Today, all agree that the European Union has reached a fork in the road. Opinions are divided solely over what has brought about the current situation, what it means, and how it will work itself out. Intriguingly, this all comes after almost two decades of intensive work on European integration. After 1989 the EU went from strength to strength, although at times it did make rather a habit of procrastinating à la Hamlet, which everyone got used to in the end.

The reasons for this profound deadlock are many, and they are both cyclical and structural. In the first category, the financial collapse of 2008-2009, which came from the United States, stands out. The enormous debt of a majority of EU countries, especially in the euro zone, was then laid bare.

The cause of this waywardness: the desire to live beyond one’s means, to take more than one worked for, to live off the backs of others. It was the duty of the states to come up with a better standard of living, and all for less taxes. Greedy financial alchemists delivered the final blow. Certainly profound and unfair in the way it deals out the costs to society, the financial crisis can be overcome.

The crisis of the Union as a political project and the crisis threatening the current integration model are much more serious. The reasons for these crises are structural. The EU has grown "too big”, too disparate in terms of members and the sharing of powers. It has become diluted – in other words, less cohesive. "Who grasps at too much loses it all," a French proverb holds.

The European joint enterprises are falling back on their mechanisms and procedures, thus ensuring a certain level of functioning. With so many members and issues to cope with, however, the EU can no longer develop, nor react with a unified voice to internal problems and threats – let alone hold to a coherent and distinctly European position on tough international issues.

EU as a Council of Europe

The internal and external weakness of the EU is down to many other reasons – particularly to one we are beginning to call "the culture of complicity" (Prof. A. Kukliński). This is the deliberate intent never to re-examine a position once taken, even if it turns out to be wrong. The example of the recognition of Kosovo's independence illustrates this attitude very well, coming after the Union had maintained and protected it for years, with NATO, as an integral part of Serbia.

Similarly, the EU institutions were aware of the financial condition of the Greek state for years, yet did nothing that might pour cold water on the party in Athens. This excess of "courtesy" is not restricted to Greece. The opportunism of political correctness prevents the Union from tackling the problem of demographic collapse head-on, since the current concept of human rights advocates behaviour oriented in the opposite direction. And so on. Increasingly often, the Union is acting in conformance with the motto of the French intellectuals: “Better to be wrong with Sartre than right with Raymond Aron."

In light of this situation one can easily imagine several scenarios for the way the Union will go. Two of them seem particularly plausible. In the first, the EU will function somewhat like the Council of Europe, the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe), albeit in a more integrated version. New members will not consolidate its power, merely weaken it.

Enfeebled, sluggish to respond, the EU will stay focused only on preserving standards and procedures. Pursuing the logic of the "ever closer Union" written into the Treaty of Maastricht will become impossible. Such a Union will offer plenty of room for unilateral declarations by its members.

More Raymond Aron than Sartre

The second scenario involves deepening integration, whether through the treaties and the rules of cooperation written into them, or in a manner that runs parallel to these instruments – for example, through the Euro-Plus-Pact. This will of course lead to a core zone, which will emerge out of the variable geometry of the various forms of bolstered cooperation.

There is nothing too terrifying about this; after all, it has been seen before. The European Communities emerged in the 1950s precisely because some members of the Council of Europe refused closer integration. Once the EEC was proved successful, other countries joined it. The same may well happen again.

In fact, this process may have already started, with the establishment of the financial mechanism for stabilising and strengthening the coordination of macroeconomic policies to save the euro. Not everyone will be part of it. What is desirable is that a similar scheme be extended to the field of security and defence policy.

It's time to make difficult choices, to part company with our naive ideas about the successive enlargements and to put a stop to the panic about the notion of a core zone. Especially since Poland may well be included in it. We cannot have it all: a community of values that would stretch from Kars in Turkey and Donetsk in the Ukraine to Lisbon and Reykjavik, an EU made up of 35 countries and yet unified and cohesive, a Union with a strong international identity, firm and credible on security issues, yet including countries that are openly indifferent to these issues. Our interest is in creating a Union in which there is more of the patient and thoughtful Raymond Aron than the aggressive and often mistaken Sartre. Building a Union that is closer, bolder, and yet which at the same time continues to look after its own.