RECENT events affecting the European Union must be causing concern in Washington.
In advance of Britain’s referendum in June, which resulted in a vote to leave the bloc, President Obama expressed the long held view of American policy makers that the nation should stay in it because her membership enhanced her global leadership in dealing, in particular, with the challenges of terrorism, conflict and immigration. It was in the USA’s interest for Britain to maintain a strong voice inside the EU.
Six months later, after having observed the rise of populism in Europe with people turning to nationalist parties following ‘Brexit’ and the victory of President-elect Trump which some consider have together set off a chain reaction - the outgoing president has suggested in vivid terms that the increase of nationalism within the EU could result in a ‘bloodbath’.
Whether or not such a stark warning can be justified, the situation is beginning to look increasingly bleak to the eyes of those who insist that full economic and political union of Europe is necessary to avoid the danger of a repeat of the horrors and destruction of the Second World War.
The EU founding fathers believed that nationalism caused wars. Historically, it is evident that, when the interests of countries collided and diplomacy failed, conflict ensued. However, in the modern era, wars have been caused more by ideologies like fascism, communism and Islamic fundamentalism.
As the surge of popular protest continues, voters across Europe are apparently expressing their rage against the liberal elite establishment, economic stagnation and wealth inequality, together with their growing dissatisfaction with Brussels. The relentless drive by eurocrats towards ‘ever-closer union’ no longer seems to be acceptable to the grass roots and is becoming increasingly unrealistic. There has also been the mishandling of the immigration crisis by European leaders, not least by Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel whose open-door policy has spectacularly fanned the flames of a major crisis.
Eurosceptic parties are becoming increasingly influential in France, Italy, Austria and the Netherlands. The defeat of the anti-migrant and anti-Islam candidate in Austria’s presidential election last week served to stem the tide for a brief moment, but the resignation of the Italian Prime Minister after the ‘no’ vote in the nation’s referendum on constitutional reform (though the central issue was really Europe) quickly followed - and the consequences of that could be serious both for the euro single currency, in light of Italy’s weak economy and its under capitalised banks, and even for the political stability of the EU itself.
The anti-EU National Front party in France is expected to do well in next year’s presidential election while Hungary, Poland and others have rejected migrant quotas imposed by Brussels. Meanwhile, the euro’s troubles persist, though Greece as its weakest link has now secured some short-term relief through a further bailout.
It seems that, if the EU is to avoid fragmentation or even collapse, radical action is necessary and the rigidities of the original vision in the Treaty of Rome of 1957 have to change. The fundamental philosophy of inexorable progress towards complete economic and political union leading to the disappearance of the nation-state must surely now be re-examined.
The basic question is whether EU member states wish to govern themselves or to sign away that power and be ruled by those in a distant Brussels bureaucracy churning out endless restrictive directives in a futile effort at harmonisation across 27 vastly different countries - faceless and unaccountable officials who cannot be voted out of office.
The original motivation of European unity and co-operation in order to prevent future armed conflict across the continent was surely admirable. Nowadays, collaboration and partnership in trade, the environment, counter terrorism, policing, transport, education, scientific research, culture and sport are equally admirable and desirable. Such co-operation amongst the nations of Europe is achievable and is already happening. But the drive towards further union affecting the sovereignty of member states and leading to a federal European state now looks to be a step too far.
The response of EU leaders to past crises has been simply ‘more Europe’. Now, in order to prevent disintegration of the whole EU project, change and reform is surely essential.