‘There are various long-term challenges related to legitimacy, but the top problem now confronting the EU is the Corona crisis. This is one of the most severe crises in the world since the Second World War and one of the most difficult that the EU has had to deal with’, explains Professor Marianne Riddervold (NUPI and HINN).

Together with Professor Jarle Trondal (University of Agder) and Dr Akasemi Newsome (University of California, Berkeley), she has co-edited the volume The Palgrave Handbook of EU Crises (Palgrave Macmillan), published earlier this year.

The book explores the EU’s responses to the major severe crises it has faced in recent years, and presents three scenarios for the EU anno 2025 – from collapse to closer integration.

  • Would you like to receive event invitations, analyses and news on our research weekly? Sign up to NUPI's newsletter here. 

The Corona crisis is a particularly difficult challenge for several reasons, Riddervold explains:

‘Not only due to the many direct and indirect consequences for European states and their populations – for instance health-related and financially – but also due to the challenges to solidarity and the ability to maintain the core features of EU cooperation: a common market and a common outer border. When states close their borders, the idea of free movement and trade is challenged. The EU’s early response, with country after country closing its borders, was not exactly impressive.’

Democratic and legitimization crises

The EU must also deal with a range of other crises. In particular, Riddervold notes the climate crisis, the migration crisis and the democratic crisis.

‘The EU has tended to solve practical common challenges through closer and more binding cooperation in various fields – but the legitimization crisis concerns the core values of the Union: democracy and human rights. Moreover, the migration crisis has also challenged the EU’s ability to live up to its founding values.’

As to the democratic crisis, it has concerned member states such as Hungary and Poland in particular.

‘The democratic challenges also have a more practical side The EU has become the world’s most binding and extensive organization for cooperation. However, this cooperation is volunteer- and trust-based. And if it’s up to the states themselves to choose which laws to abide by – as with Hungary and Poland in several areas – there is a risk of undermining the entire project.’

Most reluctant on defence, health and migration

Which crises has the EU handled well – and not so well?

‘It depends on what you mean by well and not well. All in all, the EU has emerged stronger from its crises. From the beginning, it has handled crises by cooperating more closely in more and more fields – naturally being better at coping with challenges where it has already had tools available’, Riddervold explains.

In health, defence and migration – areas where there is most at stake as regards member-state sovereignty – states have been more reluctant.

‘These are the fields where the EU has the fewest measures and tools available. For example, it has struggled to get a common migration policy in place; and had few tools to use when the pandemic hit us last year. Whether the solution to these challenges is more integration, or less, is a political question.’

2025: Collapse, minor changes or closer integration?

The book presents three scenarios for the EU in 2025, based on the most widespread theories about European integration.

‘These three scenarios are as follows: That the EU collapses, that the EU manages to deal with the challenges gradually by using tools and institutions already available, and finally that the Union takes a leap towards closer integration. We find most support for the two first scenarios, with the legitimation crisis as an exception,’ Riddervold explains, and adds:

‘The fact that the EU has members that can no longer be counted as adequate democracies, can’t be labelled as anything but collapse. But here we also see gradual changes, so the situation may look different in a few years. The research underlying our book indicates that the EU is likely to become more integrated by 2025, if it can take account of the people’s wishes and expectations. Surveys also confirm this is the direction the EU is moving.‘

New in the book is the scope and the comparative analysis it offers.

‘We study the major crises the EU has faced over the past 15 years; we systematize the role of its various institutions, and the relevance to our theories. This enables us to say much more now about the EU’s ability to deal with crises than we could say earlier.’

Important also for Norway

Norway is not an EU member, but crisis management in the Union still matters a great deal.

‘Norway is closely integrated with the EU not least through the EEA, which gives us access to the internal market. In return, we’re required to implement EU regulations in this area. We’re part of the Schengen Area, so the migration crisis is our crisis too, although we are far away from the biggest flows, and closed our borders during the most critical periods in 2015 and 2016. The Corona crisis affects us too, and we cooperate with the EU on vaccines and other aspects. Financial crises are a very important matter for Norway, given our open economy, but since our economy differs from the systems of many others, we weren’t hit as hard in 2007 and 2008. Only time will show how we’ll cope now.’

Foreign and security policy also plays an important role for Norway, which is a member of NATO but not the EU, but is also closely linked in with EU foreign policy.

‘The Ukrainian crisis, with Russia’s invasion of Crimea and breach of core principles in international law, was probably viewed quite similarly from Norway and the rest of Europe. The same can be said for the insecurity related to the Trump Administration and the longer-term consequences of a change in US opinion and foreign policy. And even though we’re not directly involved in the conflicts with Poland and Russia on the one side, and the EU on the other, Norway withdrew its EEA funding to Hungary early on. So although we’re not formally part of the EU, it’s hard to see Norway as being completely on the outside,’ Riddervold concludes.

Want to learn more about NUPI's research on Europe? Visit NUPI's Center for European Studies and our site on the EU.