a tectonic shift in the philosophical and anthropological underpinnings of European politics, one that encouraged democratic, peaceful and cooperative modes of problem solving. The ECSC laid the foundation for this shift as the institutional forerunner of later expansion and efforts at cooperation. Certainly Europe’s exhaustion after World War II—a war of immense brutality and racism--and the ending of the age of European imperialism and world power helped force a different understanding of politics, especially the use of force. While the mega-systems of the ECSC, EC, and EU and all their supporting legal, political, and social tools were not fully Kantian or Hegelian, they were nevertheless heavily influenced by these giants of German idealism more than any other political thinkers in the areas of democracy, humanism, and equality.

Europe’s Troubled Present

But other forces trending in Europe have challenged that early post World War II vision, leading ultimately to the contemporary European crisis we see today, one that is much more than an economic crisis. Europe is struggling with a declining indigenous population, a pervasive turn inward, the anguish and challenge of the immigrant problem, and perhaps most profound of all, the collapse of Christianity and with it the spiritual roots of a moral code. None of this was foreseen by the post-World War II founders of Europe, but these changes—some of which have their origins deep in history--are no less profound than were the efforts of the post-World War II generation to move Europe into a more supranational direction. The conflict between the vision of the post-war founders and these trends does not bode well for the future of a “unified” Europe.

However, Europeans continue to hold fast to the dream—the idea—of a unified Europe as a matter of theology while all too often ignoring the hard, demanding, practical tasks of building the structures and functions that are necessary to make the founders’ vision a reality. Particularly at elite levels, Europeans are caught in a philological narcissism.  All the “right” words are used to construct a myth of European reality. “Yes”, they say, “we have problems, but they are manageable and do not detract from the overall health and vitality of the organization; the EU is essentially sound and, anyhow, there is no alternative.” These words are no mere sophism; they are the heart of the myth, manufacturing a saga around which structures and functions are imagined, erected, and worshipped. 

As the world around changes, the EU perpetuates the myth of European cultural, moral, and economic superiority. This superiority, the EU leaders contend, must be observed, acknowledged and, above all, maintained, despite the decline of the organization and the pull back to a renationalization of the European space. The ECSC started out as a genuine effort to break the tragic routine of the past, but its successors have failed it. The EU today is struggling under the weight of regional and national differences, declining world influence, economic structural problems, excessive introversion, sheer size, and an unwillingness to engage in the kind of hard work needed to meet the challenges of a globalizing world. The myth is shattering.

Despite this, Washington and Brussels continue to tell the world and their own people that the Cold War, pre-globalization structures and functions are still right for today.  In effect, they are saying that little has changed.  The EU—based mostly on the Treaty of Maastricht (1992), the Treaty of Amsterdam (1997), the Copenhagen Criteria (1993), the Treaty of Nice (2001) and the Treaty of Lisbon (2007)—remains the paramount rhetorical economic and political map in the European understanding of reality, and NATO remains the rhetorically dominant security organization. However, neither NATO nor the EU is what it was five or even ten years ago because Europe and the larger West are not what they were five or ten years ago. The EU has become so large and cumbersome that it is now impossible to control the organization’s future. It has neither the authoritarian command structure of an empire nor the necessary organic or mechanical capabilities of a democracy. Rather, it is an unwieldy behemoth that is unsure of its own future—even its own survivability. 

The financial and structural problems have become most serious in Europe’s southern tier; the wealthier countries of northern Europe (including Germany) routinely have ignored and violated some of the union’s most basic financial rules, simply because they can get away with it. The euro crisis is a serious subset of the teleological problems that Europe and the EU are facing. In addition to ignoring the clear rules and regulations of the EU’s underlying treaties and documents, basic structural issues also contribute to the euro crisis, especially high labor and production costs and slipping productivity that make it difficult for the EU to compete with Asian producers. The 2012 EU Fiscal Compact and the European Stability Mechanism/Facility have held the euro zone together for now. However, these efforts are signs of failure, not success, because each one of them constitutes an effort to rush relief to financial issues that were amply covered in earlier agreements and subsequently ignored. Despite the austerity plan for Greece, Greek financial health remains poor. The financial systems of Italy, Spain, Portugal—and perhaps Ireland—are not far behind. 

On the heels of the Greek financial collapse, the European community has struggled to agree on a common policy for dealing with hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern immigrants. The noble goals of justice and democratic idealism have been sacrificed on the altar of renationalization and nativism. National borders have reappeared and national limits have been placed on the number of immigrants countries will accept. The poorer countries of Eastern and Central Europe have balked at the large number of immigrants they have been asked to take as part of an EU relocation plan. Even Germany has now placed limits on the total it will take, and Hungarian leaders justify immigrant exclusion by arguing that the influx of Muslims is undermining Europe’s Christian roots and ethos—an ironic argument for a continent that for the most part long ago rejected its Christian faith.

Europe’s Troubled Future

With this growing renationalization and nativism, the EU faces several significant barriers to its survival and the realization of its founders’ post-national, universal vision of justice.

First, history and heritage are stumbling blocks. Despite the success of the ECSC, the EU is a construct of many deep-seated cultures, languages, political, economic, and social systems as well as a history of conflict and a heritage of ethnic, religious, and racial antagonism. There now is serious doubt that the EU will invite any other countries to join for very long time, if at all. Countries such as Serbia, Macedonia, and Albania live in hope, but they are far from meeting elements of conditionality or closing important chapters of the Acquis Communautaire. Conditionality is used as much as a way to keep countries out of the EU as a means to secure their membership. To be sure, the Balkans exhibit problems that make those countries “different” from their masters to the northwest, but a built-in antipathy toward the “backward” Balkan states has been a staple of European history for centuries. And now this antipathy has been re-energized in the case of Greece, which once again is a true, backward Balkan country—for the first time since the fall of the Colonels in 1974. With the EU in turmoil, there is likely little appetite to include countries that almost certainly will cause deeper economic and political problems.

Second is the EU’s “fractured” membership which has led to increasingly serious tiering of the EU and Europe with at least four major tiers, each containing several feudal-like sub-tiers. These tiers tend to follow the north to south patterns of power and wealth that developed in post-industrial revolution Europe: northwest, southeast (including Italy), east and central, and the Balkans, which likely always will remain the poorest part of Europe. But fractured membership also includes individual countries that have “violated” the sensitivities of their more powerful colleagues. The euro and immigrant crises have exacerbated the fracturing of the EU, not only because of a general downward economic spiral, but because they are leading to a significant shift in the labor market. Not only will this amplify the economic crisis in the south, it is likely to lead to even greater pressure to renationalize economic and immigration policies. The tiers will likely remain a permanent feature of the EU with the southern members becoming increasingly poor and dependent on handouts and financial support from the wealthier north. Ultimately, some of the weakest members may be forced out of the EU and others may withdraw voluntarily.

Third are the “outcasts” and “near outcasts.” The clearest example of a true outcast is Turkey, the bête noir of many of the largest and most influential members of the EU (especially Germany and France). Turkey has been struggling for twenty-five years to become a member of the EU with no success. Consistent with the myth of Europe, EU officials repeat the mantra that Turkey’s failure to become a member is totally Ankara’s fault. Certainly, the Turks have not satisfied EU conditions, especially in the arena of human rights. But the inability of Turkey to satisfy the EU does not rest entirely with Ankara. Many Europeans object to Turkey’s Islamist credentials and to the prospect of even more Turks living and working in Europe, which plays to the European myth of cultural and moral superiority. Two members, Britain and Finland, are moving toward outcast status. Britain has played an outsider role since it joined the EU in 1973 and British Prime Minister Cameron is under pressure, mostly from within his own Conservative Party, to hold a referendum on EU membership by the end of 2017. Moreover, there has been growing anti-British sentiment in Germany and France because of Britain’s increasingly independent economic line and because London is the euro’s financial center, an especially galling phenomenon since the UK refuses to adopt the euro. 

Given all of this, what is the future of Europe and the EU? Can the anthropology of nativism be overcome? Can the EU institutions that were set up in a pre-globalization world adapt to face the financial, economic, political, and military challenges of a globalizing world? It is by all accounts a troubled future if the myth cannot be dissolved in favor of an honest and determined decision to work and abide by the political, economic, and social architecture that was established over many years.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What is your understanding of the role and importance of the European Union? How does this article challenge those assumptions? Do you agree with the writer’s assessment of the current situation in Europe?
  2. How can large international organizations contribute to upholding public justice on a global scale?
  3. How can international organizations adjust to changing global realities and remain consistent with their founding visions?


- Steven E. Meyer is a former intelligence professional and a Fellow with the Center for Public Justice. 

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”