In this time of virulent Euroscepticism, the very idea of the Union is under attack. The deep root of the unending succession of existential crises is the sharp misalignment between the high degree of integration reached by the EU, its authority structure, and the absence of solidarity to sustain it. Dangerous forces feed on the lack of awareness among national and European politicians, being the true reason for this prolonged instability.

The EU is irreducible and irreversible

The process of economic and legal integration has reached a point in which the European Union – and particularly the Eurozone – can be qualified as a ‘Complex Adaptive System, namely as a system in which perfectly comprehending each individual part does not automatically turn into perfectly comprehending the entire system and its functioning. Viewing the EU in such terms highlights two very interesting properties that are crucial, but often underestimated: irreducibility and irreversibility.

The term ‘irreducibility’ means that it is particularly complex to retrace an effect back to its cause. In this context, it refers to the difficulties one encounters in pinpointing who did what in Europe, due to the degree of integration among Member States. A single decision of an individual state, in fact, often prompts a long and complex chain of reactions by other Member States and communitarian institutions, which reverberates throughout the system in unpredictable ways. This means that, when Italian populists blame Germany for national woes, or when German hawks blame the ‘lazy south’, they are grossly oversimplifying the degree of interactions within the system.

In the run-up to the German elections in 2017, Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schäuble repeatedly stated that in EU politics “this is no time for visions”. We disagree

Draghi famously claimed that the Euro is irreversible. In a technical sense, the term ‘irreversibility’ means that initial conditions cannot be reconstituted by simply undoing integration. European societies have become so entangled that any attempt to return to the initial conditions is impossible. Even if it were possible to quickly and easily erase all the European treaties, the new situation would be very different from the initial conditions. Not only would we end up in a different place than the one we started, but we would have travelled a long and costly road to get there. The breakup of the euro (strongly advocated by some Eurosceptic parties) would not bring back to life the Greek or Italian economies as they functioned under the drachma or lira. Similarly, Brexit shows that it is very difficult for a Member State to disentangle itself from the EU order, and certainly costlier than staying out altogether, or having stayed out in the first place rather than joining and then exiting.

The vulnerability of the EU

Yet, precisely because causal dynamics intersect in complex and chaotic ways, the European Union could still collapse, as each crisis becomes exponentially more difficult to disarm.

In complex systems, nonequilibrium is the norm rather than the exception, as strict rules indicate insensitivity and inflexibility, and may prove fatal to the system. Steering a complex adaptive system like the European Union is thus difficult and demanding; a change in the policy-making mindset is required. Complex systems should focus on resilience, i.e. the capacity to adapt to external and internal shocks in order to keep functioning in the same way and avoid the strict stability of classic economics, based on the search for equilibrium, determinacy and rule-based deductions.

This change is still a long way away from the current EU authority structure, which is inadequate on two fronts. First, the EMU is still largely steered within the traditional frame of ‘methodological nationalism’, i.e. treating the Member States and their political economies as intrinsically self-determined units. However, this is an inadequate compass to govern an irreducible complex adaptive system. The second root of inadequacy is that the delicate balancing act is largely performed by non-majoritarian institutions, entrusted with the task of identifying and applying rigid rules and technical formulas for steering national fiscal policies.

Need for solidarization

An authority structure capable of effective functional steering and polity maintenance of the new reality of an irreducibly integrated Europe requires the mediation of an adequate symbolic framework or, more precisely, a ‘moral order’.

Togetherness requires ideas such as continuity and compactness: put simply, solidarity (from the Latin term solidus, which refers to ‘a firm and compact body’). Solidarity is a contested concept, but its prime meaning is relatively straightforward: it connotes, precisely, the set of feelings of belonging together, which supports attitudes of mutual acceptance, cooperation and support. Solidarity in this sense is partially built on the interest in the integrity of a shared form of life that includes one’s own well-being, which gradually becomes ethically charged and turns into a moral community, where members feel ‘co-responsible’ for the actions and desires, defaults and merits of each other. The glue of solidarity is, however, blatantly missing today in the EU.

As famously argued by Max Weber, world images and visions can sometimes operate as switchmen, channelling historical developments towards new directions. But ideas need political ‘carriers’

Early architects of the EU were curiously aware that economic integration required an ethos built on solidarity to activate mutual feelings of community and sustain EU integration.

The Thomson Report prepared with the view of establishing the European Regional Development Fund (set up in 1975), and stated in turn that a harmonious development of the community as a whole was a ‘moral and human requirement’. Without sustaining local communities, the ‘idea of European unity’ would be doomed to ‘disenchantment’

In 1977, the European Commission appointed a high-level working group on the budgetary implications of EMU, chaired by Donald MacDougall. The final report suggested that a future “Federation of Europe” should in principle adopt a public budget of “around 20-25% of aggregate GDP, as in the U.S.A. and the Federal Republic of Germany”, although MacDougall considered 5-7% a more realistic figure in the beginning (as it is known, the EU budget today only amounts to ca. 1% of aggregate GDP). The Report proposed a Community Unemployment Fund to cushion temporary setbacks, a budget equalization scheme for weak member states up to 65% of the average fiscal capacity, and a “conjunctural convergence facility” to counteract cyclical crises (MacDougall, 1977, pp. 12–13).

It was through this sequence of initiatives that the ‘social dimension’ of integration made its silent but tangible appearance within both the EU symbolic and institutional frameworks, and that the value of solidarity – in particular, inter-territorial solidarity – came to be a part and parcel of the European ‘ethos’.

Contrast this early sensitivity with the current predicament. The transition towards a “Union of national adjustments” is a dramatic change of paradigm in both descriptive and prescriptive terms. The new outlook assumes that the EMU framework – as currently configured – is essentially well designed and that structural adjustment is fundamentally a matter of homework and rule compliance. The derogatory connotation attributed to the idea of a Transfer Union in Brussels and in various Northern capitals testifies to this anti-solidaristic drift of the EU value framework, especially for the Eurozone.

The ‘myth of the beggar’, the idea that solidarity would prevent market pressure and remove incentives to reform, has rapidly prompted a de-solidarizing and harshly conflictual polarisation between ‘deserving’ richer and ‘undeserving’ poorer Member States, saints and sinners, industrious ants and indolent grasshoppers.

Can we confidently say that domestic public opinions share this harsh de-solidarization rhetoric?

A survey we recently conducted provided surprisingly hopeful results. We asked 9,326 respondents in six countries (France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, Sweden) to investigate their disposition to support a re-solidarization of Europe. First, we tested what kind of symbolic image citizens associate to the EU. Four different metaphors were proposed by the survey: 1) the EU as the ‘common home’ of all European citizens; 2) the EU as an ‘apartment building’ in which national peoples, with legitimate diversities, live next to each other; 3) a ‘playground’ (a commons) that facilitates mutually beneficial economic exchanges; 4) a ‘sinking ship’ from which Member States should escape as fast as they can – the Eurosceptic view. The preferred image turned out to be the apartment building (30.1%), followed by the playground (26.0%), the common home (23.8%) and, finally, the sinking ship (20.3%).

Today we see some promising ideas with potential popular support, but no available carrier

The survey also asked more concrete questions about possible EU policies inspired by pan-European solidarity norms. Almost all respondents (89.1%) agreed that the EU should ensure that no citizen remains without means of subsistence. In addition, more than three respondents out of four were in favour of a specific EU funded scheme to fight poverty.

One may argue that, while they may be in favour of solidarity, they are not really willing to pay for it. Yet 77% of respondents were in favour of an increase of the EU budget to support jobless people during a crisis. In particular, the fact that more than two thirds of Germans are ready to support a partial mutualisation of the risk of unemployment is remarkable, considering the reluctance of the German government when it comes to mutualisation policies.

In addition, more than three out of four respondents in the six countries were in favour of increasing the EU budget to foster social investment policies (75.9%). By contrast, ‘only’ 56% supported the introduction of Eurobonds, a percentage that drops to 37.3% if one considers only Germany. Yet, even these numbers mean that potentially one in every three Germans is supportive of Eurobonds, a fact which sharply contrasts with the absence of political parties in Germany championing this proposal.

On this basis, it can be suggested that voter resistance and electoral constraints cannot explain the process of de-solidarization we just described. Quite to the contrary, a ‘silent majority’ seems potentially available for supporting a strategy of realignment between the deep integration created by the EMU, on the one hand, and the institutional and symbolic architecture of the EU, on the other.


In conclusion, the inability to govern the unstable new reality of Europe’s irreducible and irreversible integration is worrying. While a polarising political rhetoric divides Europe’s quibbling politicians, there is still a surprising amount of consensus that can be activated by responsible leaders.

In the run-up to the German elections in 2017, Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schäuble repeatedly stated that in EU politics “this is no time for visions”. We disagree. As famously argued by Max Weber, world images and visions can sometimes operate as switchmen, channelling historical developments towards new directions. But ideas need political ‘carriers’. Today we see some promising ideas with potential popular support, but no available carrier. In this post-crisis but still turbulent phase, the long-term sustainability of the EU cannot be taken for granted.

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