On the eve of 2016, the European Union is still facing challenges it has no final solutions to. This year began with an act of terrorism in Paris – when a group of terrorists attacked the office of Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine. “We are Charlie.” The year ended in one more terror attack in Paris – when bomb explosions killed almost 150 people. In between there was an unprecedented crisis of illegal immigration in Europe: almost one million of refugees have illegally crossed the border of the European Union this year. Some experts warned that this may cause more attacks. They even compared the migration processes of 2015 with the events of the fourth century AD – when migration of barbarians in Europe caused the fall of the Roman Empire. But the Europeans have much more recent examples of poly-ethnic and poly-cultural states falling apart: the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.
This year, the unity of the European Union was seriously questioned by the United Kingdom. They in London warn that unless the rules are changed, they will withdraw from the EU. In this light, the leader of the National Front of France Marine Le Pen said that this would be something like the fall of the Berlin Wall. She is right: a referendum in the UK may cause similar referendums all over the Union.
One of the key challenges of the EU in 2015 was financial stability. On Jan 25 the Greeks rebelled against Europe’s economic policy. Elections in Greece, Portugal and Spain revealed voters’ displeasure with the EU’s austerity policy. The Greek crisis exposed the EU’s internal contradictions, one of them being that the problem of Euro cannot be solved unless the EU has a single financial system.
Some member states have lost trust in the EU’s social-economic strategy. Recent elections in Spain have shown that voters do not support advocates of austerity. Statistically a great economic power, the EU is still unable to overcome the consequences of the crisis of 2008. Its economy is growing very slowly. As a result, in 2014 its GDP was smaller than in 2007.
Growing unemployment and illegal immigrations are making things even worse. Qualified workers and young people are moving from poor member states to richer ones.
The migration crisis has struck the EU in the very heart. The inflow of Muslims has questioned the key values of the EU – tolerance and multiculturalism. The problem of quotas has set some member states against Germany as the leader of the EU. The ratings of ultra rights and Eurosceptics are growing. As a result, one of the key whipping boys of the last years, Hungarian President Viktor Orban, is no longer criticized for his authoritarianism.
The Schengen system has shown that absence of internal borders does not guarantee absence of internal contradictions. Angela Merkel has paid a high price for her higher openness initiative. Her rating has fallen and even her own party has refused to support her and has imposed tougher restrictions for immigrants on the border.
The third biggest problem for the EU in 2015 was its relations with Russia. Crisis-stricken Ukraine has become a bone of contention for the sides. But things became even worse after Russia’s interference in the conflict in Syria.
The Europeans hoped to take Ukraine in hand but faced a deep geopolitical crisis as a result. In the past the basis of European-Russian economic ties was political stability: Russia sold gas to Europe, Europe sold finished products to Russia. The Ukrainian crisis has turned them into political rivals. For some new members, like Lithuania and Poland, Ukraine’s integration into Europe is a guarantee of their own security. But the problem is that they seek that guarantee not in Brussels or Berlin but in Washington. In the meantime, the old EU members are also concerned and see the Ukrainian crisis as a chance for Russia to take historical revenge on them.
All these problems were on agenda during the last EU summit on Dec 17-18. But the European leaders looked too tired for being able to make some effective decisions. Their only hope is that a new wave of economic growth wash away some of their political problems.
Meanwhile, opponents keep criticizing them for having turned the EU into a bureaucratic machine. Today they in Brussels enjoy wide powers to control all in Europe – from roaming to antitrust rules. But on the other hand, they need keep in mind the basic EU treaty and the attitudes of the EU’s leaders, Germany and France. As a result, they often lack political resolution when facing serious problems, like the crisis in Greece, a flow of immigrants or a conflict with Russia.
As a result, more and more people in Europe are getting disappointed with the EU as a road to genuine democracy.
In fact, the EU institutional system is just imitating control. Today the European Commission is playing the role of an executive authority, while the European Parliament is acting as a legislator. The European Council is meant to coordinate national decisions and to make them all-European. But there are lots of institutions that have very unclear powers. As a result, people are beginning to lose trust in them – for few voters are aware how the EU system works. The EU has no single constitution but has a heap of different agreements and treaties instead. Today it is more like a confederation. So, the key question is what is the next stage?
The economic crisis of 2008 has caused crises of sovereign debt and EURO, while the problem of immigration is the consequence of the Arab Spring policy.
Upon a closer view, the two key problems of the EU – EURO and immigration – have much in common. In both cases, they in Brussels are unable to impose common rules. As a result, they claim even higher centralization and are faced with growing right-wing resistance in some member states.
One of the ways to protect the Schengen Area is to create a single frontier service. This means that the EU will be allowed to guard Schengen borders against the will of member states.
This implies lower sovereignty for member states. But the processes in the EU’s financial system have shown that there can always be an alternative to a centralized decision.
A good alternative to the EU’s frontier service might be a procedure suspending a member state’s Schengen membership if it fails to properly protect its borders.
This implies decentralization as an alternative to centralization. In other words, the EU needs to take just a couple of steps back to be able to move forward.
Now that 2015 is coming to an end, the EU leaders see that the system is not working properly. The British leaders have given them one year for reforms. So, reforms will be the key point on the EU’s agenda next year.
EADaily's European Bureau