The European Union at 60: Merkel’s Departure May Save Integration

_ Timofei Bordachev, programme director, Eurasian Program, Valdai International Discussion Club; Director, Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies (CCEIS), National Research University Higher School of Economics. Moscow,  March 24th 2017.

On March 25, 1957, six European countries – Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, the FRG and France – signed a blank piece of paper called the Treaty of Rome, establishing the European Economic Community. The actual text of the agreement, at that moment, was absent. As legend has it, a charwoman in the palace on the Capitoline Hill, where the ceremony took place, had thrown it out by mistake the night before. But this circumstance in no way belittles the historic importance of the event that launched what was perhaps the most thrilling project in the history of international relations.

A group of countries consciously decided to address their development problems by cooperating rather than competing. Having common institutions and laws should have removed doubts concerning each state’s intentions, the most serious obstacle to trust between the participants. No one in human history has ever managed to achieve anything like this. It is another matter that to carry this out in practice required much caution and consultation with the citizenry. Any attempts to decide the most important integration issues by referenda in the member-countries were nipped in the bud until 2005. Europe remained an elite project, and an extremely successful one, until the late 2000s.

But later this elitism played a nasty joke on European integration. The rift between international elites, which was a source of European bureaucracy, and the ordinary citizens was growing wider. But this, as we know, is not only a European problem. In the United States, this is what helped a non-establishment candidate win the 2016 presidential election. And now, this is behind the ongoing “hybrid civil war” that the elites, the media and the secret services are leading against their president. In Europe, the cleft between groups enjoying the benefits of integration and those who pay for it is eroding public trust in the entire project.

This is why European integration is in an extremely difficult state, as the EU member-countries are preparing to celebrate the union’s 60th anniversary. There are problems both within and without. The Netherlands and France will soon hold presidential elections. This coincidence in the timing of the expression of the people’s will in these two crucial EU countries may be a bad sign in itself. The 2005 French and Dutch referenda buried the Constitution for Europe, the only truly democratic document created during the entire history of integration. Today, however, all estimates point to a rather favorable outcome, with a moderate candidate, Emmanuel Macron, predicted to win the elections in France. But the course and substance of the election campaign are inspiring anxiety. The 60-year-old political system created by the great Frenchman Charles de Gaulle is likely to need more than a facelift. In the Netherlands, the rightist populists from the People’s Party will win many votes but will be unable to form a government.

An air of drama will be hovering over the celebrations dedicated to the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, given that the UK, one of the leading European economies, starts official talks on its withdrawal from the EU just a few days after the festivities. Both tactically and strategically, Brexit will be the heaviest blow to integration in the EU’s entire history.

In the short term, the Brexit talks threaten to plunge the EU and a substantial part of its managerial resources into a state of complete inability to act on the broader international scene. The predicted scale of bureaucratic and political effort needed for a “good Brexit” is so vast that Brussels will be left without a chance to be active in most other areas. The rupture of ties established over 44 years of British EU membership could destabilize the majority of European integration sectors, even if they have no direct relation to the talks.

A separate future problem is organizing trade and economic relations between the EU and its major partners after the British walkout and the contraction of the common market. (The right to access it was an important part of trade negotiations, including Russia’s WTO talks.) This may necessitate inviting Russia and other important EU partners to take part in talks between London, Brussels and other European capitals. At least it should be made clear already now that Brexit is not a purely internal European matter. The EU market’s importance for other states is so great that they simply have an obligation to react to changes underway there.

Another strategic danger of Brexit is that Britain may prosper outside of the EU. It is likely to avoid being bogged down in provincial desolation, as many expect it will, and find internal and external sources of economic growth. This will serve as a devastating example demonstrating that you can live, and thrive, without the EU. It will be of particular interest for a large group of stagnant EU economies crushed by the euro zone crisis.

An explosion could occur if sufficiently resolute populists come to power in the southern European countries: Spain, Italy and Greece. They will certainly urge an end to “working for Germany.” For the time being, their ruling elites are crushed by the debt burden and commitments they assumed under pressure from Berlin in 2012 and 2013. But there are moments in history when you are no longer able to control an outburst of anger from the outside, the more so that control is exercised in the interests of the biggest EU country and by clearly authoritarian methods.

In this sense, Angela Merkel’s departure from her current post could be a salvation for Europe. Her main political rival, Martin Schulz, is undoubtedly enthusiastic about European integration. He has spent the past 20 years in Brussels and Strasbourg, first as a deputy and later as President of the European Parliament. He is not so focused on consolidating his hold on power as the current chancellor, nor, judging by all appearances, is he so confident of his own ideal infallibility. Moreover, although Schulz is not a friend of Russia, he has not built his leadership in European politics on the basis of a tough anti-Russian agenda.

A milder leader would be able to restore relations with such an essential EU partner as the Republic of Turkey. In principle, it would be easier for a fresh person to find points of contact with Europe’s important foreign policy partners than it is for Merkel who “lives in a world of her own.” Today, however, the majority of analysts believe that the economic forces behind the incumbent leader are too powerful. Her opponent could only be swept to power by the Germans themselves, if they feel sick and tired of their unchangeable leader. All true enthusiasts of European integration should hope for this outcome.

So far the solution offered by the EU leaders is a “multi-speed Europe,” which means that certain groups of states can promote deeper cooperation in what they see as important areas without mandatory involvement of all other EU members. This proposal transpired as the most attractive option in five EU post-Brexit development scenarios that the European Commission head, Jean-Claude Juncker, published in early March. The multi-speed idea was supported by the leaders of Germany, Spain, Italy and France at their meeting in Paris on March 5.

But far from all EU states are prepared to accept the plan with enthusiasm. It is perceived as an attempt to shield off a group of member-countries and create privileged conditions for them, while leaving all others on the sidelines. In particular, it is unclear how economic integration could be expedited without the mandatory involvement of all euro zone states. The pariahs of “advanced cooperation” like Greece, Cyprus or Portugal will have to accept decisions approved by the leaders, but will be unable to influence them. In general, a “multi-speed Europe” is traditionally viewed as a mechanism for disintegration.

Europe is in need of renovation. European integration, a “monument of worldwide political importance,” should be preserved for the sake of peace in Europe and beyond. Rich in anniversaries and crucial elections, the year 2017 could bring about this renovation. Infusing fresh blood into the elites and changing leaders should become a factor in rejecting the hopeless “multi-speed” paradigms. The same goes for the two-step dance in an attempt to simply conserve the Common Market’s achievements. Europe will need a new project, one friendly to the surrounding world and capable of consolidating the EU citizens themselves.


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