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20th Aug 2018

Magazine

EU in 2016: Reports of death exaggerated?

  • Tusk: 'Without control of our external borders, Schengen will become history' (Photo: The Council of the European Union)

Some pundits began writing EU obituaries already in 2009. They said the sovereign debt crisis would kill the euro, destroy public trust in EU institutions, and catapult far-right and far-left parties into power.

Seven bailouts later, a trillion-euro money-printing scheme by the European Central Bank, new regulatory powers for the European Commission, and the bloc is on course for modest growth in 2016.

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  • Dutch EU commissioner, Frans Timmermans, spoke of a "cascade effect," which starts with Schengen lockdowns, leads to paralysis of "every aspect of European integration," and ends in EU collapse as sudden as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. (Photo: European Commission)

But Greek finances are still a mess, public trust is low, and radical parties are growing stronger in France, Germany, Portugal, and Spain.

New obituaries came in 2014, also for Nato, when Russia invaded Ukraine, threatening an east-west rupture on how to react. The EU and US stuck together on Russia sanctions. EU states will extend them in January. Nato, in a show of strength, is to take in Montenegro, possibly at its Warsaw summit in July, and Russia, newly bogged down in Syria, has frozen Ukraine hostilities.

But Russia is still cultivating an EU fifth column. Its troops are still in Ukraine and the war could reignite at any moment, bringing the old fears back.

2015 obituaries

The 2015 obituaries carried more weight.

EU Council chief Donald Tusk said the refugee crisis could destroy Schengen, the EU's free movement zone. The European Commission chief, Jean-Claude Juncker, said the single market and the euro "don't make sense" without it. German leader Angela Merkel said the crisis could unravel the EU and provoke "military conflicts" in the Western Balkans.

The Dutch EU commissioner, Frans Timmermans, spoke of a "cascade effect," which starts with Schengen lockdowns, leads to paralysis of "every aspect of European integration," and ends in EU collapse as sudden as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

EU states will, next year, try to seal Greek borders, pay Turkey to keep refugees in place, and go further on refugee-sharing.

They're expanding Frontex, the EU borders agency, and posting hundreds of Frontex officers to the Greek-Macedonia boundary. They're expanding Europol, the joint police agency.

They're paying Turkey €3 billion, tranche by tranche, to take care of migrants at home. They're also preparing to open more accession chapters, if Turkey-Cyprus talks go well, and to grant visa-free travel by October.

Turkey has warned refugees will keep coming until the Syria war ends, however.

France, Germany, and the UK are joining the US in bombing Islamic State (IS). But with Russia bombing Western-backed rebels, prospects for peace look bleak.

Security cooperation

The IS murders in Paris in November show the cost of failure.

When Dutch PM Mark Rutte, who takes over the EU presidency in January, outlined priorities, he spoke of deeper EU security cooperation. But he said he "can't guarantee" to stop more Paris-type attacks.

The Islamist terror threat is grist to the mill of populist leaders, for instance, in Hungary and Poland, which oppose refugee sharing.

The Visegrad bloc in central Europe is trying to tear down Juncker's scheme to relocate 160,000 people. The scene is set for a battle in March, with Juncker to propose "permanent" sharing rules and an overhaul of "Dublin" asylum laws.

Recalling Timmermans "cascade," Austria, Denmark, Germany, Slovenia, and Sweden have reimposed Schengen borders. Luxembourg has proposed a two-year Schengen lockdown. The Netherlands has floated the idea of a "mini-Schengen," and Germany has created a core group of pro-refugee states.

The fragmentation goes even deeper, with Merkel's coalition also split on migrants.

British referendum

It's not a good time to hold the British In/Out referendum.

British PM David Cameron wants to do it in June, but talks on EU reform are slow. If he does it in autumn, it coincides with the peak season for refugee arrivals, fuelling the Out camp.

He can't do it in 2017 because it would clash with French and German elections. One of his demands is to protect non-euro states from ever-deeper eurozone integration - another EU fault line.

The big issues make Juncker's legislative agenda look small.

To-do items include getting EU states to agree burden-sharing on CO2 cuts and concluding a free-trade pact with the US.

Other items include: creating pan-EU bank deposit guarantees; halting corporate tax avoidance; creating a digital single market and an energy union; creating a "circular economy" to cut waste; helping EU workers move from state to state; and launching a "mandatory" lobbyist register.

When Mark Twain, the US writer, once read his own obituary, he said: "Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated."

EU officials are fond of the cliche that "every crisis is an opportunity." They say that doing the small things right helps fix the big problems.

For his part, Steven Blockmans, a Belgian scholar of EU affairs, also says doomsday predictions are tools of political pressure.

He took issue with Timmermans' Berlin Wall analogy, noting that the EU isn't a Soviet-type bloc held together by force. It's an alliance of willing participants, with a history of compromise for the sake of joint prosperity and security.

The next 12 months will show who's guilty of exaggeration.

This story was originally published in EUobserver's 2015 Europe in Review Magazine.

Click here to read previous editions of Europe in Review magazines.

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