Now the EU’s deepening anxieties should re-ignite the drive for reform

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

A strange mood grips Brussels; the shock of the 22nd March bombings is still almost tangible, but there’s also a pervasive sense of anxiety over Europe’s wider future. Added to the security fears raised by the Daesh attacks on Paris and Brussels, there is the looming threat of another summer of uncontrollable immigration from Syria and elsewhere that will swamp the EU’s deal with Turkey.

These are just the most immediate and obvious difficulties assailing Europe. Just as worrying are the warning signs of another financial crisis comparable to that of 2008 that could re-ignite the eurozone crisis and cast fresh doubts over the long-term viability of the EU’s single currency.

When the Bank for International Settlements – the ‘club’ of the world’s top central banks – warns of a global downturn, and the IMF calls for tough reforms to kick-start economies out of the doldrums, the alarm bells begin to sound loudly.

Inter-governmental solidarity is fraying badly

And that’s why the mood in Brussels’ European Quarter is every bit as sombre as in the rest of Belgium. EU officials and others are beginning to ask themselves whether the European project is still as irreversible as before.

Two or three years ago, this question would have seemed absurd. Although the ‘Great Recession’ that began with the financial crisis on Wall Street in 2007 triggered the eurozone crisis, there was a general consensus that the following seven difficult years would have been disastrous for jobs and living standards had it not been for the structures and disciplines of the EU.

But the stresses and strains of those years have taken their toll. Now it is precisely those EU rules and institutions that are coming under fire. The solidarity between its members that won worldwide admiration as the greatest political experiment in history is being eroded.

The refugee and migrant crisis touches raw nerves of public opinion in ways that the EU’s technical dossiers never have, and inter-governmental solidarity is fraying badly. The aftershocks of the sovereign debt crisis and subsequent austerity policies have also created deep divisions over the appropriate economic policy responses.

And this is where the question of the reversibility or otherwise of EU integration comes to the fore. For decades, Europe’s national governments have inched forward by combining major strategies like the single market, the euro and the massive ‘Big Bang’ enlargement eastwards with no more than timid tinkerings with the EU’s institutional arrangements.

Public support for the EU amongst Europe’s citizens is in free fall

Europe has for 20 years side-stepped the big questions over its political make up. The European Convention in the mid-1990s failed to produce an acceptable EU constitution, so ambitious ideas for centralised EU governance went on the backburner. But that was when the EU sailed in calmer waters. Today the risk is that EU governments’ preference for muddling through may result in the whole European project sliding backwards, and probably at an accelerating speed.

Better eurozone governance and the balancing of non-eurozone countries’ interests are among a growing number of unresolved issues. They also include the UK’s ‘Brexit’ threat and the need for a much more collective response to the Ukraine and Mediterranean security challenges that call into question the worth and usefulness of the EU.

So should Europe’s decision-makers pluck up the courage to meet trouble head-on by overhauling the EU itself? If the opinion polls are to be trusted, public support for the EU amongst Europe’s citizens is in free fall, but might perhaps be reversed if the EU policy elite showed signs of listening and reacting positively. Then, at least, Europe would be seen to have a plan for going forward once again.

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