The recent Brexit in the United Kingdom has questioned the future of the European Union. During a summit in Brussels six days later, the leaders of 27 EU member-states agreed to meet again in Bratislava on Sept 16 so as to consider EU reforms. So, once the holidays were over, the EU leaders started preparing for the meeting. On Aug 22, 2016, German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with her French and Italian counterparts on the picturesque Italian island of Ventotene. Last week, she met with Francois Hollande again in the presence of EU President Jean-Claude Juncker. The key topic was the EU’s future.
What are the key directions of the planned reforms? In late Aug, a group of European experts and officials published a call for continental partnership and a single market involving the UK in the west and Turkey and Ukraine in the east. Mass media reported that on Ventotene, Merkel and her French and Italian colleagues decided to revive the European army and European intelligence projects. A few days later, the German, French and Polish foreign ministers evaluated Europe’s civil and military resources in planning and management. On Aug 26, the enfant terrible of the EU, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban urged all the EU leaders to build a European army. On refugees, his position is unchanged as is the position of the Visegrad Four. On Oct 2, the Hungarians are yet to vote on whether to receive refugees or not, but the answer is already known.
Last week, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed the Hungarian-Czech initiative to enlarge the EU’s military partnership and to create a European army. On behalf of NATO (i.e. the Americans), Stoltenberg noted that here Europe should avoid duplication of NATO’s efforts. He meant mostly management and planning.
Until now, the key form of army building in Europe has been combat groups: brigades in Hungary, Italy and Poland, supervised by Polish commanders and regularly interacting at joint maneuvers. The success of the allies during the WWII showed that national armies can be quite efficient even if led by commanders from other nations. This very principle was used as a basis for NATO. So, Stoltenberg’s remark about the need to avoid duplication has made the European army project senseless as an army cannot exist without structure, command or planning.
So, it has become clear that a conflict with the Americans is the only way for the Europeans to push this project.
Today, EU members have very different national strategies and would hardly wish to follow one military doctrine. For the Americans, crisis in the EU is a serious problem, but, on the other hand, it is a real chance for them to become the key security guarantors for Europe. And the European army project is just a cover for this.
So, what are the EU’s reforms aimed at? Today, Europe’s key goal is to overcome its crisis. And the summit in Bratislava is one more attempt to find a remedy.
In Bratislava, the EU leaders are supposed to express a common position on the Brexit so as to prevent its recurrences and also to find solutions to the most serious problems in economy, finance and social security.
For the UK, the Brexit does not mean a crisis. Today, British economy is much more stable, with GBP rising against EUR. In the meantime, the EU is facing a huge banking crisis in Italy, which may cost it a few hundreds of billions of EUR.
The EU’s policy to toughen control over national budget deficits has curbed the sovereign debt crisis, but today, four years after, this policy is not working everywhere. Spain and Portugal have once again raised their budget deficit level and by doing this, have exposed the EU’s inability to solve its monetary problems. As a result, the projects of European deposit insurance schemes and European finance minister remain on paper.
What the EU lacks is confidence among its members. What it needs is truly common economic area with no imbalances benefiting Old Europe. One of the solutions here might be equal social standards for Old and New Europes. But this is hardly possible as in the face of growing Asia, the EU needs competitive trans-national concerns exploiting its peripheries. Here the Visegrad Four suggest something like Cameron’s pre-Brexit project – a step or even two back in European integration for the sake of the market. Poverty is their key argument for continued infrastructure subsidies and against joint migration policy. In contrast, Germany sees joint migration policy as an integral part of European integration. This point is the bottleneck of the reforms. And it is here that the crises are entwining into an unbreakable knot.
Last year, Merkel condemned Hungary for building a wall against refugees. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius blamed Orban for disrespecting common European values. Since then, Europe’s tone has changed. On Sept 1, 2016, Merkel said that repatriation was one of the key solutions of the refugee crisis, with her interior minister Thomas de Maizière advocating return to the Dublin regulations. He says that things in Greece are good enough. So, they can send back the refugees that came to them from that country. In 2016, Germany is ready to receive just 300,000 refugees. But if the Germans send the rest back to Greece, they will face protests – especially as the EU is urging the Greeks to cut their budget.
The EU’s refugee deal with Turkey is working, but the Turks claim visa-free regime in exchange.
It is clear that the Bratislava Summit will not be able to solve all the EU’s problems at once. The economy- and migration-related problems will be shelved for 2017, with the priority to be given to security. The Minsk process for Ukraine is also a challenge.
So, it turns out that the Europe of nation states is coming back. The Netherlands, Ireland, Italy and France are the most vulnerable here. One of the bad signs for the EU is that some of its members are forming internal regional groups. Today, concept of the European Union is becoming less and less popular. This is good news for the United States as the EU’s European army project has already shown that the Europeans are unable to ensure their security. So, while in internal policy, they are going back to national states, in external one, they will have to go to the United States and NATO.
EADaily’s European Bureau