A European Union founding father, Jean Monnet, once claimed, “Crises are the great unifier.” For Europeans that is not proving true today. The very idea of the European Union seems to be falling apart and some are already writing its obituary.
Under the pressures of home-grown terrorism, a massive migrant crisis not seen in Europe since World War 2, crippling sovereign debt, a suddenly assertive Russia redrawing borders and widening divisions among Europeans, a sense of durability appears to be evaporating fast.
A likely referendum this year in Britain on whether to remain part of the EU might see one of the bloc’s richest and most powerful members depart, an exit that would leave the faltering union even further dominated by Berlin and Paris in a bilateral partnership itself under strain and unpopular with smaller European countries.
The prized Schengen system of visa-free travel within much of Europe is being thrown into doubt as a succession of member states take arbitrary action, imposing border checks and throwing up fences as EU plans fail to curb the inflow of migrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa. Last week, European Union leaders edged closer to accepting that the Schengen open-borders area may be suspended for up to two years.
The breakup of the European Union has long been predicted, especially by those opposed to the entire European unification enterprise in the first place. But panicky forecasts are now mounting from Euro-enthusiasts.
Asked last week by the BBC, whether the migrant crisis may spell the end of the European Union in its current form, David Miliband, a former UK foreign minister, was hardly boosterish in response, mustering only a weak, “I think it is premature to talk about the end of the European Union.” But he noted, “Unless there is an effective peace process inside Syria, this really is a crisis without end for Europe.”
Nationalist sentiments on rise
There has been a rapid rise in populist nationalist sentiment, most strongly expressed now in central Europe, where governments in the Visegrad group of countries, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, have been the strongest critics of EU migrant policies and the most defiant when it comes to European Commission plans to distribute asylum-seekers across all 28 member countries.
An EU deal for the relocation of just 160,000 refugees mainly from Italy and Greece unraveled in December due primarily to central European opposition. Only 272 refugees had been relocated by the end of 2015.
As far as central European leaders are concerned, no migrants should be admitted. They argue asylum-seekers will change national cultures and can’t be integrated. They reject multiculturalism. Hungary’s controversial leader Viktor Orban has been the most outspoken, maintaining that Mideast and African migrants threaten his country’s Christian identity.
A new generation of populist nationalist leaders in Central Europe has jumped on the issue of the migrant crisis, using it to push broader Euro-skeptic views. Their resistance to more political integration with the rest of Europe and their defiance of Brussels when it comes to strengthening and centralizing government powers has triggered a series of confrontations with the European Commission and in Poland’s case a rule-of-law investigation by Brussels.
The confrontations have sharpened since November when the nationalist conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) won parliamentary elections in Poland. The new government quickly set about sacking the heads of the security and intelligence services, restricting the powers of the country’s constitutional tribunal, which decides on the legality of legislation, and packing it with adherents.
As in Hungary, the PiS also has rapidly brought state-owned media to heel, installing loyalists to oversee public broadcasters, turning them into government mouthpieces.
The European Commission argues these changes break EU norms of governance and undermine democratic checks and balances. Leftwing and liberal opponents accuse Orban and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the PiS leader, of modeling their actions on Russian leader Vladimir Putin, aiming to replace liberal democracy with “managed democracy.”
Like Orban in Hungary, and other Central European leaders, Kaczynski argues the EU Commission’s insistence on the harmonization of governance amounts to undemocratic rule by EU political elites. All he and others are doing, he argues, is to embrace more “eastern” European values. In short, rebelling against the curtailing of sovereignty and returning it where it should rest: with the nation state.
It is an argument that is resonating elsewhere in Europe and across party lines, from working-class supporters of Britain’s Labor party, middle-class radicals in Italy’s Five Star Movement and traditionalists in conservative parties in Scandinavia.
(Photo: Sébastien Bertrand)