This has been a very bad year for the European Union. Until recently, you could have put the EU in that elite category reserved for too-big-to-fail institutions. But not anymore. In the simplest terms, Europe’s long-held ambition to unify like-minded democracies is failing.
Only a few months ago the EU’s standoff with Greece counted among the worst crises to befall the union since its earliest postwar days. Now it faces a British crisis, a migration crisis, and an emerging Turkish crisis.
All three took turns for the worse in a matter of days last week.
We had a glimpse of things to come during those critical moments in Greece last summer. Who wasn’t stunned as Brussels and Berlin effectively told Greek voters that economic reforms demanded by unelected technocrats in Brussels mattered more than the democratic process in a member state?
What those events suggested is now the emerging reality. The EU as an institution isn’t going anywhere—huge bureaucracies rarely do—but the admirable ideals are drying up, and the architecture of unity is starting to crumble.
Will the EU become the institutional equivalent of Mt. Everest in years to come—it’s there “because it’s there?” Depressing thought, but maybe. “The EU has become a sham,” Simon Jenkins, a British columnist wrote over the weekend in The Guardian.
Indeed, if 2015 is any guide, the EU may eventually endure because (1) too many people make a living by it, (2) the failure of Europe’s loftiest ambitions is simply too painful to acknowledge, and (3) its place in the Western alliance’s strategic thinking has always been at least as important as its founding principles.
This may seem an odd time to ring somber bells for the great European experiment. On Saturday, the Greek parliament voted—by a narrow margin, it must be said—to accept the European Union’s controversial package of austerity reforms. A third bailout, worth $98 billion, will now go ahead, and the crisis that has long plagued the EU begins to recede.
Think again, if this is your view. First, given the months of strong-arming and intimidation that led to Greece’s legislative assent, the EU’s “success” needs the quotation marks if you happen to think democratic procedure is a good idea.
British Prime Minister David Cameron promised a list of demands Brussels must meet to avoid “Brexit”—Britain’s withdrawal from the union.
Beyond Greece, problems of comparable magnitude worsen elsewhere. Here are three pressing on the EU now:
• After stonewalling the rest of the EU for months, British Prime Minister David Cameron promised last Thursday to present a list of demands Brussels must meet to avoid “Brexit”—Britain’s withdrawal from the union.
This list is due in a few weeks in anticipation of a potentially decisive summit in December. Cameron promises a national referendum on the membership question by the end of 2017, and there’s talk in London now that he could call it as early as next September.
As the in-or-out campaigning begins among Britons, it doesn’t look good for Cameron. The Conservatives big win in elections earlier this year empowered extreme-right Tories and other Euroskeptics. The prime minister’s now squeezed between them and European leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The Financial Times reported over the weekend that Cameron’s November list is unlikely to include three demands his Tea Party equivalents say are essential. These all return sovereignty to Britain on questions such as trade and in-migration, and Merkel has already declared them beyond negotiation.
Best outcome: After at least a year of noisy, intensifying political strain Britain remains an EU member but on altered terms—potentially setting a troublesome precedent. Worst: The EU loses its most influential member.
• After a vigorous struggle toward a common policy on refugees and migrants from the Middle East and North Africa, the flood of arrivals this year has tested the EU’s concept of unity and found it weak. This is especially critical among newer members on the EU’s eastern flank, notably Hungary.
On Sunday, Brussels said that next March it would propose a plan to resettle 200,000 migrants via a union-wide scheme. Fine, but in good news lies bad: This is seriously out of whack with the volume of arrivals, which by the official count alone now number nearly half a million.
As if reaching for ironic effect, Hungary simultaneously reimposed controls on its border with Slovenia —having closed all crossings from Croatia last Friday. One of the ornaments of European unity, the system of open borders established by the Schengen Convention, is effectively reversed. (Hungary and Slovenia are Schengen signatories; Croatia isn’t.)
Either the EU has just been landed with a highly visible disciplinary case or it declares Hungary an administrative exception—and risks turning Schengen into a house of cards. What good is “unity,” you have to ask, if it evaporates when challenged.
• Turkey’s cooperation in managing the migrant crisis is key, but the price exacted by Recip Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s authoritarian prime minister, is getting too steep. Broadly speaking, Erdoğan demands that the EU reinvigorate long-running but inconclusive talks on Turkish membership.
“Germany is ready,” Merkel declared after talks with Erdoğan in Istanbul on Sunday. Nothing could be less appropriate in view of Erdoğan’s nasty record of political abuses.
Last week, EU member states offered an aid package worth $3.4 billion to help stem the flow of refugees from Syria and manage 2.5 million who have already arrived. Now Brussels is weighing whether to grant Turks automatic visa status under Schengen rules, the FT reports.
Actually, this is less appropriate: Brussels has just decided to quash a report critical of Erdoğan’s free-speech record, according to an FT report, until after Turkey holds elections in November. This favors Erdoğan who has just turned his country into another sectarian battleground on the edge of the Middle East’s chaos as he fights for his political survival.
Supporting temporarily useful authoritarian despots—has the EU come to this? It was never what the European project was supposed to be about. And it serves the union’s core cause—if it still matters—badly.