The divisions thwarting a united Europe

Published in Business Spectator (Melbourne), 30 December 2015

europe-flagThe EU may not work particularly well. The euro crisis is far from over, and there are plenty of sound economic reasons to criticise the project of European integration.

On all of these issues I could find ready agreement with a German friend of mine who, like me, now lives in New Zealand.

There was only one point of difference between us. My friend still maintained that despite all its obvious failings, the European project was still a good thing. After all, without the EU we would go back to the days when European nations went to war with each other.

I find it hard to agree with my friend, even though I see where he is coming from. There once was a good justification for the assumption that European integration was a pathway to peace and overcoming nationalism.

But even if there was such a justification, it no longer exists. On the contrary: the longer Europe’s politicians maintain the fiction of post-nationalism, the more nationalist European politics will become.

It is no small irony that European integration is now leading towards a renationalisation of politics. That was precisely what the EU meant to overcome. But after over 60 years of “more Europe”, the continent is seeing a return of the nation-state.

Looking around the EU these days, it is hard not to notice the differences between its members. Of course, there had always been subtle and not so subtle disagreements between European countries in the past. What we are seeing today, however, is of an entire different nature.

In today’s Europe, there are countries such as Hungary, which openly reject the liberal and democratic principles that were once taken for granted in (western) Europe. After its recent change of government, Poland is following suit. As a first measure, the Polish government has banned the European flag from its buildings — a somewhat silly, yet strong signal of a new nationalism.

In central and Eastern Europe, there is growing sympathy and open admiration for the Hungarian resistance to EU values and institutions. But euroscepticism is not just an Eastern European phenomenon.

Denmark recently rejected a referendum that would have linked it more closely to the EU’s security and justice policies. Instead, the Danes preferred to go their own way, even if it could cost them membership of Europe’s Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency.

In Finland, Parliament will need to debate a withdrawal from the monetary union after a popular petition forced it to hold that debate. Of course, it is unlikely that this will actually result in a ‘Finxit’, if there is such a term. But it shows there is unease about Europe in parts of the Finnish population.

Similarly, the UK is preparing for its final showdown on the issue of a Brexit. Of all major EU members, the UK is already the one with the greatest opt-outs from the EU membership. Yet even with these concessions, there is now at least a 50:50 chance that Britain could pull out of the EU altogether. Too large is the disenchantment with the state of the EU; too great the fear of being dragged into the problems on the other side of the channel, whether they are economic or social.

And finally there is France. The strong showing of the National Front in the country’s regional elections was the strongest indication yet of a resurgence of French nationalism and a rejection of European supranationalism. The party of Marine Le Pen rejects the cornerstones of the EU, France’s membership of the euro, and freedom of movement. It is no longer the same France which pushed for greater European integration since the 1950s.

It is plain to see how Europe’s ’union’ is falling apart in front of our eyes. And the EU only has itself to blame for this development.

Why is it that European countries are increasingly returning to nation-state thinking? It is obviously because they no longer trust the EU to make a positive contribution to their problems.

Over the past decades, Brussels has become synonymous with a distant bureaucracy that, despite its far-reaching competencies, is failing to find answers to Europe’s most pressing challenges. The EU has not made convincing progress on fighting the economic and monetary crisis. It is not showing a pathway out of the refugee and migration crisis. It has no attractive vision of where it wants to take the continent.

Out of this frustration comes the widespread desire to seek refuge in national solutions. In doing so, Europe may not be returning to a situation where war between neighbouring countries become a possibility. That, at least, seems something that Europe has fortunately left behind. But the peaceful spirit of co-operation certainly does not exist anymore either.

For the EU to survive this crisis of trust, there is only one option. It needs to respect the growing dissatisfaction with its institutions and stop its integration agenda. It may even be forced to turn back the clock and return some powers to its member states, such as the right to discriminate against other EU citizens when it comes to eligibility for benefits.

But such a strategic withdrawal might be a price worth paying for protecting some other features of European integration that are worth keeping.

Instead, what the EU is doing seems the complete opposite. Instead of a strategic withdrawal, European elites still want to push integration even further. They are unwilling to concede that such increased integration is responsible for precisely the backlash the EU is experiencing at the moment.

As ironic as it seems, it is the EU’s overreach that could turn out to be its own undoing.

And it could be the failure of the EU’s supranationalism that will trigger a widespread return of the nation-state.

I am sure that is not what my europhile friend would like to see.