Expert Speak Young Voices
Published on Oct 08, 2020
Mapping the failures of the European Union: From Grexit to Moria

Since its inception, the European Union (EU) has had its share of ups and downs. Originally established in the aftermath of the Second World War to maintain peace among its member-states through economic and political integration, it has since faced crisis after crisis, being widely criticised both internationally and within its borders. Although it has managed to successfully prevent the outbreak of armed conflict, countless historical and contemporary examples can be given of its failures and negligence under the garb of unity. In fact, these can be traced as far back as the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, a watershed moment in history which, if handled properly, could have defined the role of the newly formed bloc. Such negligence points to a larger, more deep-rooted problem in EU governance: even now, in the face of rising populism, a renewed refugee crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic, the EU struggles – and often fails – to show solidarity and make unanimous decisions in the realm of foreign policy and defence.

Fiscal Failure 

Comprising of 27 countries, the European Union allows for the free movement of goods, services and individuals among its member-states. Nineteen of these countries also share a common currency – the Euro. Despite these sui generis features, the EU has failed to be a successful fiscal union – a near-Grexit, the Catalonia crisis, German hegemony, and most recently, protests in Bulgaria and Belarus attest to the same. Policies are driven by a convoluted bureaucracy that does not adequately represent the people of Europe. There is a widely acknowledged absence of transparency in functionality, with citizens feeling unrepresented and unheard. Some even argue that the bureaucracy infringes upon the sovereignty of member nations.

The EU’s design of a supranational monetary union without fiscal power sets itself up for failure. Its fiscal governance is abysmal at best – the creation of a single currency, although convenient, has caused an imbalance by increasing competition and removing countries’ natural stabilising mechanisms. Continuous internal devaluations and wage suppression to boost manufacturing appeal have left the Eurozone extremely vulnerable to socio-economic troubles. This has also allowed countries like Germany to gain a hegemonic position in the region, controlling manufacturing and playing creditor to its debt-ridden neighbours. The best example of this would probably be the long-drawn Greek financial crisis (or the near-Grexit) which revealed the cracks in the system and clearly demonstrated how the overuse of neoliberal austerity policies – reduced public spending and increased taxation – by the EU exacerbated the problem of devaluation and intra-Eurozone competition. Ultimately, it led to stunted growth and a long-run increase in debt burden – the impact of which is still ongoing. In fact, just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit countries across the globe, the real GDP growth in Europe was at a six-year low, with negative industrial production in Italy, Spain and Germany. This has no doubt fuelled Euroscepticism across the Eurozone.

Selective Democratic Role

The economic struggles of the European Union are compounded by its vast democratic failures, traced from Yugoslavia in the 1990s to Bulgaria in 2020. One of the biggest flaws in the system is that most EU officials (barring members of the European Parliament) are not democratically elected by the people they aim to represent. The unrepresentative, convoluted bureaucracy results in a lack of accountability, which in turn creates an unproductive and unsustainable environment. The legitimacy of EU treaties are also questionable; for example, the currently operational Lisbon Treaty (which was initially rejected by Irish voters) is simply a re-run variation of the Constitutional Treaty, which was rejected by France and the Netherlands through referenda. It is thus evident that the bloc has long struggled with maintaining favourable public opinion.

For many people, it is the failure to act as a champion of equality that has led to a loss in the EU’s credibility. It has failed to adequately address human rights violations in member-states and protect its citizens under the European Convention of Human Rights. The current situation in Bulgaria is a prime example of this: violence has ensued over weeks of consecutive protests over the failing rule of law in the country, and the EU is being blamed. Citizens claim that the mismanagement of EU funds made it easier for the oligarchic Bulgarian mafia to gain control of national institutions. Despite this breakdown and the brutality that has accompanied it, the Union has refrained from intervening in or even addressing the situation. The real question, then, is of the motive behind the EU’s exercise of power in the region – especially given that it has cited ‘democratic backsliding’ and fundamental rights violations as reasons for intervening in similar crises in the past. What makes Bulgaria different? Arguably, European silence on the matter stems from the relationship of Bulgaria’s Prime Minister, Boyko Borissov, with Berlin and the European Commission. This raises the question of whether the livelihoods of Bulgarian citizens are being compromised for the benefit of the unelected European bureaucracy, which in turn points to a larger failure in the European Union system: it cannot intervene because it has been built on Machiavellian principles, made to prioritise the needs of certain powerful members (most commonly Brussels and Berlin) over others.

Crisis Management 

Another important aspect of the bloc’s democratic failures is its collective crisis management, which has been put to test by the pandemic. Despite having a comprehensive health strategy created to complement national policies, the EU failed to assist its member countries when they were in dire need of solidarity and coordination. This, along with a gross lack of preventive measures, resulted in a reversion to nationalistic policies: countries prioritised their own interests by imposing individualistic restrictions to movement and exports (Woods et al, 2020), which even now continues to pose challenges to the EU ideal of unity and the functionality of its institutional machinery.

Discourse on collective crisis management is also applicable to the refugee crisis that has unsurprisingly been exacerbated by the pandemic. Data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reveals that the number of sea arrivals have increased in 2020, primarily because of the combined impact of Covid-19 and war in migrants’ home countries. Additionally, thousands more have been left homeless because of the fires that ravaged the Moria refugee camp in Greece, which highlighted the need for sustainable solutions to overcrowded camps and overburdened nations. The European Commission has tried to address this by creating a new Migrant Pact, which uniquely allows for member nations to ‘sponsor’ a fast-track deportation of migrants that are denied asylum. If the migrants in question are not repatriated within 8 months, it becomes the responsibility of the sponsor country to take them in. While this in itself seems designed to strengthen fences rather than alleviate the struggle of migrants, it is also additionally high-risk for European nations: oftentimes, home countries refuse to take back their citizens, which could prove to be very bureaucratically cumbersome when combined with the time taken to register and screen new migrants. The Pact also fails to specify the penalties that nations would incur if they failed to adhere to it – as they have done in the past – making many question the strength of its enforcement and the positive impact it can have.

With the migration crisis seemingly renewed, supranational defence capabilities diminished, popular protests erupting in countries like Bulgaria and Belarus and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, it seems that the institutional machinery of the EU is falling apart at the seams. Now, in order to revitalise (and reboot) the European Union project, a grassroots-level political and economic transformation is required. Monnet’s principles need to be re-thought and re-interpreted: what is needed is a centralisation of fiscal powers and an unwavering political accountability to European citizens. Given the rise of Euroscepticism and the uncertainties surrounding the pandemic, however, it remains to be seen whether the EU can effectively sway public opinion and salvage its credibility.

The author is a Research Intern at ORF
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