Exactly a quarter of a century ago, in a small Dutch town called Maastricht, the European community was renamed to the European Union. The beginning of this union became a tale that everyone kept telling their kids as an example of economic and political success. But the downsides of that success that few people used to talk about until recently, which remained largely ignored for the last quarter of a century, are now threatening the future of the union more and more.
In the first years after Maastricht, these flaws might have been too difficult to spot, granted. But they remained there to linger, never to be addressed, and it took a lot of time for them to come to the surface and start threatening the unity of the union in a noticeable way. That time has come now.
One of those flaws that were put in the very foundations of the EU from day one was its inability to adequately assess the crisis in Yugoslavia and prevent the escalation of the conflicts among the warring sides. It later transformed into an inability to pacify the region in a meaningful way.
Practically, Maastricht was Germany’s way of transferring its economic power onto a larger scale – but also one of its inherent flaws: the EU became just like West Germany at the time of the Cold War. An economic giant that was simultaneously a political dwarf. That dwarf has almost stopped growing for the last quarter of a century. All temporary therapies with growth hormones in the area of foreign policy and security policy have proven futile. No coherent foreign-policy strategy towards the West Balkans ever came to be for that long period. And the region has remained engulfed in political instability.
The EU has also proven incapable of achieving consensus on its foreign policy. The fact that Germany has shown stringent firmness towards the crisis-stricken economies from the southern periphery, while towards the refugees it showed an inexplicably lax generosity, could’ve been excused with some sort of humanitarian or financial logic. But both policies were poison to the EU’s unity. Furthermore, these decisions were pushed through with force, without consulting with the public or with the sides involved in the respective problems. As were a number of prior decisions before that. When Greece was getting ushered into the Euro zone, all Western EU members chose to turn the other way to the fact that Greece wasn’t ready. The same happened when Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia were getting accepted. The story repeated over and over.
The Dublin rules which says the refugees should remain or be returned to the country where they first entered the EU territory, serves Germany and the other wealthy North European countries well, but it puts a huge pressure on the Mediterranean countries. The stubborn neglect of the migration pressure coming like a wave from the south, has turned the Mediterranean Sea into a mass grave, and the Syrian tragedy, into an all-European drama.
America’s military logic, which has always served the EU’s interests, has brought a series of interventions in foreign lands. They’ve not only caused unimaginable destruction and the collapse of entire states, but it has eroded the solidarity between the EU members. Now there’s no trace left of the solidarity towards the weaker countries or migrants. Which is why the Brexit happened, why Kaczinski rules in Poland and Orban in Hungary, and why Le Pen and Wilders are charging for power in France and the Netherlands, respectively. As if the situation wasn’t already complicated enough, what with the growing assertiveness of the likes of Putin, Erdogan and now Trump.
The current situation in the EU is starting to resemble the pre-collapse era in Yugoslavia. The catastrophe in Tito’s former dreamland happened in result of an explosive mix of economic crisis and rapidly growing ethnic tensions. Thus, all political and economic cracks that had already been there, quickly became huge rifts, and grew into ethnic conflicts that saw the disintegration of that state.
In the eyes of the Western analysts, that sort of development looked like an outdated remnant of times long past at the time – more like a sad deviation from the general trend of unstoppable progress towards “the end of history” (as per Fukuyama). But now, 25 years later, unfortunately we’re compelled to realize that the collapse of Yugoslavia was just a minor precursor to what’s now starting to increasingly look like an inevitable end of an entire process that has passed through all stages of its life cycle.
Evidently, the neo-liberal elites in the Western societies have completely underestimated people’s fears. Which is why nationalism is rearing its head back again, and taking over the public discourse, including in the Western European countries which were supposed to be nearing the coveted stage of eternal and unshakable peace and prosperity. Austria almost elected an ultra-nationalist president, and what’s going to happen in France, no one can predict at this point.
So all that said, what can be done? As simple as it sounds, the way out of this predicament may not be that easy to implement: the EU has to behave as a team at the international scene, firmly united around a certain set of values. As for domestic policy, it has to really be a solidary society. Not just on paper and in words. It’s far better and cheaper to invest into early efforts than later do politically and economically expensive damage-control interventions after the fact.
Whether Europe would re-invent its failed idea for a European Constitution, or it’ll ultimately split into a “Europe of two speeds”, is of secondary importance in that respect. What’s of crucial importance is if the EU would work as a capable, solidary union internationally, a team that has a clear and solid strategy that it has discussed openly, understood completely, and decided to defend unfalteringly – or it’ll just keep floating along with the current, only to sink further down into irrelevance and obscurity. Time is running out. We must decide.