The European Union (EU) is going through a midlife crisis, as was evident in the highly controversial discussion between European policymakers at the Raisina Dialogue. While the EU was never as united as its name suggests, certain events have exposed the faultlines in this unfinished project—namely, the global churning for a new world order, which found expression in the financial crisis of 2007–08; Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States in 2016; and the “Brexit” referendum in the United Kingdom (UK) in the same year.
The 28 member states of the EU seem divided on most urgent global issues, including Brexit, the exit of the union’s second-largest economy, the UK. If one wants to interpret this as a harbinger of the EU’s doom or the birth pangs of a progressive experiment with an open future, depends on nationality, political preferences and the timeframe in question.
It is clear that the oft-cited idea of an “ever closer union” has hit a stumbling block with the rise of right-wing populism and nationalism in the last few years. However, most European nations have not given up on the EU just yet. Contrary to English-language media’s narrative, in 2018, support for the EU among its citizens reached the highest level since 1983: 67 percent of Europeans believe that membership had benefited their country (and even 53 percent of Britons believe so)—according to the May 2018 “Eurobarometer,” a survey commissioned by the European Parliament.
“Europe will be forged in crisis,” said Françoise Nicolas during the discussion, quoting ‘The Father of Europe’ and French diplomat Jean Monnet. “Difficulties always lead to progress. We will find appropriate solutions,” assured the economist. However, ahead of the upcoming elections to the European Parliament in May 2019, politicians must show “more team spirit” to reassure their citizens that the EU really is the best answer to the crisis of globalisation, warned Dutch MEP Marietje Schaake.
“Brussels” can often do little to solve the problems it is blamed for example, the slow progress in reforming the Eurozone, immigration-related issues, and the new question of distributive justice that triggered the success of anti-European populism. Too often, the EU serves as an easy scapegoat for political failures of and in the member states.
A good “dog fight”—as British journalist John Elliott called it in his report on the Raisina Dialogue—might help clear the air. Schaake and her co-panellist Péter Sztáray vehemently disagreed on issues of immigration and the course that right-wing populist government of Hungarian President Victor Orbán has taken. The discourse between the two exemplifies the difficulties of integrating the different perspectives of Western and Eastern European countries.
Schaake accused Hungary of not accepting Syrian refugees while taking “billions of dollars of EU funds.” She insisted on “shared obligations” and “shared burdens,” while Sztáray argued that Hungary has the right to protect its borders. “Hungary is an illiberal democracy; the European Union is liberal,” said Schaake. There are “political differences” that cannot be ignored. Schaake is a member of the “Alliance of Liberals and Democrats” in the European Parliament and likely has one eye on the upcoming elections. “We grew up in a socialist democracy,” countered Sztáray. “We want democracy without labels.”
While the East–West divide needs historical patience to be resolved, the North–South divide over Eurozone governance is more urgent. Eastern European countries are well aware that “the EU is about peace,” said Latvian panellist Zaneta Ozolina, and a breakup is highly unlikely. Matti Anttonen from Finland insisted that “the EU enlargement has been a positive thing” and said that Serbia will be the next candidate for accession. Despite the differences, Péter Sztáray, too, attested to the EU’s significance, saying, “I am optimistic that we can avoid division. This is the largest integration scheme in the history of mankind.”
However, despite intense discussions about Eurozone reforms throughout 2018, between French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the lack of a common fiscal policy leaves the EU ill-prepared for the looming economic downturn. “The Franco-German couple is not in a good shape,” admitted Françoise Nicolas. The agreed-upon “fiscal compact is not yet a common fiscal policy.” This requires “pool(ing) more sovereignty”, but common taxation for the Eurozone will be going “too far at the moment”. It remains an open question if it is even necessary to save the common currency.
The rise of China and the economic offers it makes to smaller European countries has triggered another controversy. According to Nicolas, while China has “created frictions” within the EU, this is not necessarily a bad development. It has thrown light on the specific situation of smaller countries and their needs. One positive result of this is the new “EU–China Connectivity Platform,” which aims at supporting infrastructure investment.
The question is whether these arguments are reason enough to leave the EU, “a divided club with … unreal disruptive ambitions,” as John Elliot calls it. Groucho Marx answered this question in his famous quote, “I do not care to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.” Whether this is neurosis or a midlife crisis remains to be seen. “There is a lot of movement at the moment in Europe,” observed Marietje Schaake. Given the upcoming elections, this is a clear sign that there is still life in the old continent.
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