The EU is its own biggest problem

Most of the problems with which the European Union has recently struggled with are of its own doing. Paradoxically, the EU has become the driving force of disintegration rather than integration, says Jan Zielonka, professor of European Studies at the University of Oxford, in an interview with Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.

ANNA WITTENBERG, DZIENNIK GAZETA PRAWNA: In your book published in 2014 you wrote that the EU has to fall apart. A few months ago this scenario started to play out. We are talking here in London, where a debate is currently taking place on how to carry out Brexit. Do you take satisfaction from the fact that your prediction is starting to come true?

JAN ZIELONKA, PROFESSOR OF EUROPEAN STUDIES AT THE UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD: Luckily, I am not a politician who has to sit elections, but rather an analyst who tries to understand what is happening and based on that tries to think up possible scenarios regarding how the situation could develop.

When I wrote that Europe is disintegrating I did not do this from the position of a eurosceptic. I have always believed that there is no retreat from some type of integration in a world where cultural boundaries are fluid. But - I stress - we need a model of integration that makes this cooperation easier, not harder. Which helps to solve problems, not create them.

Is this currently the case?

One could risk putting forward the idea that most of the problems with which the EU has struggled with recently are of its own doing. The EU has become the driving force of disintegration rather than integration. This does not make me happy, but I'm not here to hand out laurels. I want to understand how this happened.

What went wrong?

I have three hypotheses. First, the cause could be down to the blindness of politicians and their lack of commitment and lack of vision. In addition, the escape from responsibility - because it has always been the case that if they accomplished something then they point directly at their national insignia, however if they suffered a defeat then they would argue that the EU is to blame. Secondly, the weakness of the EU at this point in time may stem from the system of institutions that we have created. And it's not that they are foreign to EU nationals, because every Brussels institution is like that in some way. This is about the manner of operation.

In what way?

The entire integration process has been appropriated by the state, while others would have been better suited to cope with the challenges. These days, if you attend a conference on modernity, economic growth or migration, it will not be a conference of countries but of big cities. Because they are the ones that generate 90 per cent of income today and are the engine of innovation. And they will be where all the migrants will want to go to.

Meanwhile, the EU has for years denied others, such as economic and social actors – with the exception of other countries. And that is why this model of integration, which for years served an arrangement of mutual relations between different countries has hit a dead end.

And what does this mean?

It’s not clear what needs to be done next. On the one hand, in order for states to begin operating effectively in a system that was created within the EU framework they would have to deprive themselves of responsibilities. Which means they would have to pass most of their government powers to the European structures. But national politicians will not give their consent fot this.

On the other hand, what has already happened cannot be undone. The EU has become an organism that is too big to fail, but nobody knows what to do with it with regards to the future.

And what about the third reason for the EU’s crisis?

Perhaps what is happening with the EU has something to do with general technological and economic trends. In that companies and financial service providers operate globally, that they do not recognize borders, that governments no longer have control over the flow of capital, or even workers, that there is no way to enforce taxes on corporations. That borders have become illusory. Because how does one defend these borders in the era of cyber-warfare? Or when nuclear weapons have been sent into space? The way that political actors operate has changed.

It is true that politicians can promise you a high pension in 40 years time, but whether you actually see this money may depend more on factors such as the condition of the stock exchange in Shanghai than his or her actions. If my first hypothesis is correct – that politicians are to blame for the centrifugal tendencies, then one can force them to start listening to us. One can also choose better politicians. If it’s due to the second reason, then you can change institutions. But if the third hypothesis is correct then we will find it much more difficult to break the impasse. Because you need to change the relationship between capitalism and democracy. You have to give democracy the ability to restore control over the economy.

But how can this be done? After all, large corporations often have more money than states.

It's hard, no one has found a solution to this yet. What's more, if a solution should emerge, there is no guarantee that it will bring the intended results. Because how does one restore control over the markets. It seems to me that first of all one has to put an end to the neoliberal ideology that says that the only way to boost development is through privatization and deregulation. So the state getting rid of all forms of instruments that have an impact on the markets at the same time as acceptance for private capital to enter those fields that according to their nature should be public.


In the United Kingdom we have privatised not only railways but also hospitals, schools, prisons, the army. If you see how many so-called private contractors have been recruited by the army and what sums are spent on them, then you will understand the role of private capital in activities that we have regarded to be public. First, let us put an end to what led us to this state of affairs.

It will be difficult to break away from neo-liberalism.

I always hear that we cannot do anything because of globalization, because the Chinese have entered the markets…But it wasn’t the Chinese who invented globalization, we were the ones that did that. We privatized and deregulated everything, believing that the market will take care of social issues. And we already know that it is not able to do that. Now we have been issued with the bill, which the ordinary taxpayer is forced to pay. So let us first put an end to the neoliberal idea that led to the fact that the markets spiralled out of control. After that we will be able to figure out how to rebuild the concept of a public authority or a public leadership.

But how can this be done?  The state is not able to control the markets.

Germany is not up to task, nor is the United Kingdom, which still controls the market better than Greece, which in my opinion is not even a sovereign state. However, both Berlin and London still have the ability to influence markets. Today, and this is a real challenge for us, one needs to build public institutions with a transnational range. If the markets, communication or migration are regional or even global in nature, then only institutions operating on the same level will be able to deal with the task effectively. The European Union was intended to be a supranational body that is able to face up to globalization. The problem is that at some point the EU became the driving force of globalization. Instead of working in the public interest, it has become a tool for global private companies.

If not neo-liberalism, then what else? Is there something we know from the past that could work in these conditions?

A completely new concept is needed. In the UK, sentimental thinking prevails: OK, the EU isn’t working, so let's take our toys and return to the nation state. And after all, it could be the case that the United Kingdom falls apart even before the European Union.

Scotland is already planning to have a second independence referendum.

Exactly. In a situation when something is wrong, it is important that the idea of ​​ reform improves the situation, not worsens it. Mikhail Gorbachev did not want the break up of the USSR, but that was the effect of his perestroika. Good intentions are not enough, one must have an idea that pulls you out of trouble. And we have politicians such as Donald Tusk, who says: if you have a vision, go to the doctor. And then people wonder that are no ideas on how to resolve the crisis.

Then what needs to be done to prevent the EU falling apart like the Soviet Union did?

Put an end to national selfishness, which is very visible in all countries, not only in Poland. We must also break the monopoly of states regarding integration, we need to integrate more in functional rather than territorial aspects. Because migration requires a completely different approach than taxes.

So universities should work with each other and farmers should also co-operate?

Exactly. A shirt sewn in one size does not fit everyone.

Something that we know from the history of corporatism…

I wouldn’t call it that, because as I said, we need something new. What is important, however, is that we head towards further integration.  Already in the 1950s, researchers showed that integration has helped countries pull themselves out of crises. In the future, only those countries that learn to work side by side with other super-national actors will be able to function effectively – as part of a network of financial, legal, network ideas. Because at the moment they are losing out even to corporations.

What can we change about the functioning of the EU?

First of all we must slow down the chaos that is taking place. After that, we must be honest in admitting mistakes – and that is something that politicians do not like doing – and finally let us think together about how to improve the situation. As they say in the UK, it is easy to make fish soup out of an aquarium, but more difficult to make an aquarium out of fish soup.

The British example shows that it is easy to make ill-conceived steps, at the moment a big discussion is taking place here on what implications Brexit will have on business, science and other fields. One has to think ahead about further steps before we all become fish soup. Cooked and not necessarily tasty.

And this requires great leadership?

Above all, this requires having an idea. A leader must know where he is leading us. Because if he doesn’t know then his leadership has no meaning. Taking someone to the brink of the abyss is no accomplishment.

Who needs to propose such an idea?

Intellectuals. But it is not the case that they must discover the single best way forward. Because there is no one single road that we, our society, can agree on. We need to have a choice. There need to be a lot of ideas on how to rebuild democracy and capitalism. They have to compete against each other in the market of ideas in our countries. In order to rectify the situation we also need honest journalists who translate complex issues into a language that can be understood by ordinary voters. And when the public goes to the voting booths, we will know where we are going.

It is not that tomorrow I'll think of a great idea for a golden future and ask the great leader to lead us in the one and only correct direction. My duty is to come up with an idea and compete with other ideas.

What happens in a situation when the public chooses a path that leads to abyss?

I have more trust in voters than politicians. So far, most Europeans have behaved in a rational way. This also applies to the United Kingdom and Poland.

Do we have enough time?

Good question. I don’t know how much time we have. If you look at the Eurozone crisis, just a few years ago it seemed that it was about to fall apart. Today, after three bailouts of Greece, no one believes that this country will repay its debts but the monetary union is still intact.

Given all of these changes, Poland doesn’t seem to be a very significant actor.

Everyone has a role to play. Cyprus is a small country, and yet at one point the future of the euro depended on it. We are a medium-sized country like Spain or Italy, but we can do a lot. However, we must proceed with caution, because the situation in Europe is explosive.

The Oxford Noble Foundation, whose board you chair, tries to embed Poland in networks linking intellectuals. A new stage of a project has got underway, which funds programmes for modern Poland. What is the purpose of these efforts?

Our emphasis is not so much on individual researchers but rather on their institutions. We do not seek to generate new ideas, but to establish lasting research infrastructure. We want to show that Poland is an actor worthy of political and economic interest on the international stage.

What benefits do you expect to see?

People who would not have other opportunities to learn about modern Poland would thereby receive such an opportunity. People and institutions that do not have our country within their scope of interests will realize that Poland is an important political and economic actor, and that the Poles do not conform to certain stereotypes spread by political agitators.

In the longer term this will be important – individuals taking part in such educational programmes will become politicians and businessmen. As long as Poland remains in their minds, they might at some point look for investments or alliances here. It is about building a network.

What is the long-term objective of the foundation?

We would like there to be educational programmes about Poland in every leading university in Poland. You have to start somewhere, which is why we started in the UK, which is the most important academic centre.

Why is Poland not an object of interest while Spain and Italy both are?

I do not see Italian and Spanish studies as being more in the spotlight than Polish studies. I think what is crucial is the means to conduct certain types of research. People go where there are opportunities. Our programme creates such opportunities.

Painting, architecture and science flourished in Renaissance Florence because there was a financial patronage that supported their development. A similar situation exists today. European studies would not exist if there were no financial aid from the European Commission and programs such as Erasmus. Just as investors, researchers go where they see opportunities. We try to create them.

Why is our government not doing this?

Please ask Warsaw. In rich countries like Germany there is a lot of support for studies and research abroad. We cannot compete with them, but we can take the initiative by heading in a similar direction.

In order to save the European Union it is not enough to have good intentions, you have to have an idea that will pull us out of trouble. And we have politicians such as Donald Tusk, who says: if you have a vision, then go to the doctor. And then we are surprised that we are stuck in a crisis.

Source: Dziennik Gazeta Prawna