The Lisbon Treaty, which marked a new level of integration in the European Union, entered into force less than two years ago. One of its priorities was to create a common political identity for all of Europe. Many hoped that the Old World would finally get a global role befitting its huge economic potential, and that this new role would, in turn, further boost its economy.
This all sounds strange today. The European Union is locked in battle with a severe crisis that is eroding the foundations of its unity. It began with Greece’s sovereign debt, but this was just one symptom of the European Union’s illness: the imbalance between economic and political integration. The situation was further complicated by a conflict between France and Germany, which were once the engines driving European integration but have since fallen out over Libya. The public in Western Europe is leaning further right. Euroscepticism is on the rise. Europeans no longer understand why they need to integrate. Leading politicians will have to find an answer to this question.
The possibility of the euro’s decline and even of the collapse of the EU – an issue once on the margins of European political discourse – has become a legitimate question. It is still difficult to imagine this happening, if only because the potential losses would be far greater than benefits some states might hope to gain. The leading powers that determine European policy may continue to carry the burden for lack of a less costly option. But it is unclear how politicians would be able to do this if public opinion is against it.
Fundamental reforms are unavoidable and will likely change many core principles of European integration. More politicians are gradually coming to see this truth, although they still refuse to discuss it publicly, let alone officially. The looming default in Greece will most probably open the gates, forcing politicians to start discussing possible options, preferably without panicking.
On the bright side, European integration as it was initially conceived has been a brilliant success. The main goal of the project launched by Europe’s leading politicians in the mid-20th century was to prevent a new war between Germany and France.
Today not even the most reactionary and alarmist of European futurists could imagine a Franco-German war thanks to integration. And yet, paradoxically, this integration is now eroding the foundations of this success. The fear of cataclysmic war that motivated the old political leaders has subsided. Young Europeans do not fear a classic European war among continental powers, or a nuclear war, the prospect of which kept everyone in suspense during the Cold War. They simply do not believe war is possible. Moreover, the threshold for military intervention has been lowered since the departure of the last generation of politicians, such as Helmut Kohl, Jacques Chirac, George Bush Sr. and Giulio Andreotti, who knew about war from personal experience. The leading Western powers have been involved in four large military conflicts since the late 1990s.
France and Britain seem to have regressed by half a century: their participation in the Libyan campaign looks like revenge for the Suez crisis in 1956. The failure of the Anglo-French intervention in North Africa at the time signified the decline of their power and the need to unite as one Europe. The European Economic Community, renamed the EU in 1993, was established several months later. But their current success in Libya – at least they view their operation there as a success – amounts to a departure from approved European methods and an attempt to reclaim their great power status, at least on a regional scale. This is a different mentality and hence a different policy results from it.
Another paradox concerns Germany. The priority of the victorious Allied powers after World War II was to “pacify” Germany and to quench its militant spirit and ambitions. They have succeeded: Germany is now more pacifist than almost any other country. But instead of consolidating this achievement, Berlin’s current allies complain that it will not take on a bigger military burden in Afghanistan or Libya. Don’t they think it would be better to let sleeping dogs lie?
The reason for the current degradation is that the potential of the integration paradigm devised in the latter half of the 20th century has been exhausted. The EU has always been a political project and so cannot survive on a foundation of economic expediency alone. The EU members do not have a common large-scale objective or a common enemy to unite them. They do have a common internal enemy, but it is a highly specific one. To pursue this would destroy the structure of the European Union.
This enemy is the Muslim population, which is at the center of the debates on multiculturalism. Scared by the towering wave of change, the European public has focused its attention on the most vivid example of globalization. Xenophobia has always been a part of European nation states. But today, nationalist and reactionary xenophobia has been compounded by liberal xenophobia. Nationalists and reactionaries are acting on the basis of their traditional notions of “blood and soil,” whereas the advocates of liberal xenophobia are up in arms about modern European values, which fanatical and ultra-conservative immigrants refuse to recognize.
A “European awakening” aimed at protecting Old World values from immigrants seems improbable. It runs contrary to the general direction of intellectual and political development in Europe for the past several decades. This would be incredibly destructive, resulting in major social shocks. However, quite a few things that seemed incredible and improbable have become reality in the last few years.