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Implications of European De-Integration for International Law

By Matthew Turk

The G20 Summit

At the recent G20 Summit, European leaders butted heads with the Obama administration by opposing further stimulus spending and calling for greater fiscal “austerity.”  The move to fiscal tightening, even during unsteady economic times, reveals the profound affect that the Greek debt crisis has had on policymakers in other European countries.  In particular, it indicates a common concern that growing public debt poses near-term challenges to the continued viability of an economically integrated European Union.  The potential unraveling of the legal-institutional structures of European integration uproots assumptions about international law held by commentators across the ideological spectrum.

Integration and De-Integration

The process of European integration is often marked as starting with the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community via the Paris Treaty in 1952 and coming to full fruition with 1993’s Maastricht Treaty, which created the European Union, and the establishment of a monetary EuroZone in 2002.  The “Grand Project” of integration was often seen as an inevitable process, with battle-lines drawn only over pace and momentum.  At the very least, integration was considered a political choice, an institutional dynamic that could be preferred or not by constituents, and implemented when proponents reached a critical mass.

The recent near collapse of the Mediterranean economies (namely: Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain) over the past year has reversed the political-historical presuppositions described above.  First, it appears that the monetary interventions led by Germany are only temporary stop-gaps, and some degree of economic de-integration is now likely. (Contrary views suggesting that the solution to the debt crises is newer, more radical economic integration are available here and here.  But Spence and Stiglitz are overly optimistic on the current political appetite for such measures.)  Second, this de-integration will not be the result of a popular policy preference, but instead will be the product of an external constraint on the ability of European economies to remain integrated without spiraling into chaos.

Theories of European Integration

The new conceptual terrain created by de-integration is extremely important for theories of international law and international cooperation, all of which had previously used the presuppositions of European integration in various ways.  Two general camps can be described.  The majority, “Cosmopolitan” view holds that the increasing legalization of international affairs is effective, inevitable, and desirable.  The prime example for this position was the success of European integration, which was regarded as the leading edge of international legalization.  But, it is now clear that the Grand Project’s role as evidentiary pillar of the Cosmopolitan perspective can no longer serve its former rhetorical function.

A dissenting, “Skeptical” view holds that the E.U. is an example of intra-State cooperation (similar to the former U.S. Articles of Confederation) and thus has no particularly powerful significance for the effectiveness of legalization or ease of international cooperation.  The unwinding of the E.U.’s Mediterranean members casts this characterization in a dubious light as well.  Unless whatever de-integration follows is considered a voluntary secession or divestment of sorts, a more natural interpretation seems to be that European states are retreating from a previously high level of inter-state cooperation.

Implications Going Forward

At this time, it is unclear what the ultimate import of Greece’s quasi-default will be.  But going forward, both the “Cosmopolitan” and “Skeptical” views may have to reorganize themselves around a new empirical reality: European de-integration.  What this means for the capacity and desirability of legalization and international cooperation will be a matter of primary importance and contestation for international law scholars and theoreticians.

I will hazard one prediction at an admittedly early stage.  Cosmopolitan discourse will now be forced to emphasize European cultural integration, based on the continuing viability of institutions such as the European Court of Human Rights, while at the same time de-emphasizing the retreat from economic integration.  Furthermore, such a re-balancing of focus may be analytically counterproductive to the extent that cultural integration has represented a mere codification of common cultural norms about secularism and individual rights, while economic integration has been a source of progressive and truly novel international cooperation.

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