The state of the European disunion

European discord has highlighted the fact that the eurozone crisis is political rather than economic, argues Marder.

Greece lenders meeting
The ongoing discord leaves the EU's legitimacy in tatters, along with its ephemeral sovereignty, which has never been reconciled with the sovereignties of individual member states [AFP]

As November drew to a close, two events exacerbated the already deep tears in the political fabric of the European Union. Domestically, the summit on the bloc’s 2014-2020 budget failed amidst conflicting interests and drastically different visions for the future of the economic union. 

On the international front, EU countries did not manage to reach consensus on granting Palestine the status of a “non-member observer state” at the UN. Exactly one week after the start of the doomed summit, the breakdown of the common foreign policy was glaring. While some EU states voted for the UN resolution, others abstained, and the Czech Republic opposed the move. 

It is not by chance that these events followed one another in such rapid succession. At the institutional level, they implicitly signalled a departure from the achievements of the Lisbon Treaty, which sought not only to strengthen a joint foreign and security policy, but also to make changes to the EU budgetary powers. 

European discord has thus highlighted the fact that the eurozone crisis is, in the first place, political rather than economic, which is to say that it is aggravated not so much by the absence of funds as by a lack of political will. 

‘Zero-sum game’ mentality 

Although it has been awarded the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize “for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe”, the EU is at war with itself. To be sure, the hostilities in question are not military, but economic. They centre on divergent interests and a “zero-sum game” mentality that has decisively displaced the rhetoric of co-operation. 


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More than hurting image of the EU on the world arena, ongoing discord leaves the Union’s legitimacy in tatters, along with its ephemeral sovereignty, which has never been reconciled with the sovereignties of individual member states. While in the period of economic boom these issues could be safely ignored (or, at least, relegated to the backburner of Union concerns), at the time of crisis the unresolved contradictions erupt with an ever more devastating force. 

Traditionally, the EU has resorted to two principal modes of self-legitimation: pragmatic – that is, outcome-based – and procedural. Pragmatic legitimation hinged largely upon its capacity to contribute to the peace and growing prosperity of member states; procedural legitimation depended on a strict adherence to the formal framework regulating the functioning of the EU. 

The two-pronged failure of the budget summit and of a common policy in the Middle East has confirmed the obsolescence of both paths to self-legitimation. As the dream of European integration teeters on the cliff of the Union’s disintegration, it is becoming clear that decisions on the shape of its political life cannot be easily dismissed. 

Whatever remains of European co-operation is based on the overlap of national self-interest and mutual areas of interest. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s justification for the approval of 43.7bn euros of fresh funds allocated to Greece is that this action serves Germany’s own best interests. The rationale behind these calculations is that Greek default and the country’s subsequent exit from the eurozone would cost the German economy more than the approved aid package. 

Political constitution of the EU

The Reichstag’s political action takes a page out of the thought of Adam Smith, with its insights on the contribution of self-interest to the common good. The German hand in the current crisis is, however, far from invisible and its actions amount to too little, too late. 

Laudable as it may be, a belated realisation of the shared interests and of the common fate of EU members is insufficient to overcome the crisis in which Europe is embroiled. Nor would it be enough to harmonise and coordinate national budgetary policies and the banking sectors of member states, as some have suggested. 

What is required is a decision on the form of the political constitution of the EU, deferred in virtually every summit held and treaty signed thus far. In and of itself, this decision would be an exercise in European sovereignty, quite apart from debates on the specific constitutional blueprints – federal, or otherwise – that would certainly ensue. 

The positive values of solidarity and co-operation, if they are to be truly meaningful, will flourish only on the basis of such a decision. 

Europe can no longer afford merely to reform its institutions at the time when their credibility, much like that of professional politicians across party lines, is at an all-time low. Instead, it must re-constitute itself, perhaps even daring to invent a new, previously unseen political form in the process.    

Michael Marder is Ikerbasque Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country, Vitoria-Gasteiz. He is the author of The Event of the Thing: Derrida’s Post-Deconstructive Realism (2009), Groundless Existence: The Political Ontology of Carl Schmitt (2010) and numerous articles in phenomenology, political philosophy and environmental thought. His most recent book, Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life, will be published in the beginning of 2013.His website is here.