When the economic and financial crisis hit Europe in 2008, it was not just politicians who found themselves scrambling for answers. Researchers, particularly in political science and law, have struggled to explain the scale and impact of what is clearly the worst crisis the EU has ever experienced.
Their befuddlement is hardly surprising, as they have focused on, and underpinned, the integrationist vision of European institutions for the past 50 years. Academics have become part of the European elites—as they were often financed by EU research grants or were involved in political consulting for the EU and national ministries. European integration is seen as a one-way street marked by continual, irreversible progress in the collective political and academic understanding.
This intellectual focus on European integration has matched political tastes and visions. Only a few scholars have tried to look at things from the other direction, at the political, economic and social causes and consequences of European disintegration. Even today, many researchers, while acknowledging Europe’s troubles, deny that disintegration requires an integrated intellectual approach, and even shy away from using the term.
It has proved difficult both to break out of the rigid narratives of integration and to cross disciplinary boundaries in search of explanations. Most political scientists, for example, see the crisis as an isolatable economic peculiarity, with scholarship clinging to traditional theories and largely ignoring newer developments in European sociology and political economics. Only gradually has a small community of researchers considering questions of European disintegration developed.
In a sense, the trajectory of research is understandable. Integration theories exist to explain processes of integration. And the attractiveness of the idea of a peaceful and prosperous European Union is undeniable. To an extent, therefore, it might be that both politicians and academics fear that giving consideration to the phenomena of disintegration would be to open Pandora’s box.
But the unwillingness to contemplate such an outcome, however undesirable, also means ignoring important research questions and relinquishing the possibility of political self-determination. The past seven years have revealed the limitations of a piecemeal approach to investigating the European integration process from a one-dimensional disciplinary perspective. The Greek crisis and the refugee drama on the Mediterranean Sea are showing us that economic, political and social disintegration are clearly linked.
Both anthropology and organizational sociology teach us that human institutions cannot grow indefinitely. This is a banal observation, but it must be incorporated more seriously into both our practical and theoretical understanding of European integration.
An interdisciplinary project to understanding the European crisis and its intensifying social consequences is increasingly vital. What are the different effects of specific market developments on social inequalities in individual member states? How do these disparities in turn influence member states’ political positioning in Europe and their actions on the EU level? What is the effect of regional secession efforts on the EU’s capacity to act as a whole? Such mutual correlations have received little attention.
Gaining a better understanding of these issues will require independent and reliable longitudinal surveys, gauging the attitudes of populations in all member states towards the social, economic and cultural impact of the process of European integration. There is a reason why the Eurobarometer surveys have fallen prey to criticism: different analyses have shown that the question technique of these surveys is biased in favour for the EU and its institutions. Also necessary is a greater number of broad, qualitative studies on the reception of the European unification project, with the aim of identifying and better understanding the social and cultural drivers of European disintegration that may lurk deep within member states’ psyches.
European disintegration could be defined as a series of processes working to erode legal, economic, territorial and socio-cultural integration to a status quo ante, driven by individual or collective actors both within and outside the European system. In order to understand the correlations between these forces, we need more research.
Disintegration should not be understood as a one-way street. And disintegration per se should not be equated with crisis and decay. The present EU crisis shows quite clearly that disintegrative trends always imply integrative impulses, and vice versa. Integration and disintegration are two halves of a dialectical process with systemic, social, overt and covert dimensions, and stable, adaptive institutions remain so through constant processes of dismantling and structural change.
A new measure of academic openness, curiosity and tolerance is imperative. Research into European disintegration need not be stigmatized; nor should it be seen as a rejection of either existing integration theories or the EU project. Instead, it can serve a complementary function.
Disintegration is the flip side of integration. Without an overarching theory to understand it, we cannot devise policy tools to address it.
Henrik Scheller is an interims professor in German and European politics and government at the University of Potsdam.