With one voice, or none at all? How divisions are impacting EU reforms, and its future

By Marc Planas

The Future is Europe, reads a mural in La Rue de la Loi, in Brussels. A future, Europe certainly has one, but of what kind? Although the European Union has resisted the many threats of the past, the horizon seems far from idyllic. From an uncertain Brexit, the rise of national-populism, to the vivid ghost of a haunting recession, Europe might as well be faced with its greatest challenge yet. With many voices urging for a swift and comprehensive reform as the only possible salvation, the EU seems to be on track for major changes in the upcoming years (Le Parisien, 2019). But with a Union increasingly split among supranational Europeanists, and a rapidly emerging Eurosceptic bloc, to what extent these reforms might take place remains to be determined (Khan, 2019). Yet they will have a profound effect on the Union’s unfolding.

More, or Less Europe?

A dilemma plaguing the Union since its creation now resonates stronger than ever.

On one hand, a Macronian Renaissance Européenne advocating for a complete reformation in the integration process. Advocating, among others, from a complete Fiscal and Banking Union, and a European Defense, to the creation of a standing European Border and Coast Guard, the hour of Pan-European sovereignty has arrived, or so it seems (European Commission, 2017).

On the other side of the coin, a reactionary movement, well structured around the idea of what is perceived to be as excessive control from a Union that should have never intended to be more than economical. From the election nationalist parties such as the Italian Lega Nord and the Hungarian Fidesz, the hour of European nations has arrived, or so it seems (Leonard, 2013).

A struggle, thus, for the primacy of the new political spectrum. Make no mistake, these are transversal movements, that nonetheless share a common raison d’être: To transform Europe. This begs the question; how do these antagonistic revolutions affect the nature of European integration? More precisely, how do these ideological divisions affect the reforms that the Union needs?

To start off, both movements can be related to the two main theories of European integration: Intergovernmentalism and Neofunctionalism. For the former, associated with the Eurosceptic bloc, the nation-state is at the core. As the ultimate actors, they are the main motor in the Union’s structure. Unanimity and consensus are the norm, and the states, seeking to preserve their sovereignty wherever possible, will not integrate beyond what their perceived marginal utility (Hatton, 2011). For Neofunctionalism, associated with Europeanists, it’s the idea of functional spillover. The further states and people integrate, the more impetus the process gains. Interdependence, political and economic, drives the need for further integration. Eventually, this self-sustaining process will culminate in a new polity centred in Brussels (Hatton, 2011).

The complex political situation in the Union can thus be best described as a struggle between these two main theories. A struggle of equal strength, that blocks the impetus for reform in the Union. Let’s take the Union’s common currency, the Euro, as an example. Albeit both blocs agree on the currency’s reform (common raison d’être), its nature remains a matter of debate between a Franco-German axis, supporters of greater supranational solidarity in the currency’s architecture, with the creation of a powerful Eurozone budget, and a Dutch-led coalition dubbed the “New Hanseatic League”, in favour of more national responsibility in the single currency area (Khan, 2018).

In the political arena too, the divergences are striking. Again, same issue. Both blocs agree on the unsustainability of the status quo yet diverge in the nature of reforms. The refugee crisis of 2015, for example, highlighted the Union’s schism between supporters of greater solidarity among member States, led by Germany, and the Visegrad[1] group’s categorical refusal to comply with the mandatory quotas agreed (Rankin, 2017).

The examples are countless. From the divisions over the strengthening of Frontex[2], to the first steps towards a Defense Union, Europe strives to have a voice, yet it cannot agree on which tone to speak.

The result is a fascinating yet worrisome one. Paradoxically, both blocs antagonistic ambitions to modify the status quo, rather than creating an impetus for change, favour its perpetuation. That is, both blocs desire for change “cancel” each other out, resulting in an unsustainable impasse and a permanent fixation in the status quo that ironically both despise so enthusiastically. To what extent this blockage will affect the European project and its integrity remains to be seen, especially after Britain’s departure from the club and its repercussions in this delicate balance of power. Eventually, we could either expect a stalemate, whereby the realization of the unsustainability of the situation will eventually entail a real dialogue among the two blocs with prospects of a real compromise to reform the Union, or the supremacy of one group, in which case the other would simply fall into irrelevance, leaving the former with enough power to undertake the changes deemed necessary. This at the present situation is unlikely, with the former having more chances of occurring. In the meantime, we should expect stagnation.

Yet stagnation is never the solution nor a maintainable scenario and were the Union fail to reform and adapt in the ever-changing world of today, the future certainly would not look promising for the European project.



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Marc Planas Blanco is a stage two student at UCD studying Politics with Economics. Of Barcelonan origin, he was born and grew up most of his life in Switzerland, before pursuing his college studies in Dublin. This blog post addresses the current and future situation of the EU in a critical eye and was completed for the UCD Politics module: Introduction to EU Politics.



[1] Visegrad Group: Political alliance composed by the EU member states of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Czechia, with the aim of coordinating their common interests in the Union (Klein, 2019)

[2] Frontex: The European Border and Coast Guard Agency, helps EU countries manage their external borders by providing technical support, as well as expertise (European Union, s.d.)

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