By Noel Gonzalez
Look at a map of the European Union. Russia and Turkey to the right, the United States across the pond. The result? The EU is gradually being politically isolated on all sides.
Attempts are already being made to undermine the European Union’s cohesiveness. The U.S. administration’s publicly stated preference for bilateral deals with European countries—effectively bypassing the EU—will indirectly create implosion by setting EU countries against each other. On a similar note, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been supporting several anti-EU candidates throughout recent election campaigns. The disintegration of the EU would be beneficial for Russia because it would be able to establish direct, bilateral relations with European states, without the need to bypass an overarching institution.
Turkey is also becoming a rather unpleasant neighbor. The post-coup raids and reports of suppression of free speech and expression have been heavily criticized by the European member states. Factor in the recent referendum granting more power to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan along with his willingness to reinstate the death penalty, and the result is a Turkey that is pushing away European allies and long-sought approval for EU membership.
Is this bad for the EU? Not necessarily. Agreement in deeply divided issues within national governments tend to be resolved in moments of crisis. For example, the incapacity of 15th century European empires to conquer foreign territory and lack of access to the Indian Ocean market drove them westward to seek new routes and as a result stumbled into the Americas and consequently increased their overall wealth (at the expense of indigenous populations). Now, history may repeat itself; the political pressure towards the EU by the U.S., Russia, and Turkey may drive the union to strengthen internally.
It is no secret that the EU has struggled to garner broad public support for European integration from its citizens—which has in part led to a reluctance of EU politicians to push forward an actual integration agenda. But recent geopolitical developments—namely, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and encroachment on the former Eastern Bloc, U.S. President Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ policy, and the events in Turkey—have increased hostility towards the EU on multiple fronts. The potential fight for the EU’s survival may increase the need for greater unity, which could lead to voters, and consequently politicians, to push for an agenda favoring deeper European integration through establishing a common identity.
For the moment, much discussion on deeper European integration has been on monetary unification, such as proposals for a common finance minister and a new bond market to manage debt. There is still much skepticism on the reliability of the euro to members states with their own currencies, not to mention the cultural incentive that comes with retaining a national currency. But on a social level, the political pressure towards the EU may accelerate a process where the European populace finds a balance between a national identity and a European identity.
However, big questions remain. Is this isolation sufficiently drastic to convince national governments to give up a significant degree of autonomy to ensure the survival of the European Union? Are current geopolitical circumstances substantial enough to pressure people to establish a European identity? Probably not. But given the current state of the international arena, the possibility of deeper continental integration is difficult to rule out in the near future. Nor does the current geopolitical climate prevent the European Union from taking baby steps towards full integration until enough participants are ready to take a leap, cultural or otherwise.
France already appears to be taking these steps. Emmanuel Macron’s election could foster a push for deeper integration, and German elections in September may have a role to play as well. Somewhat ironically, U.S. President Trump may have inadvertently helped strengthen the European Union by sounding the rallying call as a counterexample to run against.
Despite fears of disintegration this past year, the EU is not likely to fall apart. If the union’s security and survival are the largest concerns for member states, then dissolution is not an option. Alone, most member states will be much more vulnerable to foreign encroachment and likely possess less power on a negotiating table.
The EU has already taken steps in recent months to improve their security and defense cooperation by coordinating defense budgets and military command structures. This past March, the EU outlined five scenarios for its future—four of them included stronger defense integration. Open Europe political analyst Aarti Shankar spoke about the possibility of an EU defense fund, which “could necessitate a joint, centralized defense industrial strategy, sharing of member state ‘strategic’ defense assets, and perhaps even a level of autonomy from NATO.” Granted several other factors, such as recent terrorist attacks, have a role in this renewed awareness of internal security and defense.
The growing hostility the EU is facing from its neighbors may compel it to both look elsewhere for new friends and use the current rancor to galvanize public support for itself. Rather than having individual states working against foreign aggression, the EU may try to take advantage of the situation and bring member states closer together in a display of unity to counter the growing hostility by the U.S., Russia, and Turkey.
Noel Gonzalez is an Executive Office Intern at the EastWest Institute in New York. An alumni from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Noel is currently completing a master’s degree in International Relations, with a concentration in European and Mediterranean Studies, at New York University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.