Thursday

27th Jun 2019

Opinion

The EU in Limbo

  • The battle cry "less Europe" is unlikely to win supporters in Brussels, but it could be the best way forward (Photo: European Parliament)

“They say there’s enough religion in the world to make men hate each other, but not enough to make them love,” says Louis Cyphre, the devilish character played by Robert de Niro in the 1987 thriller Angel Heart.

Substitute “religion” with “EU” and you get to the heart of the predicament the European Union faces.

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  • Jean-Claude Juncker wants the EU to be “big on big things and small on small things". (Photo: European Commission)

The EU interferes just enough in national affairs to make large numbers of Europeans loathe it and not enough to make its supporters love it. So it remains stuck in limbo, trapped in a political no-man’s land between a traditional nation state and a supercharged international organisation.

It lacks the power to do most of the things states do – tax its citizens, control its borders, protect its people from attack – but it intervenes enough in its members’ affairs to make it an easy scapegoat for those fearing the erosion of sovereignty.

The result is a Union that is failing to meet the goals it sets itself and the expectations most Europeans have of it.

Unemployment levels are stratospheric, growth is anaemic and the euro often centimes short of collapsing. Its migration policy is immoral, mean-spirited and shambolic. And it possesses neither the soft power to persuade countries like Turkey to stop its slide towards despotism nor the hard power to confront bullies like Russia.

A glorified think-tank

If the EU had limited aims, like Nafta or the WTO, none of this would matter. But the Union has such lofty ambitions coupled with such puny resources that it is almost predestined for failure.

Take growth and jobs. Creating more of both has been the EU’s central goal for most of the last decade. It has failed – not because the prescriptions doled out at every EU summit are wrong, but because it has no way of funding or enforcing them.

With a budget of 1% of the total GDP of the 28-member bloc and little control over states’ employment policy, levels of taxation or social security spending, the EU is in danger of becoming little more than a glorified think-tank when it comes to implementing the sort of changes that Europe so desperately needs.

So whether Europe grows and creates jobs has little to do with the EU and everything to do with the policies pursued by its member states. Likewise, whether Egypt becomes more democratic or Russia less bellicose has almost nothing to do with what EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini thinks.

Far from being “big on big things and small on small things”, as European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker promised at the start of his mandate, the EU is in danger of being the opposite – hyperactive on issues that matter little to people and invisible on those they care most about.

Three options

So what can be done to save the Union? There are basically three options, none of them particularly palatable.

Firstly, the EU can muddle on as it is doing now. For all the reasons mentioned above, nobody thinks this is a good idea. Not even the British. "If it’s broke, don’t fix it" is hardly the most mature response to the existential crisis the EU currently finds itself in.

The second option is for the EU to evolve into a sort of United States of Europe with a common budget, government, army and tax-raising powers. This seems to be the preferred option among the dwindling army of federalists in Brussels and in the original six founding members of the Union – whose foreign ministers met in Rome last month to discuss ways of intensifying bonds within their club.

Further integration is the most logical option. It would save both the euro and Schengen – at least momentarily – and would put an end to the buck-passing of responsibility for Europe’s failures that currently takes place between Brussels and national capitals.

The big problem is that many EU states and most European people do not want further integration. They want control of their own borders and economic policies. They don’t want to be told to take more refugees against their will. And they resent the fact that Brussels now decides national budgets not elected politicians in their own countries.

So pursuing ever closer union, while attractive, is fraught with risks. It would make the EU more cohesive but almost certainly less popular.

It might save the euro but the cost would be a nativist revolt against the loss of sovereignty this requires – a populist rebellion well under way in states from Greece to Slovakia to Finland.

Finally, it risks splintering the EU even further into a hard-core of countries willing to embark on a political union – roughly the founding six and a handful of other eurozone stragglers – and a group of northern and central European states that would keep their national currencies but still be part of the free trade area.

This would no longer be a European Union but two radically different European clubs with radically different aims and policies.

Less Europe

The third option, which few have advocated because it would entail a massive climbdown for the Union, would be for EU states to confess that the euro has not brought jobs, growth or stability to Europe and that further integration has resulted in greater disillusionment with the EU.

Abandoning the euro and allowing states to pursue the social and economic policies voted for by their electorates would free many states from the straitjacket they see imposed on them by Brussels.

Likewise, overhauling the EU budget to foster cross-border cooperation rather than prop up farmers or promote pork projects in poorer states and regions would be more in keeping with the original aims of the Union.

“Less Europe” might not be a popular cry in the corridors of Brussels. But focusing on the core goals of the Union – removing barriers to trade, stopping cross-border threats like air pollution, terrorism and people-smuggling, and removing transport and energy bottlenecks between borders – might be the best way to retain some Europe.

Having more EU is the surest way to no Europe.

Gareth Harding is Managing Director of Clear Europe, a communications company. He also runs the Missouri School of Journalism's Brussels Programme. Follow him on Twitter @garethharding.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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