European Union: An ‘empire’ crumbling?
Interpretations on why Europe — which is beset with seething regional and national resentments — is in crisis are fabulously varied
South Africans might find the grand question of the future of the EU a perplexing and distant topic. But following two political crises in as many weeks, the chances of a major continental calamity have ratcheted up a notch.
The potential fallout would leave no country untouched. So far European leaders have managed to keep the lid on this boiling pot — but for how much longer?
Canny financier and philanthropist George Soros, himself a pro-European of an odd sort, does not mince his words: "The disintegration of Europe is no longer a figure of speech; it is a harsh reality," he said recently.
The EU faces a large number of threats, external and internal. From the outside, the EU is threatened by Trump’s America, Putin’s Russia, Erdogan’s Turkey and Assad’s Syria.
Inside, Poland and Hungary are undermining the values on which the EU is based, but Italy is emerging as the most pressing challenge to its sustainability, Soros says. And this is not even to mention Brexit.
It’s an awesome problem that defies the continent’s most sophisticated brains, never mind its voters, whose preferences and political choices run the gamut of options from full-scale retreat to the hyper-intensification of the European project, with none gaining predominance.
The crisis is illustrated by the outcome of the recent Italian election in which parties on the extreme Right, and Centre and the Left, gained almost equal support, and the result is an unlikely Left-Right coalition as odd as the EFF/DA coalition that runs Johannesburg.
At least Italians have a government; that seemed unlikely just a few days ago.
Last week markets eased after the creation of an uneasy coalition between Luigi Di Maio of Movimento 5 Stelle and Matteo Salvini of Lega.
But no sooner was that problem plastered over than Spain’s government collapsed. Spain’s parliament ousted prime minister Mariano Rajoy on Friday in a no-confidence vote after evidence that his administration was corrupt. This is the first time a head of government has been ousted since Spain made the transition to democracy in 1977. Pedro Sanchez, a pro-European, is the prime minister in waiting at the time of writing. He has only to be sworn in by the king for the appointment to become official.
What is happening to the EU, and is there a workable solution?
Interpretations on why Europe is in crisis are fabulously varied. Pro-Brexiteers in the UK interestingly say the easy way to understand Europe is to think of it as an empire, and as the British know, empires always fail. One curiosity is why European problems are enduring despite an uptick in the European economy.
The touchstone issue is the huge flood of immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East, not only for the disruption it has caused and the political resentment it has engendered but also because it symbolises the huge incentive imbalances between European countries and the lack of policy coherence.
Italy, which has borne much of the brunt of arriving refugees, acceded at the time because most refugees typically moved on to northern Europe. But in September 2015 France and Austria closed their borders and the migrants were stuck in Italy.
The economic differentials of Europe as a whole are also reflected harshly in Italy, where the prosperous north contrasts with the poorer south.
This was always a classic Italian problem, but neither the arrival of the EU nor the euro currency have done anything to solve it. In fact, they have made it worse, intensifying a kind of contrary centrifugal force that tends to pull capital and resources towards the centre.
The EU was meant to be a voluntary association in which each government gave up a little of its authority for the betterment of everyone. Instead, it’s created seething regional and national resentments.
Soros suggests the EU should give up one of its founding ideas, the theory of an "ever-closer Europe". This idea rests on the hopeful notion that though EU members might be at different stages, they are all ultimately heading to the same destination: a common Europe. Instead, the EU should embrace the idea of a multitrack Europe, in which members have more autonomy to decide their own fate; they should travel in the same direction, but not on the same track.
This is in stark contrast to the ideas of the ambitious French president Emmanuel Macron who, in a speech at the Sorbonne university in 2017, expounded on a set of grand new integration projects, inviting Germany to partner in leading the project.
Almost a year later, German chancellor Angela Merkel has yet to formally respond — though in an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung at the weekend she said, not to put too fine a point on it, "No."