by Judah Grunstein
October 12, 2016

from WPR Website

Google's cache PDF version


Migrants and refugees

walk toward the Serbian border with Hungary near Batajnica,

Serbia, Oct. 4, 2016

(AP photo by Darko Vojinovic).


Nero famously fiddled while Rome burned.


When it comes to the European Union, its leaders don't even bother to treat us to music.


Confronted with multiple crises on fronts both external and domestic, they seem content to drift nonchalantly toward the abyss. The question is not so much whether the EU as we know it will survive; it is already irrevocably altered by Brexit.


The question is whether the ideals that the union has historically championed will continue to have any relevance in today's political landscape in Europe and the world.

The list of Europe's many crises is well known, from the lingering effects of the financial crisis and its debt crisis offspring, to the ongoing refugee and migrant crisis. Over the past five years, the economic stress from the former began to feed the rise of far-right parties across Europe.


The bite of economic contraction in the affected countries, and austerity-driven stagnation across the continent, stripped the EU of its protective mantle.


Economic and political union no longer strengthened European economies and cushioned its people from the shocks of the global system, but rather exposed them to its vicissitudes.


Worse still, the very demands of the EU's central policy driver, Germany, delivered the sharpest blows, in the form of harsh austerity that in several countries condemned large parts of a generation to socio-economic marginalization.

The far right's initial up-swell was fed by the subsequent migrant crisis, which distilled all of its supporters' greatest fears and anxieties into an easily marketable image: the foreign "other" introducing the world's misery and violence into Europe's midst.


The sense of economic and social vulnerability that the financial crisis had awakened was now incarnated in the wave of migrants literally overrunning Europe's shores and frontiers. That the refugee crisis coincided - and in some cases overlapped - with the worst terrorist attacks Europe has seen in decades only exacerbated the effect.

In both cases, the EU was institutionally unequipped to respond to the causes of the crisis.


This was in part due to the hubris of its founders, who assumed that economic integration would irreversibly lead to the centripetal pull of closer political integration. Future generations would have no choice but to build out the union's incomplete and haphazard institutional structure, which was clearly insufficient to deal with foreseeable economic contingencies that many critics had been warning about for years.


These contingencies ultimately materialized, albeit in exponential proportions, in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

But it was also due in large part to the nature of European decision-making. Horse-trading is the rule, and brinkmanship the best way to press for advantage.


After a succession of make-or-break summits, each one purportedly the last chance to head off certain calamity, the EU managed to cobble together an ad hoc backstop for its most fragile member states, as well as a mechanism for forestalling future banking crises.


Neither is considered robust enough to withstand the full force of global markets, however, and it was only the European Central Bank's decision to sidestep its by-laws and guarantee state solvency that eventually walked the EU back from the financial cliff.

The biggest danger still comes from within:

the reflex among voters across Europe to turn their backs on the EU and seek the protection it failed to deliver within the comfort - if not the safety - of their own borders.

The migrant crisis has been an even greater fiasco.

  • For almost a decade, Italy has been shouldering the burden of cross-Mediterranean migration almost single-handedly, with the EU's oft-cited solidarity in short supply.


  • The union's ability to effectively protect its frontiers - the key to its cherished ideal of open internal borders - was clearly and visibly in need of shoring up.


  • Moreover, the rise of the far right in France, the Netherlands and the Nordic countries had already demonstrated the heightened political stakes of uncontrolled migration.

The influx of refugees displaced by war in Syria was not unforeseeable, as millions had already fled to neighboring countries.


When they did finally turn to Europe, the union's ability to manage their arrival on its shores was quickly overwhelmed. This was far from a foregone conclusion, though. The relative numbers of refugees and migrants remain small compared to Europe's population.


And while member states' ability to shelter them and process their asylum claims is clearly insufficient, there is nothing about the crisis that is beyond the EU's collective capabilities.

Instead, the union has been reduced to essentially buying off the countries of origin, many of them in the grips of authoritarian, repressive and corrupt regimes, with financial aid in return for stemming the outflow at its source.


For the EU, which before the debt crisis prided itself on the attractiveness of its model and its soft power leverage as a norms exporter, the fall is particularly damning.

It also highlights the EU's propensity to punch below its weight in global affairs, particularly in the Mediterranean and Africa, where it has the greatest interest in supporting security and stability and shaping good policy and governance.


For years France has pressured its European partners to contribute more in the way of security assistance to the Sahel and sub-Saharan African countries most at risk, with little more than token training missions to show for it.


As for Syria and the broader Middle East, while the EU and its three permanent members of the U.N. Security Council played a vital role in negotiating the nuclear agreement with Iran, they have otherwise been almost nonexistent in efforts to stabilize the region after the upheaval of the Arab uprisings.

The most recent proposals put forward by the European Commission and EU leaders council, ranging from business-friendly measures to an enhanced border agency and defense cooperation, amount to window dressing, especially in the context of the Brexit vote.


None responds to the urgency of the challenges the union faces, and none will be felt directly by the European voters who most need reassuring - and convincing of the union's continued relevance to their daily lives.

Worse still, the political calendar is now set to lock in a period of policy paralysis that ensures that the roots of the current crises will go unaddressed.

  • French President Francois Hollande, whose approval ratings are at historic lows, is a lame duck until next April's presidential election.


  • Italian Premier Matteo Renzi has staked his government on a referendum over political reforms scheduled for December that he is far from certain to win.


  • German Chancellor Angela Merkel's popularity has taken a severe hit from her courageous but ultimately impulsive and poorly thought-out decision to open Germany's borders to refugees, putting her own political future at risk.


  • And Spain faces the possibility of yet another election after two inconclusive polls have left it without a government since December 2015.

The most tragic part of the entire story is how avoidable it all was.


With competent and bold leadership, the EU could have headed off the worst of both crises buffeting it today, and addressed the fallout from what did end up hitting it.


The biggest danger still comes from within:

the reflex among voters across Europe to turn their backs on the EU and seek the protection it failed to deliver within the comfort - if not the safety - of their own borders.

This would be a mistake, since all of the challenges Europe currently faces have their origins in a tightly connected and interwoven world, and can be effectively met only through the power and leverage that comes from union.


If the EU did not exist, in fact, it would have to be invented.


That remains its best hope for survival...