The European Union is going through an existential crisis because a new generation of political leaders is cut off from reality.
In The Sleepwalkers – How Europe Went to War in 1914, the Australian historian Christopher Clark takes a new look at the causes of the First World War, highlighting the crisis in the Balkans – an area of confrontation between Austria and Russia –, the leadership rivalry between the UK and the German Empire, and underlining the shortsightedness of political leaders. Holding fast to their erroneous visions, cut off from the real world and their people, they went headlong into all-out war, causing the suicide of liberal Europe and engendering 20th century totalitarianism.
A hundred years after the Great War had ended, the European Union is going through an existential crisis that could lead to its disintegration. This is because we have a new generation of sleepwalkers. After 1945, the continent’s coming together was founded on resistance to the USSR, American guarantees of security, peace between France and Germany, and the use of law and the market to deal with strategic issues. All that is in the past. But nothing has changed.
Europe – rich, aging and helpless – is being targeted by Jihadists and the démocratures [a combination of democracy and dictatorship] and is surrounded by wars on its frontiers. The USA, which used to underwrite global stability, capitalism and democracy, has become a major risk under the leadership of Donald Trump who is methodically pursuing the destruction of the multilateral system and the destabilization of the European Union: whereas it is in China that unfair business practices and excess capacity are to be found, it is Europe that is paying surtaxes on steel and aluminum exports. Populism is a cancer that is eating away at democracy and delegitimizing its institutions and values, particularly in the case of Viktor Orban’s illiberal democracy, which is being copied elsewhere.
The breakdown of Europe is coming about by stages: improvised expansion after the fall of the USSR; the creation of the euro without the institutions or regulations to deal with crises and without being designed to adapt to the removal of adjustments for inflation or devaluation – which has caused divergence between different economies, to the detriment of the countries in the south; the effects of the US financial crisis on the euro in 2009; the uncontrolled wave of immigration from 2015 onwards. All this has provoked anger which people have been unleashing ever since the Brexit vote.
At the moment, Europe and its member states are paralyzed because of certain fundamental divergences, exemplified in the way the Franco-German couple is being pulled apart. There is divergence on the issue of strengthening the Eurozone: cautious progress with a modest investment budget and aimed at making the stabilizing mechanism into a European monetary fund mask a head-on confrontation with regard to who is to succeed Mario Draghi as head of the ECB. There is divergence on how to retaliate to American trade sanctions, limited to 2.8 billion euros out of a 6.4 billion impact on European exports. There is divergence on how to tax the GAFAM. There is divergence on sanctions imposed on Russia after its annexation of the Crimea and its intervention in Ukraine. There is divergence on the relocation of immigrants and reform of the Dublin Regulation. There is divergence on the creation of a European security council or a European intervention force that will remain virtual if the German coalition limits defense investment to 2 billion euros over four years. There is divergence on method: the shock tactics and speed desired by Emmanuel Macron – who now finds himself isolated in Europe – is in collision with Angela Merkel’s cult of stability and consensus.
It is useless to condemn populism – if the elite give sermons on virtue, this only makes people angry; it is the causes that have to be dealt with. This can be done by re-establishing the status of nations and governments in the face of tyrannical communities and minorities; by reminding people that security is the prime prerequisite for freedom; by underlining that free movement presupposes the strict control of external borders. We know what the priorities are. To simplify and strengthen the effectiveness of European institutions and give them strong leadership instead of increasing the number of jobs and the number of incompetent people. To bring European sovereignty to bear on the giants of the 21st century – not only commercially, technologically and fiscally, but also monetarily by making the euro into a wholly international currency.
The next European elections will be a referendum on the European Union, played out on the issues of immigration and refugees. The Union will lose unless something is done to get convergence on laws affecting immigration and political asylum. There must also be recognition of the principle of being willing to welcome refugees, on taking back control of external borders – which means setting up a coordinated surveillance apparatus in the Mediterranean – and giving massive development aid to Africa on condition that it allows expelled immigrants to return.
It is not enough to say that Europe has to take its destiny into its own hands; it has to act on it – and act now.
(Column published in Le Figaro, 11th June 2018)