Refocus the EU debate: From integration to cooperation
Analyse Europese Zaken

Refocus the EU debate: From integration to cooperation

19 May 2021 - 09:40
Photo: The Europa building is the seat of the European Council and Council of the European Union in Brussels. © European Union / Philippe Samyn and Partners architects & engineers
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What kind of EU are we building? Politicians prefer to avoid this question about Europe’s ultimate design because it is confronting. The Netherlands would rather see cooperation between strong member states than integration. This requires a switch from legal subsidiarity to administrative subsidiarity. Yet, the weakness of the Dutch EU vision is that it lacks a narrative on how to reform member states, argues Adriaan Schout, expert at the Clingendael Institute and Professor EU Public Administration at the Radboud University.1

The European Union is clearly a federation, supported by binding legislation to allow for the creation of the internal market and complemented with a dense network of diplomatic and political relations. And that is a good thing.

But what kind of federation is the EU? Is it evolving in a direction that is best suited to the European context and that will help to get the EU out of its persistent crises? Is it the kind of Union that the Netherlands wants?

The fact that Brussels is talking about European integration and the Netherlands about European cooperation reveals the tensions facing the EU. It also underlines differences between the Netherlands (as well as other Northern member states) and the ambitious French president Emmanuel Macron who seems to be leading the call for deeper integration – even though France’s former president Charles De Gaulle was the champion of European cooperation.

French president Emmanuel Macron debates the future of Europe at the ​​​​​​European Parliament in 2018. © European Union
French president Emmanuel Macron debates the future of Europe at the ​​​​​​European Parliament in 2018. © European Union

Susceptible to crisis
It are the fundamental differences between the member states that make the EU susceptible to crisis. Countries have different post-war histories, administrative traditions and characteristics, as well as political preferences and social values.

As a corollary, EU has suffered from profound crises in a number of areas. The euro crisis continues to linger, there is a crisis of rule of law,2 Eastern European countries are not complying with agreements on taking in refugees and migrants, and cooperation in health care is faltering. There is also strong dissatisfaction with a number of small member states that facilitate tax avoidance – including the Netherlands.

Member states tend to oppose further integration

The EU is so crisis-prone that the previous Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, claimed that it is facing a “polycrisis”.3  In alarmist terms, he described the European Commission which he headed as “the Commission of the last chance”.

Like Juncker, current Commission president Ursula von der Leyen wants to forge ahead with European policy to protect citizens from economic setbacks, an unstable outside world and threats to public health. However, member states tend to oppose further integration. As a result, many of the ambitions of Juncker related to among others social policy, industrial policy, and the EU’s own resources (EU taxation) were shelfed by the member states.4

Nevertheless, the new Commission under Von der Leyen reignited much of Juncker’s agenda. Von der Leyen has tilted the EU reform discussions over the heads of government by organising large-scale consultations in order to involve citizens more closely in European ambitions in the form of a ‘Conference on the Future of the EU’. Recently, twelve member states signed a letter expressing their concerns over this Conference, and underlined the status quo rather than deeper integration.5

The presidents of the European Parliament, Commission and Council of the EU signed a joint declaration on the Conference on the Future of Europe.
The presidents of the European Parliament, Commission and Council of the EU signed a joint declaration on the Conference on the Future of Europe in March 2021. © European Union 2020 - Source: European Parliament.

How to encourage EU member states to reform?
When it comes to the persistent crisis in the eurozone, this is closely linked to the major ongoing differences between EU member states in terms of economic reforms. When the coronavirus pandemic erupted last year, only seven of the nineteen eurozone countries had their national debt under the agreed sixty per cent. The combination of persistent unemployment and high national debt also shows why the euro is struggling: the majority of eurozone countries have lacked competitive strengths to grow out of their debts.

While member states are generally able to reduce expenditures, introducing reforms to improve competitiveness is proving more difficult. The weaker member states do not seem to manage the reform of labour markets, education, infrastructure, legal institutions, and so on.

That is why the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stef Blok, recently asked a group of EU experts how we can encourage member states to reform.6  The fact that the government is asking this question shows just how serious the situation is. The euro has reached a point where policymakers in The Hague – always keen to initiate EU policy innovations – are now looking for ideas on how to proceed.

Member states have been drifting further apart

If we look at how the euro is managed, we see no shortage of attempts to strengthen the currency. Over the past thirty years, the rules have been constantly expanded, tightened, relaxed or simply abolished. The comprehensive system of obligations, scrutiny and potential fines is proudly displayed on the Commission’s website as a kind of Christmas tree.7  Others describe the entire edifice of euro measures as a medieval cathedral with its niches, aisles and annexes.

Despite all these measures, member states have been drifting further apart. When it comes to the eurozone, we see economic divergence rather than convergence.8  For different reasons, tighter integration does not seem to be working to solve the euro crisis.

Schout-European Central Bank-2Jul2015-Kiefer on Flickr
The European Central Bank in Frankfurt am Main in 2015. © Kiefer on / Flickr

The EU’s finalité and the EU’s mismanagement
We therefore have to ask: what kind of EU are we building? This question about Europe’s ultimate purpose (finalité) can be confronting for national politicians. A policy of incremental steps towards integration is less transparent and does not provoke discussions on referenda.

However, we need to know what kind of federal model policymakers have in mind, because it will influence the choices they make. In southern Europe, a fully-fledged, centralised federation may be less of a problem as it fits the traditional vision of an EU based on solidarity.9  But politicians from northern countries prefer to operate pragmatically. A collection of incremental steps, however, leads to patchy solutions.

Juncker, for example, said that he did not want a European superstate, and yet his proposals went in that direction. The Netherlands and other Northern countries want horizontal cooperation (between member States) but argues at the same time that ‘a deal is a deal’, which implies the need for a strong vertical European authority.

There are other examples of European confusion: the EU Commission wants to be an independent supervisor and a political body at one and the same time. Nor is it possible to have grand ambitions while ignoring the need for effective subsidiarity-based monitoring and enforcement frameworks. Often coherence between strategy (ambitions) and administrative capacities (structures) is lacking. In the business world, this would be viewed as mismanagement.

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte debating the priorities of the Dutch Council Presidency with MEP's in 2016. © European Parliament
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte debating the priorities of the Dutch Council Presidency with MEP's in 2016. © European Parliament

In European parlance, the European finalité is captured by the term ‘integration’, used by the Commission and most member states. Dutch policy documents, however, refer to ‘European cooperation’. The Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte talks about cooperation between countries that have their house in order. The Dutch EU narrative parallels preferences for cooperation in other ‘northern’ countries albeit that the Dutch terminology is more explicit regarding European cooperation.

This reveals a fundamentally different view regarding the relationship between the Union and the member states. In the EU, this relationship is regulated by the well-known principle of subsidiarity, which determines whether or not tasks are delegated to the European Commission. In the EU, subsidiarity refers to the vertical separation of tasks.

The Netherlands, however, uses subsidiarity to underline horizontal cooperation between member states with fully-fledged administrations. This leads to a fundamentally different diagnosis of Europe’s crises. According to the Commission, the EU is underperforming and there is a need for further integration (read: centralisation). In the Dutch view, the member states are the ones that are faltering.

Centralising powers does not suit an organisation like the EU

There are two problems with the integration model. More vertical integration will not work in reality, plus member states ultimately want to retain their competences. Centralisation is hardly ever a feasible strategy for complex organisations in dynamic environments. It weakens the required sense of ownership, complicates information processes, downplays the relevance of idiosyncratic welfare functions (‘one size fits all’), and obstructs local experimentation from which others can learn.10

Centralising powers does not suit an organisation like the EU. Ultimately, it is the strength of the parts that determines the strength of the whole – internally as well as externally, in geopolitical terms.

Can cooperation offer a more suitable basis for interconnecting the diverse European nations? Yes, but the Netherlands has to develop and promote its vision of the EU in more detail.

Cooperation leads to success stories
The vision of a strong EU based on strong member states is incomplete. The weakness of the Dutch vision is that it lacks a narrative on how to reform member states. Strength demands that member states trust themselves to stick to rules and to reform as agreed. Trust is the basis for cooperation.

However, there is not enough trust between member states. Worse still, most member states do not even trust themselves and they therefore expect a lot from the EU. Tellingly, polls indicate that citizens in 21 out of 27 member states trust the EU more than they trust themselves.11  A top European official, somewhat desperately, called member states “a basket of bad apples”.

Schout- Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte during a video conference with the European Council in 2020. European Union
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte during a video conference with the European Council in 2020. © European Union

A key reason for taking the Dutch cooperation narrative seriously is that it is cooperation that will lead to a strengthening of the member states. The EU has succeeded in resolving deep crises and it is cooperation that has created European success stories. Sectors in which European cooperation has succeeded include aviation, the authorisation of medicines for the internal market, food safety and competition policy.

These are sectors in which the member states fought one another for decades because of huge economic, political and cultural interests. For example, mad cow disease threatened public health, confidence in the European food industry collapsed, global trade barriers were erected, and member states refused European inspections of abattoirs.

Where crises have been resolved, the focus has been on cooperation

Today, European food has a strong reputation across the globe. So things can work in the EU and national practices and institutions can be reformed even in case of huge economic interests at stake and cultural traditions.

Where crises have been resolved, the focus has been on cooperation. Member states were forced to share their expertise, to carry out team-based inspections on one another, to negotiate quality standards in expert teams, and to build new governance structures to enable weak member states to take part in the new European network. Teams of national officials travel through the EU to assess one other. This results in harsh assessments, and next time another member state will be subject to an assessment by a team of experts.12

This has created the professional culture that the EU needs. It creates a new – horizontal – power base in member states. Through EU policy, standards are imposed, and through orchestrated cooperation, the suitable organisational environments are created. Cooperation equals European integration from below by creating shared rules and the required professional culture. This is not about Euroscepticism; this is about creating feasible European structures.

Schout-Den Haag Binnenhof-19Jul2016-Nanda Sluijsmans Flickr
The Dutch "Binnenhof" in The Hague in 2016. © Nanda Sluijsmans  / Flickr

The Dutch tax policy reforms are a case in point. The Netherlands has had to listen to many signals from abroad and is, despite a long period of resistance, now in the process of studying and adapting its tax rules related to tax evasion.13

Cooperation pushes responsibility back to member states and countless national representatives will need to prove that they are reliable colleagues. Airlines can have their aircraft serviced in Eastern Europe because there is confidence in the monitoring system that ensures that the strictest requirements are met. It is by enforcing cooperation that the EU has been able to work on strengthening national sectors and hence on building trust.

A complex system as the EU needs the Commission more as manager than as political controller

We therefore need to foster cooperation in the EU, to put as many national officials and politicians as possible in situations where they have to prove their trustworthiness. That is why it is dangerous for the European Commission to centralise tasks. A primary task of the Commission should be to organise cooperation – and hence to prevent centralisation.

This has consequences for the role of the EU commission. The euro crisis is persisting because the Commission is monitoring the economic policies of member states rather than ensuring that member states’ policymakers assess each other’s economic policies and structures in a transparent, business-like manner. Commission reports can be ignored, but well-designed team-based reports much less. A complex system as the EU needs the Commission more as manager than as political controller.14

Building cooperative structures as a way towards bottom-up integration. As a result, subsidiarity should not be interpreted vertically, in legal terms, but horizontally, in administrative terms. These are the foundations of a European paradigm that offers more prospects than calls for deeper integration.

This article is an adaptation of the inaugural lecture as professor European Public Administration (Nijmegen, 25 February 2021). Full inaugural address in Dutch can be found here.


Adriaan Schout
Senior Research Fellow at Clingendael Institute