A selection of experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Kris BledowskiDirector of economic studies at the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation
No, the EU’s architecture is not collapsing, but the EU itself is becoming harder to manage. The 2007 Lisbon Treaty was supposed to streamline decisionmaking. Yet the treaty’s amendments—more voting by majority rather than by unanimity, an enfranchised European Parliament, and beefed-up executive powers—have failed to live up to expectations.
In important matters of security, agriculture, and trade, divergent preferences of member states continue to stymie efficient EU-wide resolutions. The unelected European Commission finds itself eclipsed by elected executives in the EU Council who speak for their national constituents. At the same time, the transactional nature of council meetings is not guided by an EU raison d’état. As a result, Washington, Beijing, and Moscow dial phone numbers in Berlin and Paris rather than in Brussels.
Reasonable solutions are hard to come by. A federalist template (a centralized treasury with fiscal transfers alongside a unified military command) would not pass muster with voters. Dialing back the EU’s common currency is a sensible economic idea but a hard political act to follow. Somehow, the EU needs to find a way to shift more decisionmaking to national bodies. Decentralizing the EU will sound to many like a step back from the bloc’s stated aim of “ever closer union,” but it has the advantage of being in voters’ interest.
Caroline de GruyterEuropean affairs correspondent for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad
Yes, the EU’s architecture is collapsing. This is not just a result of the crises Europe has endured since 2008: a slow rot has been setting in since the 1990s.
Before then, the EU did not have many powers. But the ones it did have were strong and clear: on trade and internal-market matters such as competition, the European Commission had extensive powers. Since the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, this picture has become increasingly blurred. Member states have asked the EU to get involved in asylum and immigration policy, foreign policy, and the management of the euro—but they have done so hesitatingly while insisting on keeping national vetoes and severely limiting EU budgets.
As a result, this new part of the EU’s architecture is weak and compromised. If a crisis hits, the EU’s tools are insufficient and the member states and the commission blame each other. When they rush to solidify the structure, they work out new power-sharing arrangements that are even more complicated and tend to favor the member states. Temporary suspensions of the EU’s passport-free Schengen Area, a eurozone rescue fund based on national guarantees, and an unstable banking union are just three examples.
The bad news is that the rot is now reaching those parts of the EU’s architecture that were once solid and strong. Trade policy is being renationalized, while competition decisions are contested by the capitals. The question is: How much of the EU’s architecture can remain standing?
Thanos DokosDirector general of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP)
Even die-hard Euro-optimists are more concerned than ever about Europe’s future. The election of Donald Trump as U.S. president has increased the considerable uncertainty caused by the economic crisis in Europe’s South, the increasing appeal of populist and far-right political parties across Europe, Britain’s vote to leave the EU, Italy’s rejection of constitutional reforms (rekindling deeper European fears about the Italian economy), and the upcoming French presidential election—in combination with the sluggish growth of the eurozone economies.
Even Europe’s formerly undisputed success stories of the euro and the Schengen passport-free zone are being questioned by Euroskeptics, and the EU looks increasingly unable to export stability to its Eastern and Southern neighborhoods. There is a spreading perception of inevitable decline and marginalization among both the EU’s citizens and its peers at the international level.
The EU’s cohesion is at stake, and the union needs to regain its momentum. More Europe is not the answer at this stage, but citizens would welcome better Europe. The EU may undertake new initiatives on defense and internal security, and social cohesion should become a priority, but at the end of the day, “it’s the economy, stupid.” Everybody needs to do their homework, but the faster Germany moves away from its stubborn austerity policies, the easier it will be to maintain the EU as a meaningful entity.
Martin EhlJournalist at the Czech daily Hospodářské noviny
Yes. The European glue that consisted of war-free memories, growing prosperity, mutual respect, and solidarity in all areas of integration is dissolving. What is more, there are striking differences between the West and East of the EU.
The global financial crisis has shown that economically, the euro is not viable. In the West, today’s young generation will not necessarily live better than the previous generation, a trend that is unprecedented in the post–World War II period. In the East, state institutions are not functioning properly, while reforms required as part of EU membership have failed or have not been completed.
Then there is the migration-security nexus. The Russian threat is perceived as less important in the West, whereas for the East it is much more relevant. On immigration, the relative importance is the other way round, but politicians in the East use the issue for political purposes anyway. The EU is seen as unable to cope with both of these challenges, and only nation-states seem capable of reacting adequately, quickly, and decisively.
Unless the average European citizen starts to see and feel a real positive EU impact on the economy and security, the union’s erosion will continue faster and faster.
Agata Gostyńska-JakubowskaResearch fellow at the Centre for European Reform
The EU’s architecture is not collapsing yet, but the European project could well fall apart if political leaders are complacent about the populist surge in Europe.
Populists have had good reason to open the champagne in 2016. The refugee crisis has put EU solidarity to the test. Britain’s decision in June to leave the EU proved that the European project is not irreversible. And to cap it all, the United States elected Donald Trump as president—a man with more affection for Russia’s President Vladimir Putin than for any EU leader. Next year looks equally gloomy, as the Netherlands and France are gearing up for elections that will probably boost opponents of the EU: Geert Wilders of the Dutch Party for Freedom and Marine Le Pen of the French National Front.
And yet, mainstream politicians act as if they don’t realize that this populist backlash poses an existential threat not only to the EU but also to the international security order. Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister, argued that Trump’s victory would be good for Europe and for Hungary. Elsewhere in the EU, mainstream leaders have refused to confront populists and address problems that fueled bigotry in the first place. Instead, they have often copied populist arguments to lure voters back. But this will not make the problem of populism go away. On the contrary, it could be yet another nail in the coffin of the EU.
Toomas Hendrik IlvesFormer president of Estonia
Architecture doesn’t collapse, edifices do, either from faulty design, poor maintenance, or seismic events. After more than half a century of success, Europe enjoys a solid architecture—institutions and laws—that no longer seems to match the will or abilities of those charged to maintain them as Europeans scramble against seismic upsets.
Seventy-five years have erased Europeans memories of war and the reasons for creating the institutions of the EU. War, nationalism, racism, xenophobia, intolerance, disdain for democracy, and amnesia of what prewar tendencies led to have returned; the EU is instead a punching bag for its success in overcoming these horrors.
With few exceptions, European leaders fear taking bold steps to deal with crises. In 1945–1947, the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration spent billions of euros to deal with Europe’s postwar refugee crisis. Now rich, EU member states proffer a few cents and take a NIMBY attitude to the migration issue.
While Europe’s leaders and intelligence agencies fret about Russian hacking and fake news influencing upcoming elections, as seen in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the EU still maintains only a small staff to put out semiweekly reports on fake news.
It’s not the architecture that’s crumbling, it’s the will that’s lacking.
Gianni RiottaMember of the Council on Foreign Relations
The architecture in Fatehpur Sikri, once the capital of the Mogul Empire, is still wonderful, yet the city itself is a fascinating ghost town. Lamanai, in northern Belize, was once a bustling Mayan metropolis; now, the ancient ruins attracts only tourists. Is this the fate of Europe—admirable architecture but deserted institutions? I hope not, but 2016 was the high-water mark for the EU.
Britain’s vote to exit the EU and the waning of French and Italian pro-EU feelings left German Chancellor Angela Merkel trying to steer Europe’s starchy Northern Austerity Party and restless Eastern Populist Party toward a more elusive consensus. Faced with an aggressive, wily Russian President Vladimir Putin from the east and an isolationist, unpredictable U.S. President-elect Trump from the west, Europe is surrounded and seems stuck and impotent. Domestic public opinion is more and more fidgety, Italian banks are problematic, and upcoming elections in France, Germany, and likely Italy add to instability and concern.
The EU’s architecture was not perfect to begin with, yet the real trouble today recalls the long-lost fates of Fatehpur Sikri and Lamanai: the stones are still there, but the people left centuries ago.
Adriaan SchoutSenior research fellow and coordinator for Europe at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations “Clingendael”
The eurozone is not collapsing. Many members have flirted with leaving the single currency, but exits are not on the agenda for now. After all, few countries really want to leave the internal market, and quitting the eurozone is highly risky.
Yet the eurozone’s survival may not be all good news. The competitiveness of the single currency area, and of the EU, is falling steadily. Over the past ten years, the eurozone has lost much of its competitiveness, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF). If the EU wants to be a strong geopolitical bloc, it is vital for its economy to thrive, because geopolitical power depends on economic power.
Equally worrying is the fact that the eurozone is not converging but diverging. France ranked 21 out of 138 countries in the WEF’s Global Competitiveness Report 2016–2017, whereas the Netherlands and Germany were at fourth and fifth place respectively. Increasing divergence makes the euro’s survival costly. This, combined with the overall drop in competitiveness, implies that the euro does little to help the geopolitical strength of the EU. The eurozone’s core problem is not a lack of economic governance but insufficient reforms in France and other countries. The euro will stay, but the geopolitical costs of the single currency are mounting.
Pierre VimontSenior fellow at Carnegie Europe
The EU is to a large extent immune to breakdowns. The long series of crises the union has recently faced seems to indicate it has invented a system that is largely free from collapse and remarkably resilient.
This survival instinct should be seen as an asset. Yet one may wonder if this capacity to resist has become a weakness at a time when a significant change in the EU’s architecture looks increasingly necessary. Deep divisions between member states on the nature, missions, and territorial limits of their partnership are more visible than ever. On recent topics like migration, external trade, and the free flow of workers, solutions have been more difficult to shape as national interests diverge. The need for more flexibility is apparent, but the provisions foreseen in the treaties for precisely that aim are already deemed unfit without having even been tried.
Fundamental thinking on a possible revision of the EU’s overall organization and institutional framework is therefore urgently required. Yet member states are pushing back for fear of stirring up political unrest that would get out of hand. The major challenge for the EU in the coming years is how to open a public debate on its architecture without losing control.