Whatever the depth of the European project’s 'crisis,' it is a 'dual’ phenomenon, one internal, and the other external. The EU project – its size, its mechanisms, and the values on which it is based – is challenged from within in a number of different ways. It is also challenged directly from third countries, some being traditional allies of the European Union, others its rivals. The consequence is that the EU foreign policy now needs to take into account new parameters, including hostility, reduced attractiveness/leverage with neighbouring countries, hesitations from its own foreign policy ranks, and even fundamental doubts from within. But the mid- and long-term remedy lies in more Europe, not less, and in a renewed reliance on and defence of European values. EU-style democracy may no longer be a given and therefore needs to be defended against hostile political actors from within and from abroad. This is a new existential endeavour for the EU institutions.
The Crisis of the European Project Is First and Foremost an Internal One
Trying to rank the EU’s internal problems by increasing degree of seriousness, I would list Brexit, a dysfunctional post-Lisbon Treaty foreign policy mechanism, the rise in migration movements, the rise of populism in Central Europe and other countries, and a serious challenge to basic European values. Each of these issues has an external dimension. Brexit is certainly an element of the current crisis. Despite being the result of a hugely miscalculated gamble on the part of the British conservative leadership, Brexit will be implemented and may be resolved in the foreseen timetable. From a foreign and security policy perspective, the sooner Brexit is implemented, the better, as it will remove a crippling uncertainty. Once the United Kingdom is out of the EU, the remaining 27 member countries will undoubtedly weigh less on the world stage diplomatically, economically and militarily. The loss will be particularly perceptible in the field of military operations outside the EU, although joint force projection may still be a possibility depending on future arrangements. The capacity and geographical scope of the British Foreign Service will also be missed.
The EU foreign policy mechanisms created by the Lisbon Treaty are also in themselves part of the crisis. Despite all the good words and intentions concerning a Common Foreign and Security Policy and the hard work of two successive High Representatives and the European External Action Service staff, the reality is that the EU’s foreign policy has increasingly been crafted at Heads of State and Government level (the European Council), essentially by the larger Member States, and often in crisis mode. In itself, the EU’s foreign policy machinery does work, but its work is largely made of routine operations (statements, demarches, coordination at high-officials level, local concertation between ambassadors) while the real policy initiatives are taken by individual Heads of State and Government after, at best, direct consultation between a few of them.
On a number of recent occasions, there was no involvement of the EU institutions concerned (European External Action Service, European Commission, European Parliament) prior to fresh policy moves. Recent French initiatives on Libya, on the Syrian Kurds, or on a Syrian peace process poststrikes are cases in point, which are part of the longstanding Gaullian attitude in France’s diplomacy. The notable absence of the EU from the diplomatic aspects of the Syrian crisis (except for two conferences held in Brussels in 2017 and 2018) is particularly illustrative of the current situation. It results from the unwillingness of the most influential Member States to involve EU institutions in efforts to influence the resolution of the Syrian crisis, with the exception of the more technical aspects (humanitarian assistance, trade sanctions). In the EU foreign policy field, doing “more together to build diplomatic muscle” remains a challenge.
Populism and extreme right parties are on the rise in the European Union: Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria, Italy, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany are the most striking examples. In most cases, this phenomenon has developed as a rejection of the EU integration drive and as a defence of national interests over collective European interests. Populist parties have fully exploited the migration crisis of 2015 in two directions: rejecting the ‘other’ as a threat to national (and often Christian) identity, and criticizing the lack of EU efficiency in securing borders and providing security. Ironically, the movement is stronger in the Central European countries of the Visegrad Group (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary) which have been the biggest recipients of both political and financial support during the post-communist transition. There is undoubtedly a recession in European democracy, although a period of renewal may follow. More generally, there is a vast reshaping of European political forces, one in which movements more than traditional parties are increasingly important, including in countries like France where the extreme right was defeated in the 2017 elections.
European values are contested by major political players, including several political parties sitting in government and by prime ministers sitting around the European Council table. In some cases, parties contesting EU values are not in government but they have enough political leverage to influence governments. Different concepts, different historical backgrounds may provide part of the explanation, but overall it is a hugely disquieting moment in European history, especially considering the roots and history of the European project since 1950. The recent victory of Prime Minister Viktor Orban – and notably his capacity to reform the country’s constitution in a legal way thanks to the super-majority won by his Fidesz Party – will probably drastically change Hungary’s political landscape, with much less room for a vibrant civil society, academic freedoms and media independence. The surge in movements of refugee and migrants in 2015, under the influence of the war in Syria and activities of human trafficking networks produced such a political shock in many EU countries that it weakened the European project and triggered a massive increase in xenophobic and rejectionist attitudes in the EU. As Carnegie Europe’s Stefan Lehne asks: “Why has the 2015 influx of 1.4 million refugees had such a lasting, traumatic impact on the collective European psyche?” There were many factors that triggered mass population movements: the Syrian war, insecurity in Afghanistan, Eritrea or Sudan, as well as poverty in many parts of Africa. Moreover, the lack of controls in Turkey (at least initially) and the influence and agility of trafficking networks were determining factors in the massive migration phenomenon of 2015. On the EU side, fears of terrorism being associated with refugee flows (although largely unsubstantiated), deep divisions between Member States on asylum policies, misgivings about the Schengen Treaty, and difficult reforms in the area of border controls and the coast guard made the EU response slow and difficult to agree upon.