Europe in Crisis

‘Europe is in crisis.’ Almost every report on the EU today finds that it is in a crisis. After the financial crisis of 2008, the so-called migration crisis in 2015 and the crisis resulting from the Brexit referendum in 2016, Europe is facing a new challenge in the wake of the Corona pandemic. The impression thus gains ground that a series of serious crises in Europe are accumulating without being met with an adequate response from Brussels. This has fuelled the popular sentiment that the EU is increasingly irrelevant as it is incapable of meeting the challenges it faces.

However, it is useful to recall that a sense of “crisis” is nothing extraordinary in Europe. Crises seem inherent in the European integration project. In 2006, two years before the financial crisis hit Europe, the European crisis was the subject of an issue of the IWM house journal Transit. But in 2004, two years before this issue of Transit, the Reflection Group on the Spiritual and Cultural Dimension of Europe, chaired by the then IWM rector Krzysztof Michalski, had stated that ‘the European Union now faces perhaps the greatest challenge in its history.’ Major and minor crises thus seem to be an integral part of the history of European integration from the failure of the Treaty establishing the European Defense Community in 1954 and fierce disputes over the British rebate in the early 1980s to the failure of the painstakingly negotiated European Constitution in 2004.

However much we may prefer to suppress these constant crises from our collective memory by simplifying and idealising post-war European history, a sense of crisis stubbornly remains with us. Typical of such a simplification and idealisation is the pervasive belief in the idea of a great seventy-year period of peace in Europe, which conveniently eclipses the existence of violent and repressive regimes in Eastern and Southern Europe and overlooks totally the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia. It should be painfully apparent today that we need to revise this rosy image not only in order to better understand these recurrent crises, but also and especially to finally become aware of the fundamental in-built fragility of the European project. In the introduction to a volume on Brexit published last year as part of the IWM  series with Passagen Verlag I had pointed out: ‘The political arrangements in Europe are fragile. Peace and war, democracy and despotism, cooperation and isolation, inclusion and exclusion always lie close together in time and space. Nothing should be taken for granted. All political achievements on the continent must be fought for on a daily basis.’

In view of this turbulent tradition of European integration, some then see no reason for concern today. In a recent interview, the Dutch historian and philosopher Luuk van Middelaar described panic as a part of the EU’s crisis management strategy. Convinced that the EU is much more resilient than most people think, he said: ‘When unity is really at stake, there is always some kind of invisible glue that holds it together. By this I do not just mean pursuing economic interests, but a deeper cultural and historical awareness of being part of Europe.’ Other analysts on the contrary consider the current crisis to be of a fundamentally different order, a crisis of an existential nature because basic components of European self-awareness, like democracy and prosperity, are increasingly being called into question. Book titles such as After Europe (Ivan Krastev) or End of Europe (James Kirchick) reflect the increasing conviction that Europe, as we knew it, is a thing of the past. The crucial question today thus seems to be what Europe’s future will look like.

There is much to suggest that the current crisis in the EU reflects a grave tension resulting from different degrees of integration in different areas. The expectation that the political integration of Europe would result automatically from the European common market proved to be illusory. As the Reflection Group on the Spiritual and Cultural Dimension of Europe already noted in 2004, ‘economic integration simply does not lead by itself to political integration because markets cannot produce a politically resilient solidarity.’ This has also proved to be the case with respect to the monetary union. The introduction of the Euro, which was supposed to promote European integration, has anything but fostered European solidarity. On the contrary, it has aggravated the North-South divide within the Union. Moreover, the absence of a central government is at the heart of many other crucial problems facing Europe today and could be seen as the main reason for the competitive disadvantage of the EU vis-a-vis other global powers.

What we lack today is a common European vision that could both inspire citizens across Europe and meet the challenge of political integration in a world of increasing volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. More serious, however, is the lack of a political will on the part of European political actors to take decisive steps towards political integration. The former EU Commissioner Franz Fischler remarked in his discussion with Ulrike Guerot during the Vienna Humanities Festival co-organised by the IWM: ‘We have lost the ability to unite. We cannot solve any crisis and problem nationally, but we are not prepared to develop common solutions.’ Political will, or rather the lack of it, has proved to be of critical importance to EU’s institutional development and its deficits.

If the European project is to be advanced at the present unfavourable juncture, we must turn our attention to the leading powers of the EU, France and Germany. During the financial crisis, the migration crisis but also the crisis of democracy, Europe’s problems have often been framed as problems of the European periphery. This framing was neither factually correct nor even helpful. As IWM Permanent Fellow Ivan Krastev aptly remarked, ‘major political projects do not disintegrate from the periphery’. For as Brexit has clearly demonstrated, it is ‘the revolt of the centre’ that puts the European integration project in jeopardy.

Moreover, it is crucial to convince European citizens of the strengths of European integration. Indeed, the urgency of this task cannot be overstated given that over the last years EU has ironically become the bogeyman par excellence that almost all populist parties blame for all the ills in people’s lives. It is very important to win over for the European project the younger generation, which unaware of how fragile the fundamental achievements of European integration really are, does not see the European project as either at risk or as their own project. In my inaugural lecture at the IWM, I stated: ‘There is a need to go out there and to actually say that the danger of losing what we have is much greater than the one of keeping this, while, of course, trying to reform it.’ The project Europe’s Futures: Ideas for Action, a strategic partnership between ERSTE Foundation and the IWM, is committed to this very task. It seeks to re-invent Europe in a way that will win back the support of its people.

Ivan VejvodaIWM Permanent Fellow; Director of the project “Europe’s Futures”