By Oset Babur
“We are carrying out a great experiment, the fulfillment of the same recurrent dream that for ten centuries has revisited the peoples of Europe: creating between them an organization putting an end to war and guaranteeing an eternal peace.” – Robert Schuman; May 16, 1949.
“The world wide globalized crisis is structural and will bring irreversible change to Europe’s organization of its economies, institutions, and welfare systems.” – Jacques Santer; September 18, 2013.
Economic Roots, Economic Concern
After decades of internal conflict, 1950 invited a potentially peaceful Europe bound together by the power of the purse, or, the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). Economists hailed the Community as a way for post-World War II Germany to build trust and tie the fate of a key industry to one of France’s. Politicians fueled confidence in the ECSC by drafting a union that would prevent the horrors of the early twentieth century from repeating itself, despite reservations of a nationalist few. Over fifty years, the initial agreement has evolved into the European Union, equipping it with its own institutions with which to wage intergovernmental negotiations between member states that have been multiplying since its creation. Sixty-four years after the ECSC’s creation, and only twenty-one years since the formal establishment of the EU, and the destruction of WWI and II are a distant memory, and the Union’s purpose and power come regularly into question. The Ottoman Empire may have been the sick man of Europe in the nineteenth century, but could the disease spread to the entire continent in two-hundred years, in part through the creation of a once-beneficial union?
Questions about the European Union’s validity crop up every time a member country experiences economic turmoil, most recently the March 2013 International Monetary Fund (IMF)/EU bailout of Cyprus’s banking system. The cycle is predictable, so much that with each round, Eurosceptics declare it the start of a new financial crisis. Meanwhile, the IMF has straddled a dangerous line in the Eurozone, between gravely underestimating the Greek recession in 2012, and imposing a more aggressive approach to debt-restructuring, so that bondholders are faced with increasing responsibility. Aside from full-blown crises, dramatic income inequality also remains a key concern in European countries like Ireland, where the top twenty percent of earners make roughly five times as much as the bottom twenty percent. With so many statistics focusing on the adverse conditions EU member countries have experienced, the question remains: is the European Union relevant in our postwar society? Or is it simply fueling cyclical crises through a common currency and identity that is so difficult for an entire continent to share?
If Not For the Money, For Community?
If nothing else, the May 26 European Parliamentary elections posed a challenge to the European Union’s validity from the most important party concerned: Europeans themselves. The elections gave foundation to worries that Europeans “are turning against the project that was founded in their name” , as anti-EU parties like the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), and Le Front National (LFN) in France enjoyed remarkable support; in Hungary, anti-Semitic and xenophobic party Jobbik was able to garner fourteen percent of the vote, coming in second place in Hungarian parliamentary elections overall.
Combined with the Eurozone crises of the past decade, this contemporary surge of eurosceptisim is particularly troubling for the following reasons:
- Power in Numbers: After the May 2014 elections, Eurosceptics are set to fill roughly a quarter of seats in EU legislature. UKIP summoned almost thirty percent of the British vote, coming in five percent higher than Prime Minister David Cameron’s conservatives. While the European Project retained sixty-nine percent of seats in parliament, it is worth noting that this number is down from eighty percent just last year. This is not to say a consensus has been reached regarding just how much functionality Parliament has lost through these seats. However, it is likely that this shift will diminish the European Parliament’s influence on the European Council and Council of Ministers, which hold crisis-solving and legislative power respectively.
- Leadership: By predetermined rotation, the country that received the largest bailout in EU history is also the current president of the Union. Greece’s ability to tackle domestic issues of unemployment, poverty, and hunger remains contentious, much less its ability to guide the EU through period of severe financial crisis and decline in civic engagement. The presidency will be passed from Greece to Italy starting July 2014, and then to Latvia starting January 2015, a succession that does little to ease worries over rocky European leadership.
- Performance Gaps: While this has been an enduring problem of a union that looks to bring together countries of varying industries and market sizes, the recent accession of countries like Latvia, Slovakia, Estonia, and Lithuania have generated protest in traditionally high-performance countries like Germany, Sweden, and Finland. Furthermore, gaps between different regions of individual EU nations have been widening across the last two years, prompting European Structural and Investment Funds to work towards reducing the gap.
While the recent elections have not completely eliminated support for an increasingly united Europe from the EU parliament, trends in nationalism pose the greatest threat to a common European identity. As Spaniards begin to revert to once again seeing themselves predominantly as Spaniards and not Europeans, the necessity of a formal organization which imposes common economic and social policies comes into question as well. The difference at this juncture is that when faced with criticisms, Robert Schuman and Konrad Adenauer could point to a recently war-stricken Europe as justification. Today, with those events decades behind us, supporters of the European Union will have to generate new arguments to combat contemporary Eurosceptisism.
Oset Babur is a Public Policy intern at EWI's New York City office.