The European Union’s set of founding principles—its telos, so to speak—are undergoing a two-track inversion. The bloc was initially designed to slide gently towards federalization—“ever-closer union,” per the preamble to the 1957 Treaty of Rome—whilst remaining a largely toothless actor on the world stage. And yet, the opposite has happened: the EU has since grown into a powerful geopolitical player of its own that is internally at peace with the present deadlock of integration. Sometime between the eurozone crisis of the early 2010s and Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, the EU’s entire architecture was turned inside out. Scholars, journalists, and analysts in Brussels and Europe’s national capitals are still at pains to gauge the depth of this complete revolution.
Stefan Auer may have lost some sleep over it. A former—and likely future—recipient of the prestigious Jean Monnet Chair for EU studies, he is an astute observer of the bloc’s institutional dynamics, a skill honed with the distance afforded by successive professorships in Australia and Hong Kong. He tunes into our Zoom interview from the latter—where he lives with his wife and children—flanked by a morass of paper, signaling a restless mind at work on a complex subject. Elated at my interest in his latest scholarly book, European Disunion (2022), he is even more excited to debate Glyn Morgan, his intellectual arch-nemesis, on a forthcoming episode of the Uncommon Decency podcast I co-host, now onto its fifth consecutive season. I cannot wait for either.
In 2000, Princeton political philosopher Jan-Werner Müller mordantly asked in a book about German intellectual life around unification: “can one say that if Europe works, Carl Schmitt is wrong?” In The Concept of the Political (1932)—published a year before joining the Nazi party—the German jurist famously challenged the neutralist-utopian assumption, which would go on to pervade the postwar European project, that politics can be emptied of warlike animosity. Schmitt instead theorized conflict as an ineradicable trait of human nature. “Sovereign,” he wrote, “is he who decides on the exception.” When Müller wrote on the eve of the euro’s launch, the EU seemed on track to dispel Schmitt on both counts. In this sense, Auer calls the EU an “anti-Schmittian” project.
Indeed, by canalizing inter-state disputes through law and placing war out of the realm of possibility, the EU instead vindicated—contra Schmitt’s anthropological axiom—a trail of idealist thinkers, from Kant to Kojève, who posited that “right makes might,” and not the inverse. Chief amongst them, Hans Kelsen had theorized about the interwar Europe’s potential to “integrate through law.” But this precisely turned into the bloc’s main weakness, something Auer calls “over-constitutionalisation,” incidentally what Schmitt laid at the Weimar Republic’s feet in his time. By addressing political questions through technocratic means, Auer argues, the EU renders real change only attainable through altering the treaties or ad hoc agreements, thus feeding the beast of Eurosceptic populism.
This has sent Europe, Auer goes, oscillating between two extremes that forms the core of his treatise: technocracy and the politics of exception. Put differently, Europe’s democracy is being eroded by the alternance between “excessive reliance on formal legalism” (the EU’s typical approach to lawmaking) and “populist transgressions against judicial independence”—the reaction that the legalistic approach generates in capitals like Warsaw and Budapest. This “contest between technocratic rule and the politics of emergency,” Auer remarks in the book’s conclusion, has been intensified by the return of war to the continent, with European leaders turning to emergency measures to alleviate the very dependence on Russian gas that decades of European integration had failed to reduce.
In other words, sovereignty is that boomerang which Europe thought it could dispense with, but which has come in through the backdoor. The bloc hoped to sublimate the kind of Schmittian conflict that pervaded pre-war Europe, but instead created what Auer calls “a symbiosis between technocratic rationality and the populist appeal of challengers.” In this halfway no man’s land, democracy at the supranational level becomes a pipe dream, and worse, a cudgel with which out-of-touch bureaucrats chastise the electorates of countries that vote the wrong way, as is currently happening with Hungary’s allotted share of the post-Covid recovery fund. Auer calls this the “tyranny of values, or “Schmittian liberalism with a vengeance.”
Auer dispels the euro-federalist myth that likens European integration to a bicycle ride: either it progresses, or it dies. He claims that more integration is not always better, and that EU leaders too often neglect to use the bike’s kickstand and let integration pause while things resettle. He also takes issue with the notion of “failing forward”—that only crises are conducive to European unity—and argues that a new cohering glue can be found in the kind of “liberal nationalism” currently on display in Ukraine. “Reconciling the Brussels Europe of peacetime bureaucratic process with the Kiev Europe of wartime existential struggle,” Auer claims, is a necessity if the EU is to resonate outside Germany.
One subregion provides a case in point. In a recent speech in Prague, Olaf Scholz evoked “the tragedy of Central Europe,” a reference to Milan Kundera’s 1984 essay where the Czech novelist lamented the Soviet kidnapping of countries that were culturally part of Western Europe. Rather than pursuing what Ivan Krastev called “the politics of imitation,” Auer argues the Visegrad Four should provide a model for the wider bloc. These sympathies are refreshing for a German-speaking scholar of the EU, as is his opposition to the “conditionality mechanism” to pare back funding from rule-of-law renegades Poland and Hungary, given his discipline’s ideological straitjacket. Poland’s defiance of the EU’s legal supremacy through its Supreme Court’s ruling in case K 3/21, he says, is too important an issue to be left to lawyers and needs to be addressed politically.
The idealized vision of a people’s democracy at the European level, in short, has proved a chimera given the lack of a European demos. It has also laid bare a “sovereignty paradox”—member-states have ceded too much power to the EU to set policies independently of one another—and created what Auer calls a “capabilities-expectations gap.” Therefore, rather than providing a model of supranational governance, Europe’s missionary zeal to forge an ever-closer union despite these structural flaws has reduced the attractiveness of Western liberalism as a whole. If said liberalism, by which the EU stands, is to survive, Auer argues that it needs to be wedded to a robust form of patriotism. If the EU’s ideals aren’t retrofitted in the nation-state’s mold, the alternative is ever-closer disunion.