, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations,
As nationalism rises, will the European Union fall?
The European Union is dying—not a dramatic or sudden death, but one so slow and steady that we may look across the Atlantic one day soon and realize that the project of European integration that we’ve taken for granted over the past half-century is no more. [LA replies: Yes! Let that day come.]
Europe’s decline is partly economic. The financial crisis has taken a painful toll on many E.U. members, and high national debts and the uncertain health of the continent’s banks may mean more trouble ahead. But these woes pale in comparison with a more serious malady: From London to Berlin to Warsaw, Europe is experiencing a renationalization of political life, with countries clawing back the sovereignty they once willingly sacrificed in pursuit of a collective ideal. [LA replies: Nice choice of words. Sovereignty is a nasty thing that you evilly “claw” at, not a fundamental aspect of political and cultural existence that you rightfully claim.]
For many Europeans, that greater good no longer seems to matter. They wonder what the union is delivering for them, and they ask whether it is worth the trouble. If these trends continue, they could compromise one of the most significant and unlikely accomplishments of the 20th century: an integrated Europe, at peace with itself, seeking to project power as a cohesive whole. The result would be individual nations consigned to geopolitical irrelevance—and a United States bereft of a partner willing or able to shoulder global burdens. [LA replies: It has been the establishment’s assumption all along that the only way the countries of Europe can be relevant on the international stage is by joining together in a monstrous superstate. But is the assumption true? Maybe if the states of Europe had not poured their energies into the spirit-deadening EU project for the last several decades, maybe if they had not given up their sovereignty, liberty, and identity to the EU, they would be more significant than they are. But such a possibility cannot be raised by the likes of Kupchan, because it implies that nationhood is something positive, and once nationhood is seen as something positive, the EU loses its entire rationale. For the EU project to succeed, the nation must be seen as something bad, just as, for homosexual “marriage” to be instituted, the traditional institution of marriage must be seen as something unjust ]
The erosion of support for a unified Europe is infecting even Germany, whose obsession with banishing the national rivalries that long subjected the continent to great-power wars once made it the engine of integration. Berlin’s recent reluctance to rescue Greece during its financial tailspin—Chancellor Angela Merkel resisted the bailout for months—breached the spirit of common welfare that is the hallmark of a collective Europe. Only after the Greek crisis threatened to engulf the euro zone did Merkel override popular opposition and approve the loan. Voters in local elections in North Rhine-Westphalia promptly punished her party, delivering the Christian Democrats their most severe defeat of the postwar era.
Such stinginess reflects the bigger problem: Germany’s pursuit of its national interest is crowding out its enthusiasm for the E.U. In one of the few signs of life in the European project, member states last fall embraced the Lisbon Treaty, endowing the union with a presidential post, a foreign policy czar and a diplomatic service. But then Berlin helped select as the E.U.’s president and foreign policy chief Herman van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton, respectively, low-profile individuals who would not threaten the authority of national leaders. Even Germany’s courts are putting the brakes on the E.U., last year issuing a ruling that strengthened the national Parliament’s sway over European legislation.
This renationalization of politics has been occurring across the E.U. One of the starker signs of trouble came in 2005, when Dutch and French voters rejected a constitutional treaty that would have consolidated the E.U.’s legal and political character.
The Lisbon Treaty, its watered-down successor, was rejected by the Irish in 2008. They changed their minds in 2009, but only after ensuring that the treaty would not jeopardize national control of taxation and military neutrality.
And in Britain, May elections brought to power a coalition dominated by the Conservative Party, which is well known for its Europhobia.
Elsewhere, right-wing populism is on the upswing—a product, primarily, of a backlash against immigration. This hard-edged nationalism aims not only at minorities, but also at the loss of autonomy that accompanies political union. For example, Hungary’s Jobbik Party, which borders on xenophobic, won 47 seats in elections this year—up from none in 2006. Even in the historically tolerant Netherlands, the far-right Party for Freedom recently won more than 15 percent of the vote, giving it just seven fewer seats than the leading party.
If these obstacles to a stable union weren’t sobering enough, in July, the E.U.’s rotating presidency fell to Belgium—a country whose Dutch-speaking Flemish citizens and French-speaking Walloons are so divided that, long after elections in June, a workable governing coalition has yet to emerge. It speaks volumes that the country now guiding the European project suffers exactly the kind of nationalist antagonism that the E.U. was created to eliminate.
The renationalization of European politics is a product, first and foremost, of generational change. For Europeans who came of age during World War II or the Cold War, the E.U. is an escape route from a bloody past. [LA replies: Hey, if the EU was intended as an escape from the bloody past, i.e., an escape from World War II, why not just dismantle Germany, which caused World War II, rather than all the countries of Europe, which didn’t cause World War II? The obvious mismatch between the problem (Nazi aggression which aimed at destroying all the countries of Europe) and the solution (The EU which is aimed at destroying all the countries of Europe) shows the deep bad faith that has animated the Europe project from the start. The EU is not about what it claims to be about—containing aggression. It is a way of forming a collectivist socialist Superstate.] Not so for younger Europeans: A recent poll revealed that French citizens over 55 are almost twice as likely to see the E.U. as a guarantee of peace as those under 36. No wonder new European leaders view the E.U.’s value through cold cost-benefit calculations, not as an article of faith.
Meanwhile, the demands of the global marketplace, coupled with the financial crisis, are straining Europe’s welfare state. As retirement ages rise and benefits dwindle, the E.U. is often presented as a scapegoat for new hardships. In France, for example, anti-Europe campaigns have focused ire on the E.U.’s “Anglo-Saxon” assault on social welfare and on the “Polish plumber” who takes local jobs because of the open European labor market.
The E.U.’s rapid enlargement to the east and south has further sapped it of life. Absent the cozy feel the smaller union had before the Berlin Wall came down, its original members have turned inward. The newer members from Central Europe, who have enjoyed full sovereignty only since communism’s collapse, are not keen to give it away. As Poland’s late president, Lech Kaczynski, put it soon after taking office in 2005, “What interests the Poles is the future of Poland and not that of the E.U.” [LA replies: how deeply shocking and offensive, that the Poles are more interested in their own country and people than in a soulless system of bureaucratic control that represents nothing but itself. This is the primitive, atavastic mindset that must be eliminated from the world, if humankind is ever to be worthy of the name “human.”]
European participation in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has added to the weariness. In Germany, roughly two-thirds of the public opposes having German troops in Afghanistan—not good news for an E.U. intended to project a united voice on the global stage. Although giving Europe more geopolitical heft is one of the union’s raisons d’être, this task has no constituency; these distant wars, coupled with plunging defense expenditures mainly due to the economic downturn, are tempering the appetite for new burdens.
“The E.U. is now just trying to keep the machine going,” a member of the European Parliament told me recently. “The hope is to buy enough time for new leaders to emerge who will reclaim the project.”
Buying time may be the best the E.U. can do for now, but its slide is poised to continue, with costs even for those outside Europe. The Obama administration has already expressed frustration with an E.U. whose geopolitical profile is waning. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates complained in February to a gathering of NATO officials, “The demilitarization of Europe—where large swaths of the general public and political class are averse to military force and the risks that go with it—has gone from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st.” As the United States tries to dig itself out of debt and give its armed forces a breather, it will increasingly judge its allies by what they bring to the table. In Europe’s case, the offering is small and shrinking.
Europe is hardly headed back to war; its nations have lost their taste for armed rivalries. Instead, less dramatically but no less definitively, European politics will become less European and more national, until the E.U. becomes a union in name only. This may seem no great loss to some, but in a world that sorely needs the E.U.’s aggregate will, wealth and muscle, a fragmented and introverted Europe would constitute a historical setback. [LA replies: really? Name one way in which the world sorely needs the EU and would be harmed without it.]
Six decades ago, Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman and Konrad Adenauer were Europe’s founding fathers. Today, the E.U. needs a new generation of leaders who can breathe life into a project that is perilously close to expiring. For now, they are nowhere to be found.
Regarding the EU, note that the “Club Med” countries (Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal) whose productivity has never matched the Germans, periodically used to devalue so as to bring their currencies back into a reasonable alignment and allow trade and exchange to continue. This regular depreciation of their currencies meant that interest rates were high and their ability to borrow was quite limited, and thus they could not get into too much trouble with debt.
Once they went into the Euro, they could borrow huge amounts of money at rates only slightly higher than those paid by Germany. They did so, squandered it through the usual mismanagement and corruption, and now have an insupportable debt burden. This was a huge benefit to Germany, as there was a bonanza of debt fueled buying power for German exports.
Now the low productivity countries are supposed to take the only possible course open for them assuming they stay in the Euro: internal deflation to restore competitiveness. This is a fool’s errand; there is not enough austerity that could ever bring them to that level. They simply lack the industrial base. What is going on is just kicking the can down the road.
Huge amounts of this Greek debt are held by European banks, especially in Germany and France. A default or partial default on this debt, which is sooner or later inevitable, would wipe out their capital. This would be the trigger for another round in the global financial crisis. In the meantime, Greece is supposed to transfer in perpetuity to its foreign creditors an amount equal as a percent of its GDP to the war reparations burden inflicted on Germany after WW I. The cost of credit default swap insurance on Greek debt is now back to the levels it was when the crisis prompted the European bailout. In other words, nobody believes it will work.
The implementation of a common currency when there was no common fiscal entity was the creation of a disaster in waiting. Some of the more extreme EU ideologues envision using the crisis to force a common centralized fiscal authority, but this is something local politicians can never swallow.
At some point, internal political pressures will force countries like Greece to leave the Euro; that will likely be the end of the EU.
Joseph C. writes:
Philip M. writes from England: