The system certainly has its advantages. It more or less guarantees national ownership of European decision-making; every member recognizes its fingerprints on the final agreement. This sense of ownership helps to explain why the union has survived so many crises in recent years: Member states have invested in it, depend on it and, crucially, want it to survive. But the downside to this approach is that by seeking consensus on almost every issue, Europe becomes as strong only as its weakest link. Leaders regularly make half-baked decisions because some countries refuse to go further, with results that do not always meet Europe’s real needs.
Examples are legion. Hungary, for instance, has blocked several foreign policy statements against Russia or China that all other member states agreed on. Poland, for its part, has single-handedly diluted Europe’s climate goals. And before the presidential elections in France, the government there delayed a decision on a European oil embargo against Russia, fearing the resulting rise of energy prices could favor Ms. Le Pen in her campaign against Mr. Macron. Often, Europe is the plaything of member states seeking to promote their own narrow interests. Mr. Macron, however “pro-European,” is no exception.
That’s why elections often cause such headaches. Democracy, to be sure, is Europe’s strength. It is the union’s core value, its beating heart. But democracy is also Europe’s weakness. That’s because the union is not really European: Instead, it involves 27 separate national democracies. If one of them produces a Eurosceptic government, it can endanger the entire European project, which depends on unanimity. The union is effectively held hostage every time elections are held somewhere — hardly a sustainable way to do things.
The French election, Mr. Macron said, was “a referendum on Europe.” The problem with Europe is exactly that: Every election is a referendum about Europe, in every corner of the continent. It would be strange if a state election in Montana or Mississippi risked undoing the Republic or derailing its foreign policy. In Europe, this is normal practice. That’s partly why, despite its success as a global economic powerhouse and a beacon of stability, Europe often lacks confidence and looks vulnerable in the mildest headwind.
Yet this paradox needn’t be permanent. In a world defined by instability, great power competition and rising prices, Europe must look after itself — and it has the means to do so. A phased embargo on Russian oil, likely to be finalized this week, is just a start. In the wake of the war in Ukraine, collective provision of defense and security is also a must, as is an energy union. What’s more, some kind of fiscal union — augmenting the current monetary union — might also be necessary, to coordinate the serious investments needed to shore up Europe’s resilience. Recognizing the need for bolstered unity, a group of European intellectuals last week even called for a United States of Europe.
I’m not sure the union will ever come to that. But it would be nice if at the policy game in Berlin this year, instead of fretting over worst-case scenarios, we could perhaps let ourselves imagine a bolder, stronger European Union. If we could all allow Europe to stand a little more on its own feet, it would make a world of difference.