Can Europe Make It?

The EU stumbles as crises mount

It is precisely at dealing with a world like today's, of instability and fast-moving events –  not open to easy or direct control – that the EU is, and always has been, very bad.

Kirsty Hughes
25 September 2015
EU commissioner for enlargement plus PMs Orban and Dzurinda open bridge across Danube in 2001

EU commissioner for enlargement plus PMs Orban and Dzurinda open bridge across Danube in 2001.Wikicommons.Some rights reserved.As a fractious EU finishes yet one more emergency summit, the question of whether Europe can cope with the big challenges it faces will not go away. From the refugee flows that show no sign of lessening to conflict in Ukraine to youth unemployment still around 50% across southern Europe to the debt-overloaded, struggling Greek economy, the EU's leaders lack a convincing strategy or effective policies.

The EU is in a crisis both of inadequate political leadership and of inappropriate EU structures and policy-making in the face of these urgent, deep and often rapidly-changing challenges. Yet it is precisely at dealing with a world like today's, one of instability and fast-moving events –  not often open to easy or direct control – that the EU is, and always has been, very bad.

This week's EU emergency summit on refugees focused on strengthening the EU's porous borders, and belatedly giving more funds to the UN and other bodies and countries to reduce the numbers of refugees heading for the EU. It is a 'fortress Europe' approach that is unlikely to work and it underlines the fact that the EU is at it happiest when it is focused on its own internal policies and development.

A self-absorbed Union?

The EU has never been very good at dealing with its neighbourhood. In its first 30 years of existence during the Cold War, the EU developed on the basis of having a relatively calm, non-intrusive albeit authoritarian neighbour. And so the EU focused inwards on promoting economic integration, with the underlying aim that building the Single Market, and a common trade policy, would result eventually in more political integration – with steps towards a united, probably federal Europe.

In the 1980’s, as countries like Greece, Spain and Portugal emerged from dictatorship, the EU did play an important political role as an organisational home that reinforced and underpinned the return to democracy in these states. And when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the EU – rather slowly – did the same for the countries of central and eastern Europe.

But how the EU coped with the challenges 1989 brought tells us a lot about its priorities and ways of working. Internal challenges were dealt with first, the changes on its borders second. In the face of German unification, France and other member states were most concerned to bind the larger Germany into Europe without letting it dominate it – hence the drive at the time towards the single currency. Twenty-five years later, as Germany dominates the eurozone, and increasingly other areas of EU policy-making, this looks ironic.

Having committed to the euro, the member states in the 1990s then focused on other ways to create a more integrated EU – seen as a priority ahead of letting in the new democracies from central and eastern Europe. The Schengen border-free zone was created, more majority voting and stream-lined decision-making was brought in. Enlargement went ahead, but slowly.

And the EU also failed in the 1990s – its interventions at the start of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia were hubristic and ineffective. The EU's claim to promote and ensure peace in Europe lay in ruins (unless Europe only meant those in the EU). Its failure then to decide how to handle relations with Russia, and whether to give Ukraine a perspective on membership, are strategic failures that are part of the explanation of today's problems in the region.

In 2004, the EU did successfully bring in the first member states from the former Soviet bloc – from Estonia to Hungary.  Yet the fact that this took 15 years is illustrative of how the EU likes best to operate. In the face of conflict and instability in the former Yugoslavia, the EU couldn't cope. But managing a slow, steady process whereby neighbouring countries took on board all the EU's rules, laws and regulation, was within the EU's comfort zone.

This wider enlargement was a success – reuniting much of Europe after the end of the Cold War. But it was all on the EU's own terms – membership talks were never in fact negotiations, they were a process of supervision, demands and cajoling, until the applicants were deemed to have met all the EU's criteria. There were no compromises or bargains. The EU's current takeover of Greece's policy-making, though more extreme than its handling of enlargement negotiations, has to a large degree its roots in this colonial approach to bringing in new members. The EU's current takeover of Greece's policy-making, though more extreme than its handling of enlargement negotiations, has to a large degree its roots in this colonial approach to bringing in new members.

Beyond enlargement, the EU has never had a strong, effective or strategic approach to its neighbourhood whether to the East or in the Mediterranean. It has attempted to be a zone of peace and prosperity that creates weak but positive ties with those around it – a sort of concentric circles around a benign EU approach. But in the face of the Arab Spring and its reversal, or the growing authoritarianism of Putin's Russia, the EU has had no strategy and little clout.

The EU has also let its relationship with Turkey falter – with membership negotiations stalled and unlikely to be revived, no other visible strategy has been adopted instead. And even in the western Balkans, where Serbia, Macedonia and others have been told they can eventually join the EU, this process was firmly put on the backburner by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker last year when he said there would be no enlargement in the next five years. As the refugee crisis suddenly makes relationships with all these countries of priority importance, the EU is left uncertain and unsure how to proceed, not least in its relations with Turkey.

Losing its way internally too

Even internally, the EU is predicated on the general expectation that all members will be stable, democratic and perform adequately economically. And indeed, member states have always been highly resistant to the EU commenting on their democratic and human rights performance once inside the Union.

Given that resistance, it was a welcome surprise when the individual EU member states back in 2000 refused to deal with Austria's far-right Jorg Haider when he came into power. And since the EU treaties lacked a means of tackling such developments at the level of the Union as a whole, the Lisbon Treaty in 2009 introduced a clause whereby a member states' voting rights could be suspended in the face of anti-democratic developments.

But the EU's failure to act in the face of Hungary's growing and varied authoritarian behaviour – towards the media, the justice system, now towards refugees – shows how weak the EU can be even in dealing with challenges within its own borders.

Yet while the UK is mired in a 'Little Englander' moment – deliberately choosing to reduce its influence and role in the EU, a semi-opted out, reluctant member state –  the EU itself looks in some ways like a larger UK.

The euro crisis has of course pre-occupied Europe's leaders for the last five years, with remarkably little political attention or priority given to other issues – a strategic choice that is rebounding on the EU now. The eurozone's inadequate and inappropriate policy responses – and its unshakeable adherence to its neoliberal beliefs – have resulted in low growth and high levels of unemployment, especially across the EU's southern member states, that belie all EU claims to promote solidarity and prosperity.

Juncker has led on a supposedly €300 billion scheme to tackle unemployment – a scale that might be serious if that was the amount eurozone governments were investing. But this is a scheme to leverage investments the private sector may have made anyway, and entails around €20bn of new or partly new funds, hardly serious given the scale of the challenge.

And while the euro crisis has not gone away, and the refugee crisis continues to grow, the EU also has other issues to tackle – including the UK's ill-timed request for reforms and changes ahead of its self-imposed referendum on EU membership.

Yet while the UK is mired in a 'Little Englander' moment – deliberately choosing to reduce its influence and role in the EU, a semi-opted out, reluctant member state –  the EU itself looks in some ways like a larger UK. Today's EU prefers a fortress Europe stance, and an inward-looking focus, to finding ways to relate to its neighbourhood and the wider challenges of the region.

The EU appears to lack the political will and leadership to tackle the biggest challenges it faces. It gives the impression of firefighting, without strategy, political cohesiveness or real priorities. Yet these challenges will not go away. If the EU cannot rise to them, it may not split asunder despite the remarkably acerbic relations between many of Europe's leaders today; it may instead just dissolve into irrelevance.

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