What Europe?


A review of Is The EU Doomed? By: Jan Zielonka. Publisher: Polity Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom, 2014.


The debate over the post-crisis shape of the European Union is the topic that Jan Zielonka takes on in his most recent book Is the EU Doomed? Although the debate per se appears to be very much in place right now, most of the solutions offered by an ample and diverse body of experts fall short of sustainable answers. They draw from historical, often outdated, ideas and develop inconsistent projects which suit particular national interests or cater to limited groups of the European population. But most of all, they oftentimes appear to be disconnected from the day-to-day EU reality to such an extent, that their reading ought to be loyally shelve as political fiction. Zielonka’s ambitious attempt to provide an all-encompassing solution to the EU crises (as he, rightly, points out that there are multiple crises the EU is suffering from at once), although fresh and ideologically neutral at face value, unfortunately falls victim to the same shortcomings, particularly imprecise predictions and risk of uneven development. 


This review was published in the previous issue of New Eastern Europe - Moldova: The Star Pupil of Europe's East?


From the first words of the book, Zielonka challenges the conventional way of thinking about the European Crises. Specifically, starting off by analysing and subsequently deconstructing the primary factors that led to the 2008 financial recession, he rightly recognises the complexity of its causes and the multiplicity of the culprits. At this point, it is necessary to give credit to the fact he dedicates a large part of the book’s first chapter to explain that the Greeks, the Spaniards and the Irish mismanaged their domestic economies, but the faulty EU financial system, embodied by the Eurozone, was originally designed and orchestrated by the French and the Germans. Providing evidence of previous crises in EU’s history, ranging from the 1965 Empty Chair crisis to the 1999 Commission corruption scandals, he does a good job in reminding the readers that even the current saviours of the EU from Berlin, Luxembourg to Paris used to, and to a certain extent still are, be blamed for the institutional, financial and societal deadlocks of European integration. It is important to highlight that Zielonka’s unorthodox description, as in the times in which, quoting Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, German inactivity is most feared in Europe, it seldom occurs in public debate that European actors are depicted differently than in black and white.


Unfortunately, after a promising start, Zielonka moves on to a solid body of very obvious and oftentimes poorly argued or questionable drawbacks of the EU. Given the relatively thin size of the book, dedicating almost two-thirds of it to an extended introduction that somehow resembles the EU’s own laundry list seems unnecessary. The author makes a number of interesting observations, such as prioritising “cohesion, imagination and trust” instead of budgetary affairs as the heart of the EU crisis, but those remain undeveloped and lose space to obvious claims such as high-profi le politicians being led by domestic opinion polls instead of long-term visions of Europe. It is also sometimes difficult to give credence to the authors’ reasons for Europe’s fall in certain categories, for instance in global political and economic importance. Zielonka’s claim that Europe stands little to no chance against the BRICS and the USA because Europeans know nothing about extra-European competition is very hard to defend.


Is the EU Doomed? seems to also be written from a perspective of an old-Europe persona (although Zielonka, a Polish national, stresses his European objectivity in the book’s preface). What prevails throughout the book is oftentimes a strong feeling of nostalgia for grand ideas of European integration. Again, using the example of Europe’s supposedly faded glory on the global arena, the author on a number of occasions appears to synonymise the EU with Europe as a continent, controversially implying a unanimity of views that European nations used to share once upon a time. Furthermore, perhaps due to space constraints, he makes a number of simplified comparisons, for instance by classifying next to one another the Greek Syriza and the Dutch Freedom Party as political entities that share the same aim of returning decision-making powers to national governments. In point of fact, these principles might be of some resemblance, however in the case of these parties, as well as the True Finns or UKIP, they all serve completely different purposes (ethnic clarity versus different labour policies to the restoration of old colonial links) and ought not to be analysed within the same category.


Finally, however, Zielonka moves towards his own project of saving the EU, which he presents under the label of “neo medievalism”. After first, again rightly and accurately, dismantling the most popular alternatives to the present-day EU, such as the United States of Europe or Bundesrepublik Europa with its centre shifted from Brussels to Berlin, he proposes a project based on “divided sovereignty, overlapping authorities, differentiated institutional arrangements and multiple identities”. In his view, the remedy for institutional deadlock of the EU lays in more horizontal, pluri-central structure of issue-specific networks and clubs. Drawing from the works of David Mitrany, a committed critic of Ernst Haas’ neo-functional theory of European integration, Zielonka envisions a sort of Europe of cities, based on four main principles: inclusion of new, chiefly non-state actors; development of functional instead of territorial integrity; polycentric, not hierarchical integrative scheme; and flexible and diversified governance. Again, these new pillars of Europe sound very noble (although are far from innovative, as similar projects have been already published by Charles de Saint-Pierre in the early 17th century), but carry a number of inconsistencies. First, a shift towards functional networks would only be ostensible and actually deepen the inequalities between the “Europes of different speeds”. Simply speaking, some countries, due to their size, population and geographical or geological location have by default more dimensions of interest and would be naturally involved in more networks. Moreover, it is indispensable to note that the EU is already suffering from democracy and legitimacy deficits – Europeans struggle to identify bodies responsible for particular issues on the EU level and the introduction of “polycentric” and “diversified” governance would only make things worse in this process. Eventually, these aforementioned deficits already impede societal accountability through media or third sector actions – already existing bodies, such as Debating Europe or similar NGOs, struggle to hold EU officials and institutions publically accountable and with even further dispersed authority their mission might become virtually unmanageable.


Zielonka concludes with a good Oxonian habit of enclosing a vast, diverse list of recommended further reading on the matter, which certainly invites readers to at least attempt to develop their own projects for post-crisis Europe. The suggested positions vary from historical volumes to economics and political science handbooks, suiting readers with all backgrounds and interests. In fact, one of the biggest strengths of this book is that it is written in a straightforward, approachable manner and explains the context rather well, thus becoming a good background reading for pretty much everyone with even vague knowledge of European Affairs.


Nonetheless, the proposed solutions for postcrisis European Union sound more like wishful thinking and certainly like Europe of not two or three, but several speeds. Years ago, during the early days of post-war Europe, Charles de Gaulle, commenting on the creation of East Germany, sarcastically said that he loves Germany so much that he actually enjoys having two of them at once. And what de Gaulle thought of Germany back then, Zielonka seems to be willing to do with Europe tomorrow. Will his proposal come into being?


Matteusz Mazzini is currently a graduate student at Oxford University. He has previously worked in Poland’s Foreign Service and is a close collaborator with the Jan Nowak-Jeziorański College of Eastern Europe, the publisher of New Eastern Europe.