Lost Momentum: The European Union in 2011

Tr@nsit Online

Twenty five years ago, when I crossed the border from Austria to Czechoslovakia, I was taken off of a train there and questioned by Czechoslovak cops for an hour. My wife and children were still on the train. It was a scary experience. In March this year, I drove from Bratislava to the Vienna airport. I couldn’t easily tell where the border was or where the border guards used to be.

How different it is now! How refreshing! How easy it is to take it for granted!

It seems to me the absence of borders and the many other good things integration signifies are being taken for granted by a growing number of Euro-skeptics or all-out opponents of the European Union (EU). They uphold “sovereignty” as if the post-1648 order created by the Treaty of Westphalia had brought Europe peace and prosperity.

As in the past 60 years, the underlying conflict today is between advocates of more integration and advocates of more sovereignty. But the European Union’s current crisis is more serious than any of the previous ones. To see why, and to make my case, let me identify briefly four well-known crises in the history of the Common Market and the EU:

• 1954 was the year when the French Parliament didn’t ratify the European Defense Community (EDC), a move that blocked European military integration.

• 1965 was the year when French President Charles de Gaulle in effect vetoed a plan to give the European Parliament budgetary powers (and majority voting rights) to finance the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). France even recalled its representatives from Brussels.

• 1992 was the year of the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) crisis, which was indeed very serious, but the EU recovered and proceeded toward financial integration:
– 1993: the European Single Market was launched;
– 1997: the Stability and Growth Pact was signed; and
– 1999: the Euro was first launched and in 2002, introduced.

• 2005 was the year that brought us the constitutional crisis after French and Dutch voters rejected the proposed Constitution for Europe. But in 2007, the Lisbon Treaty was signed.

The issues were different enough, but the underlying concerns that prompted serious delays and indeed threats to the process of integration were similar:

• In each case, the opponents — from de Gaulle on — tried to protect their nations’ sovereignty. Some tried to slow the process of integration, some tried to abandon it. The end of the “European Idea” was in sight, but Europe invariably bounced back.

• In each case, the new idea of integration proved to be superior to the old idea of sovereignty because the problem at hand was relatively narrow and specific, and therefore lent itself to a pragmatic solution.

• In each case, the momentum for integration was still strong because:

– The memory of wars, notably of World War II, was vivid; concurrently, there was a widespread consensus throughout Western Europe that the continent’s wars were the consequence of a polarized Europe rooted in sovereignty;

– Also widespread was the conviction that only integration could reduce the likelihood of war, mitigate the harmful effects of nationalism and in the process, also produce a more prosperous Europe.

To repeat: Memory of the past and deep conviction about a more peaceful future together overcame the case for full or absolute sovereignty. And so until now, despite frequent setbacks, “integration” has been winning this tug-of-war for Europe’s future.

Is the crisis of 2011 different? Has Europe’s political mentality changed?

The answer, I am afraid, is yes: The crisis of 2011 is a systemic crisis. It differs from previous ones in that it extends to almost all aspects of the EU and its activities. It may not be — I hope it isn’t — an existential crisis. Yet, we should be clear in our own minds that an institution which stops deepening and widening could, at best, linger on. Its effectiveness and appeal significantly curbed, the EU is rapidly losing its élan.

I’ll mention six of the main components of this systemic crisis:

1. The memory of what Europe had done to itself before Jean Monnet began to dream of European Unity is fading among new generations. Who recalls — who is even familiar with — the centuries of war since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648? Who knows that there was a time when Germany and France had fought more wars against each other than any other two countries in Europe? That Europe is no longer the fire hazard it used to be and that France and Germany are close allies and friends, are the almost-forgotten huge achievements of European integration. (An exception to my generalization worth mentioning is Poland, where history under the current government has been used for constructive ends.)

2. The momentum to build an integrated Europe is no more. Few remember the touching poetry of Central Europe’s intellectuals longing to “belong” once again to Europe. How many such odes have we seen lately? Now there isn’t much of that even in countries that seek EU membership, let alone in those that are already member states. It may be that after all these decades of existence, poetry has to give way to the day-to-day tasks performed by faceless bureaucrats in Brussels. Yet, without such longing, without some momentum, without a vision that contains both a strategic imperative and an emotional commitment, the European Idea may dissipate.

3. The prospects for either “deepening” or “widening” are now poor, at best. After Croatia, it’s hard to see which country will enter the EU next — probably none for years, perhaps decades, to come. As it is, there’s a widespread resentment among old members that once a new member is admitted, it forgets its promises and neglects its commitments. How many old member states would now vote to let in all 10 new applicants from Central and Eastern Europe? As for deepening, the trend is in the opposite direction. Today, politicians everywhere talk not about opening borders, but closing them. If Denmark, of all countries — a model of tolerance and rationality — can entertain a plan to get around Schengen, then something is rotten not only in the state of Denmark but in the EU as well.

4. The crisis of 2011 is also fueled by the growing uncertainties of Europe’s political and economic elites. In the past, for many decades, the European Idea was carried on by the “elites,” not by “the people.” Let’s face it: Huge minorities, at times even small majorities, of “the people” never cared very much for integration. Today, integration lacks decisive support not only from the “average” European (as in the past), but increasingly from the elites. (An exception, once again, is Poland where — excluding the PiS, the right-wing Kaczy?ski party — the elites keep voicing their deep commitment to genuine integration.)

5. Coincidentally, a nationalist surge haunts Europe. In most places, it is against immigrants. Hatred toward Muslims and Roma is widespread. In some countries, there is a broader sentiment against all foreigners. Look at Finland or Sweden. It is once again fashionable to blame someone abroad — the IMF, George Soros, capitalism, the Jews — for every problem ranging from poverty to corruption. Consider the frightening paradox: Much of Europe has no physical borders, but this nationalist surge is hard at work building mental borders of xenophobia and conspiracy theories about foreigners.

6. Leaving to the end the obvious and certainly most important component of today’s crisis: 2011 is the year when economic and financial calamities are tearing Europe apart. Without going into details, it is at least possible, if not probable, to predict that the austerity measures needed in Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and elsewhere could destabilize not only those countries but the EU itself. There’s a good chance that eventually, Greece will have to leave the Euro-zone. Today, many countries that once dreamed of adopting the Euro soon, have changed their minds; that dream, it seems, has turned into a nightmare.

My conclusion is that the European Idea that was born after World War II has peaked. The European Union is backsliding. Its creative edge is passé. Increasingly, it reminds me of a fire-brigade running from one fire to another without having the time, the energy and the leadership to consider its long-term objectives. It seems to me that Europe needs to recapture the spirit of its founders and reset its priorities.

Younger generations should be reminded of what Europe was like before French Foreign Affairs Minister Robert Schuman proposed the Coal and Steel Community in 1950. To the extent this is possible, European elites should regain the courage of their convictions and uphold the vision of a free and united Europe. Those who favor integration — this wonder of human resolve — should be proud of what they’ve achieved: peace for more than six decades (outside the Balkans) and prosperity for most, though certainly not for all.

My visit to the former Czechoslovak border earlier this year has reinforced my conviction that such an integrated Europe will prevail, but we must watch those who want to bring back old borders so that they can play — behind those old borders — their old games.

This is a revised version of an outline prepared for the conference “A Strong Europe in a Globalized World,” organized by the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). The conference was held on June 17, 2011 at The Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

Charles Gati is Senior Acting Director of Russian and Eurasian Studies and Foreign Policy Institute Senior Fellow at the School of Advanced International Studies at The Johns Hopkins University, Washington, D.C. Recently, he was a guest at the IWM in Vienna.

Tr@nsit Online, 2011
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