24th Jul 2021


These are the crunch issues for the 2019-2024 EU commission

Audiences should always be cautious when think tankers claim that it's crunch time.

Crunch time has often been announced, following the time-tested rule that a think tanker can never really lose money by selling doom and gloom or by over-dramatising the one little idea that happens to be floating around in his head.

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  • Jan Techau is a senior fellow and director of the Europe Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF). (Photo: German Marshall Fund)

The need to sell ideas in a noisy market has created a cry-wolf problem: totally mega-decisive make-or-break turns of events are announced at least twice a week, so no one will listen anymore when one of those moments is actually for real. This is the general mood that seems to prevail in Europe today.

We have had too many crises over the last decade, so please leave us alone with all this talk about the next big super critical thing.

But as we are heading into the next European Commission's five-year term, it's actually true.

There is almost no aspect of how Europe is constituted today that will not put to the test in an extreme way over the next half decade.

Trump II - The Second Term

And this is not just because of a possible second Trump term in office which would fall neatly into this time frame. Most of these developments would happen anyway, regardless of whether Trump stays in the White House or not. Let's have a look at what's at stake.

First, the continent's nuclear balance is out of whack.

After the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty's demise, land-based intermediate range missiles can be legally owned again in Europe.

Russia already has them deployed in Europe, and it is likely to increase its stockpile while the US, the erstwhile balancer of Russian missile threats, has already announced it will not install these kinds of systems in Europe to re-establish parity.

Nato's response has been very cautious, and so a deterrence and credibility problem has emerged for the old West that nobody really seems to be willing to address.

This makes European countries susceptible to Russian nuclear blackmailing.

Nato's underlying idea, that European and American security are one indivisible thing, seems to be out of the window. Strategic uncoupling across the Atlantic has already happened, and nobody except Mr Putin seems to care much.

This will come back to haunt the Europeans. A European nuclear debate will follow, and with it a fundamental debate on the entire security architecture of Europe.

The timid attempts by the Europeans "to do more on defence" via Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD) or a new DG Defence in the commission will look like child's play compared to the strategic questions that will emerge over the next five years.

The combined trends of American disinterest in Europe and China's rather massive investment (Chinese money is political money) in the Old World will undermine what's left of European strategic unity, if there ever was such a thing.

The early signs are visible today.

Macron vs Merkel?

France and Germany are drifting apart on the Russia issue, and the reason for it is China.

President Emmanuel Macron believes that in order to counterbalance China's growing influence, a European rapprochement to Russia is inevitable, a view violently shared by the Kremlin.

While it is certainly true that something needs to be done to counter China's attempts to become a veto player in EU politics, it is not clear that one should choose a partner who himself is only too willing to eat Europe's lunch.

Germany, in the meantime, prefers to stay in its deep strategic snooze, frantically clinging to a status quo that no longer exists.

Berlin seems to be unwilling to think a new geopolitical reality in Europe, let alone pay for a forceful answer to it.

So Paris in its ill-conceived solo dabbling in big-power politics can't even be blamed. The only EU power France could lean on is neither available as a critical balancer, nor as a force multiplier.

The European strategic market is open, and who will own it in the absence of a distracted America or the Europeans themselves will be decided over the next five years.

Add to these bigger strategic concerns a big one on economic governance.

Euro wounded

The EU's partially-shared currency, the euro, remains an open wound that serves more to illustrate European divisions than its unity.

The genius of the currency is that, as foreseen and intended by its founders, it creates the pressure to unify the EU politically. Joint fiscal policies including transfers are inevitable if the euro is ever to function properly.

But Germany and a cadre of northern European allies refuses to even talk about this problem, partially for a lack of trust in their southern European counterparts, partly because of cowardice vis-à-vis their own nervous populations.

As a recession is near, and with ECB monetary policy being a spent force, the incomplete integration project called the euro will pose a fundamental question to the Europeans over the next five years: will they truly want to create political unity where economic integration dictates it, or not?

So far, a good economic run after the 2008 crisis made it possible to dodge the issue. This time is over now.

Migration woes

No smart solution on migration is in sight.

Neither border protection, nor a shared asylum policy, nor a replacement of the Dublin agreement, nor a system for acceptable burden sharing are in place.

The political willingness to move on any of these is limited in Europe, to say the least.

But with the Turkey deal being increasingly wobbly, and demographic trends in both the Middle East and Africa creating additional migratory pressures, this issue is likely to resurface forcefully over the next five years, with all the known consequences for Europe's already hyper-charged domestic tensions.

And to add another spritz of political juice to the already potent mix, international trade, one of the EU's strong sides, is undergoing fundamental change, and the fourth industrial revolution built around super-fast computing, networks and artificial intelligence is, for the most part, bypassing Europe.

These developments will largely determine who will be running the world in the coming decades and perhaps generations. If the Europeans can't find an answer over the five years, they will be toast. And we haven't even mentioned climate change yet.

Finally, to top it all off, let's assume that Europe will get its act together and do all kinds of dramatic reforms to avoid turning crunch time into crush time.

This would likely entail massive political integration in fields that so far remain largely outside of the EU's old integration logic. Foreign policy, defence, the currency, perhaps social Europe.

This would require new forms of participation for EU citizens in European decision-making. It is unthinkable to continue deep integration without also politicising the participatory process, a development that would change the role of nation states in the EU fundamentally.

A big democracy question is looming for the EU, especially if the bloc does what's necessary to survive. One can only imagine the turmoil it will create, in addition to all the other beautiful challenges listed earlier.

Of course, not all of these developments will come to a conclusion over the next five years.

But in all of them the decisive moves will have to be made within that period. It is indeed crunch time in Europe. But you would not know it from they way the public debates unfold.

Author bio

Jan Techau is a senior fellow and director of the Europe Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF).


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


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