Europe’s Watchmen Moment

Europe Crisis
By Panos Stasinopoulos

For those not familiar with the title’s reference, Watchmen is a graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons about an alternate version of US history of the 1950s and 1960s. One particularly interesting aspect of the story concerns the efforts of one of the main characters to persuade humanity that war and division are not the answer to world problems. In order to do so, he elaborately orchestrates a major catastrophe which succeeds in helping people to realise that they can be better off if united. Arguably, Europe is witnessing its "Watchmen moment", mutatis mutandis of course; no-one is advocating a catastrophe of such dimensions in order to come to our senses. 

Besides, the current sovereign debt crisis is grave enough to act as a wakeup call and demonstrate the shortcomings of the current political and financial configurations on both sides of the Atlantic (and on both sides of the English Channel). It is, thus, refreshing to read about Angela Merkel’s calls for "more Europe" at her party’s conference, belated as they may be. Economists and scholars engaged in the European integration discourse have been calling for more centralised powers, albeit for different reasons.

Indeed some economists would like to see a European Central Bank (ECB) able to issue Eurobonds and a European Monetary Union (EMU) with a fiscal policy and, therefore, the powers to regulate taxes and expenditure along with enforcing the rules which will keep the Eurozone from collapsing or facing the same problems in the future. This fiscal union would lead to complete financial integration, a goal which never materialised when it should have back in the 1990s  when the EMU was introduced. Scholars working in the field of European integration have also argued in favour of further integration to address issues such as the EU’s democratic legitimacy, democratic deficit, and exclusion-based approach to the personal scope of the rights conferred by EU laws (in their case, the argument is more political but such a step is arguably easier if the fiscal policies have been harmonised first).

Indeed, it can be stated  that proceeding with further integration because this is the only way to save the Eurozone and, consequently, the European integration project might amount to the very same problem we are trying to resolve by tackling the democratic deficit. However, in this Catch-22 situation, we need to remind ourselves of the wider troubles the Union is facing as the current crisis has seen a growing proliferation of the old "us and them" divide, be that between Europhiles and Eurosceptics or the "wise North" and the "imprudent South". However, we need to remember that not only a closer Union will be more beneficial in the long run but, that we are all more closely attached to it than we imagine as our European identity is not only shaped by the region in which we were born or raised, or the language which we speak but also by the core values  of the Union - peace and freedom - which fuelled European integration in the 1950s and have been doing the same ever since. This moment in time is a rare opportunity to act as more Europeans are becoming aware of the Union and its affairs as a result of the crisis. However, this is also a result of bad (to appalling) reporting in some countries, like the UK, while it is evident that  member  states’ governments are trying to dismantle  everything the EU has achieved in its 60-year history.

In this context, David Cameron’s remarks about a "looser union", unsurprising as they might be, can be potentially damaging; for instance, such rhetoric is devoid of concrete, viable, or simply interesting alternatives. Furthermore, it might jeopardise clearly needed discussion on Treaty change, which will not only see the EMU-related articles revised but, hopefully, a more comprehensive overhaul of the Lisbon Treaty which would address topics such as the Union Citizenship, social welfare rights, human rights, and the powers of the Parliament. Furthermore, such a development, as opposed to a modest reconfiguration of the provisions relating to the Eurozone structure, would be a chance for a more general constitutional change: the democratic legitimacy of the Union could be enhanced with further steps towards a more universal suffrage and a more representative Parliament with European Parties and not national parties; more accountability of the Council (although the Lisbon Treaty is a remarkably good start in that respect); and, maybe more importantly, with provisions allowing  member  states to form a closer union while allowing others to loosen their ties with the EU without leaving it and without vetoing other Member States’ right to move forward if they so wish. Of course, such a step should be tackled prudently as it is easy to move from a Europe of two different speeds to a fragmented one, but given the first block should be the one which currently comprises the Eurozone, it leaves the EU to deal with those states who want to be associated with the Union but not as full members, which, if done properly, may allow states such as the UK to ponder their membership issues seriously.

In Watchmen, members of an old team, former guardians of justice, forgot their raison d’être much as the EU institutions have forgotten they are the guardians of the EU  and, as a result, its mission. In the former case all was needed was one of them to initiate action (again, for those who are familiar with the novel, no such drastic action is needed here). In the latter case, we need a strong case for further harmonisation, one for which the current crisis calls. The EU is, and always has been, a work in progress but it was clear from the speeches of its founding fathers that it was meant to be much more than a common market.


Panos Stasinopoulos is currently reading for his PhD at King’s College London School of Law. His research focuses on European integration in the context of EU social rights. Panos has worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Athens whereas his work on human trafficking and EU fundamental freedoms has been published by the EU and in academic journals.        


25 November 2011


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Panos Stasinopoulos, Solidarity vs. Austerity: Mistakes of the Past and Why We Need to Re-invent the Union

Roland Bensted, Can the Euro Survive? 

Panos Stasinopoulos, Europe Through the Looking Glass: Could the Debt Crisis Negate Decades of Integration?