Don’t Overstretch on Regional Integration

How the European Union took the idea of a ‘rules-based order’ too far – and how it can regain legitimacy.

Expert comment Published 12 June 2019 Updated 14 October 2020 4 minute READ

Hans Kundnani

Former Associate Fellow, Europe Programme

Young woman at the March for Europe in May 2018. Photo by Emanuele Cremaschi/Getty Images

Young woman at the March for Europe in May 2018. Photo by Emanuele Cremaschi/Getty Images

The European Union is the ultimate ‘rules-based order’. Since the end of the Cold War, the world has become increasingly integrated, in a process that Dani Rodrik has called ‘hyper-globalization’ to distinguish this from the more moderate form of globalization that occurred during the Cold War period.

But Europe, which was already more integrated than the rest of the world, has gone even further in removing barriers to the internal movement of capital, goods and people. The consequence of this has been the need for a more developed system of rules to govern this deep integration.

For much of this period, many Europeans – and also many outside Europe who had a liberal view of international politics – believed that the EU was a kind of blueprint for global governance.

They believed that the rest of the world would simply catch up with the enlightened and apparently successful approach that Europeans had taken. In short, Europeans were showing the way forward for the world.

However, after a decade of crisis, it now seems as if Europe may have overreached. In particular with the creation of the single currency, European rules increasingly extended into areas of life in which member states had previously had relative autonomy.

Since the beginning of the euro crisis in 2010, there has been a backlash against EU rules, which has raised the difficult question of whether international rule-making can go too far.

What makes international rules problematic is that they depoliticize – that is, they take the policy areas they cover out of the realm of democratic contestation. This can be a good thing when applied to policy areas that we think should be non-negotiable, like human rights.

But since the 1980s, and especially since the end of the Cold War, international rules have increasingly applied to areas of policy that not only should be contested but that should be at the centre of contestation – in particular, economic policy areas that have distributional consequences (that is, they create winners and losers).

The EU’s rules constrain its member states even more than global rules – for example, those of the World Trade Organization (WTO) – or rules associated with other regional integration projects constrain nation states elsewhere in the world. In particular, the EU’s fiscal rules – created along with the euro – set strict limits on the ability of member states to run budget deficits and accumulate debt.

Since the beginning of the euro crisis, these fiscal rules have been further tightened, which in turn has magnified the political backlash against the EU system and fuelled tensions between member states.

In democratic nation states, rules are made through a process that gives them what is sometimes called ‘input legitimacy’. International rule-making, by contrast, is essentially the product of power relations between states and therefore lacks this specific kind of legitimacy.

Supporters of European integration as currently constituted – whom one might term ‘pro-Europeans’ – would argue that EU rules are more like domestic rules than international rules: after all, they are agreed through a process involving democratic institutions such as the European Parliament. But even within the EU, power matters – as notably illustrated by Germany’s prominent (and controversial) role in driving the development of fiscal rules since the beginning of the euro crisis.

In addition, because European integration is meant to be an irreversible process, it is extremely difficult to change or abolish rules that have already been agreed. To do so would be ‘disintegration’ in the sense that powers would be returned to member states.

For example, there are good economic and political arguments for abolishing the ‘debt brake’, based on a German model, that EU member states agreed to incorporate into their national constitutions as part of the Fiscal Compact in 2011. But anyone making those arguments is labelled as Eurosceptic or ‘anti-European’.

There is also insufficient differentiation between EU rules. Any decision taken at a European level – even those decisions, such as on the Fiscal Compact, that are outside the EU treaties – becomes part of the EU’s system of rules. To challenge such a decision is therefore to violate the rule of law and therefore the EU’s ‘values’.

As Dieter Grimm has shown, legislation that would normally have the status of secondary law in a nation state has constitutional status in EU law and is therefore ‘immunized against political correction’.[1]

Though European leaders still often speak of the EU as a model for the rest of the world, the reality is that it now illustrates what other regional integration projects should avoid as much as what they should emulate. Even before the euro crisis, few other regions were thinking of creating a common currency.

But they will now think even more carefully about how far to follow Europe down the route of economic integration it has taken – and in particular will be unlikely to introduce EU-style fiscal rules.

The difficult question is where exactly the limits of international rule-making should be set. The European experience in the past decade suggests that rules on economic policy are particularly problematic because of the distributional consequences they have.

But European integration focused on economic policy from its beginnings with the European Coal and Steel Community in the 1950s. Moreover, because globalization is to a large extent an economic phenomenon, economic policy is precisely where international rules are needed.

A good place to start in thinking about where to set the limits of international rule-making may be in terms of the objectives of rules. During the early phase of European integration and the more moderate phase of globalization in the 30 years after the end of the Second World War, integration strengthened nation states – indeed, Alan Milward argued that integration ‘rescued’ the nation state in Europe.[2]

But since the end of the Cold War, rules at both the global level and a European level have been driven by the maximization of economic efficiency. This has undermined the nation state. As Rodrik has argued, a reprioritization is now needed – rules should be made above all with their impact on democracy in mind.[3]

In order to regain legitimacy, Europe should apply this idea of democracy-enhancing rules to its own approach to integration. It should begin by differentiating more clearly between rules that are fundamental to the European project and those about which Europeans can – and should – disagree.

The consequence of thinking of rules above all in terms of legitimacy may be that in some policy areas, particularly those with distributive consequences, rules should be abolished and power returned to member states.

‘Pro-Europeans’ should be open to this kind of ‘disintegration’ as a way to help the EU regain legitimacy and thus be sustainable in the medium term. It is also only by successfully recalibrating the balance between rules and democracy that the EU will once again be seen as a model for regional integration projects in the rest of the world, and for global governance more generally.

What needs to happen

  • The EU offers a cautionary tale on the limits of regional integration, with its status as a model for international governance eroded by a decade of crisis.
  • In certain areas, notably fiscal policy, democratically contested decision-making has been subordinated to ‘depoliticized’ supranational rules. The crisis over the single currency exemplifies the tensions between autonomy and integration.
  • To restore its legitimacy, the EU needs to recalibrate the balance between rules and democracy. Policymakers should ensure that laws are made with their impact on democracy in mind.
  • Politicians and policymakers should differentiate more clearly between rules that are fundamental to the European project and those about which Europeans can – and should – disagree.
  • In some policy areas, this could include returning powers to member states. Though politically challenging, this will require ‘pro-Europeans’ to tolerate some ‘disintegration’ as the price of ensuring the future stability of the EU.


[1] Grimm, D. (2015), ‘The Democratic Costs of Constitutionalisation: The European Case’, European Law Journal, Volume 21, Issue 4, July 2015,

[2] Milward, A. (1999), The European Rescue of the Nation State, London: Routledge.

[3] Rodrik, D. (2006), ‘Put Globalization to Work for Democracies’, New York Times, 17 September 2006,….

This essay was produced for the 2019 edition of Chatham House Expert Perspectives – our annual survey of risks and opportunities in global affairs – in which our researchers identify areas where the current sets of rules, institutions and mechanisms for peaceful international cooperation are falling short, and present ideas for reform and modernization.