Europe’s reboot: from Bismarck to ‘Core Europe’?


Picture of Ruben-Erik Diaz-Plaja
Ruben-Erik Diaz-Plaja

Senior Policy Adviser at the Office of the Secretary General of NATO

Ruben Diaz-Plaja is Policy officer at NATO’s Secretariat. All views expressed are entirely personal.

Political integration projects have often been shaped by debates about their ultimate territorial limits, as these imply different visions of the values behind the project. For more than 40 years, Europe – and Britain – have debated whether and how the European project should include the UK. Similarly, in the early 19th Century, Europe was consumed by two visions of a unified Germany. Would it be a larger Germany, including both Austria and Prussia, more Catholic and multiethnic, or a more Protestant and monoethnic ‘Little Germany’ centred on Prussia? In 1866, Prussian Chancellor Bismarck settled the question definitively at the battle of Koeniggraetz, throwing Austria out of the German unification project and into a constitutional and political crisis, leaving Bismarck free to forge a new German Empire with a distinctly Prussian flavour.

150 years later, the similarities are suggestive. At a stroke, the 23 June Brexit referendum sent Britain – like Austria – sailing out of the European project into constitutionally-troubled waters. The EU faces a need – and perhaps an opportunity – to reboot and rebuild.

Some commentators now seem to think that we are in a ‘Bismarckian moment’, and that with Britain out, the time is ripe for a ‘Little Europe’ focusing on an integrated core, starting with the six founding members. The six have indeed been maintaining an informal dialogue over the last few months, and even held a mini-Summit right after the UK’s referendum. Others have raised objections, seeing it as potentially risky. As Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev has recently argued, , state unions have historically often faced their final nemesis when elites try to reboot from a smaller, ‘purer’ core. At the same time, Krastev’s main examples were the Soviet Union, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and socialist Yugoslavia – it is open to debate whether the comparison to the current European Union is fair.

Britain’s exit leaves behind a formidable Europe of 27 and, as many visions

Reinforced integration among a smaller group of member states may indeed make sense; it has worked it in the past. It can be a reasonable means of accommodating different interests and appetites for integration. The EU treaties allow for “Enhanced Cooperation” among groups of member states. Many aspects of the EU either began this way, or to this day are still limited to subsets of member states: Schengen, the euro or the Fiscal Compact. At the same time, proposals for ‘Core Europe’ seem to imply something qualitatively different – perhaps a more tiered model for the Union, with inner and outer layers of participation.

So the question is not whether reinforced integration should happen – it clearly already has. The question is rather how much more of it the EU will need as part of its reboot, of what kind and in which areas? Is this a Bismarckian moment, or something else entirely? A few questions and considerations may help clarify the debate.

First off, the Bismarck example was about the triumph of one vision of Germany over another. Austria’s exit from the German integration project quashed a different vision of what Germany might have been. It is worth asking whether Brexit will define Europe’s vision and mentality in a similarly clear way. Brexit may have settled the British debate about Europe, but has it settled other debates? Now, Britain’s exit leaves behind a formidable Europe of 27, with many still wishing to join, and with as many visions. How can reinforced integration respect those visions while not creating divisions?

A second question that is worth considering is what the core project, or projects, of such reinforced integration could be, and which states would make sense to make such initiatives credible and sustainable. Two of the areas frequently mentioned as projects for a ‘Core Europe’ – defence integration and reformed eurozone structures – would suggest a larger group of potential participant states than just the historic ‘six’.

Security crises and economic austerity in both Europe’s east and south have given rise to soul-searching over Europe

Third, if reinforced integration is to be part of the EU’s reboot, we must consider how this plays into perceptions of the EU’s institutions and decision-making – which are often seen as opaque and needlessly complicated. Bismarck famously said that he preferred not to see how his sausages – and laws – were made. EU citizens seem to agree with him when it comes to the EU. Would reinforced integration strengthen or dispel these stereotypes? Or instead would it help reinforce the notion of an effective, transparent EU that delivers for its citizens?

Fourth, any proposals for reinforced integration would need to carefully consider the wider political and security climate within and outside Europe. The media narrative has often focused on apparent divisions or splits – and on external powers like Russia that seek to exploit them. Security crises and economic austerity in both Europe’s east and south have given rise to soul-searching over Europe and the perception that decisions are taken by some that affect all. Within Europe, could reinforced integration be pursued in harmony with a continued sense of inclusion, solidarity and unity across a ‘Europe, whole and free’? In other words, how can the Union respect the notion of “Nic o nas bez nas” (nothing about us without us), the old slogan of Polish trade union Solidarność.

In a time like this, the notion of a ‘Core’ may have an appeal – it speaks to the idea of consolidation: rebuilding foundations and refocusing on the essentials. Core, after all, comes from the French Coeur – the heart. Europe has many hearts, though, and they all beat differently. Reinforcing Europe through reinforced integration – be it as a Core, as multiple overlapping cores, as variable geometries – may be a valuable reboot strategy, and could re-energise the European project. But it will be important to link this approach with an overarching and inclusive vision of the Union as a whole, a Greater Europe, and how it meets the security, economic and democratic concerns of all its citizens.

Track title


Stop playback
Video title


Africa initiative logo