Illustration by Timothy Goodman
Illustration by Timothy Goodman

The European system is crippled by contradictions and tensions between member states and the European Union apparatus; among the member states; and between peoples and elites. Worse, in most countries, the conflicts over these issues are no longer structured around traditional political divisions and parties, but now cut across them.

National political groupings have split into pro-European and anti-EU factions, and even those who favor greater integration are critical of the present state of affairs.

Meanwhile, the public has soured on the European project. This is largely because of the increasing disconnect between the national parties’ electoral programs and the policies that EU membership compels governments to enact once they are in power.

This public skepticism is well-founded: Parties and their leaders have little or no say in decisions that are made by European authorities. As a result, the citizens of democratic member states are negatively affected by a system in which it’s unclear who is in charge and accountable.

For member-state governments, this means democracy is exercised only through veto power in response to “take-it-or-leave-it” ultimatums from their European partners.

This dynamic has been particularly apparent in the debt crisis as the options for saving the single currency dwindle. For politicians, a situation in which the only justification for their decisions is that “there is no alternative” is potentially explosive. Voters will understand such an explanation from their leaders in exceptional circumstances, such as when they are told their country is on the verge of collapse. But when this brinksmanship becomes routine, as it has lately, more and more citizens will be pushed to wholesale rejection of the political system.

Changing this will require a herculean effort. Europe needs to make its decision-making more efficient. (It has taken almost two years for the French-German “Directoire” to agree to take adequate steps to address the debt crisis and that happened only under threat of a global catastrophe.)

It also needs to make that process more acceptable to its citizens. At the moment, European institutions have only weak and formal legitimacy, and their efficiency is hampered by bureaucratic stalemates, reciprocal vetoes or empty compromises.

The central flaw of the EU is the combination of extreme rigidity, uncertainty about the future shape of the polity, and the heterogeneity of interests, ideals and objectives that it is meant to represent.

These contradictions have become so pronounced that there may be only three options remaining: disintegration, a multi-tiered system of differentiated partnerships, or, conversely, federalization.

The first, disintegration, may not be as far-fetched as many seem to believe. The U.K.’s refusal last week to join 26 other EU nations in a compact designed to rescue the single currency may be the first step toward that outcome.

The second option may be the only immediate way forward. This requires the creation of a kind of “avant-garde” of more integrated nations that others can join later. This strategy would make future enlargements easier and the EU more efficient while allowing outsiders to join.

The third option -- a stronger and deeper process of federalization -- doesn’t, for now, have the support of either most governing elites or the people they govern. Yet in the longer term, this crisis may offer an opportunity to make inevitable a European federation.

Europe either will accomplish this big leap over time or it will be brought down by its current baroque and politically unsustainable construction.

(Yves Meny, a political scientist, is president of the Collegio Carlo Alberto Foundation in Turin, Italy. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Yves Meny at Yves.Meny@EUI.eu

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net