NEW YORK—A chorus of anxious voices came together at New York University this weekend to ponder the future of the European Union. The conference, “A Break-Up of the European Union?” was organized by NYU’s Center for European and Mediterranean Studies.
The EU’s fortunes have probably never seemed shakier than right now, when, in the wake of the refugee crisis of 2015, the ongoing Euro crisis and Brexit, political parties dedicated to the limitation or dismantling of the EU are leading the polls in France and the Netherlands. Three upcoming elections loom large in the imaginations of Europhiles: the presidential election in France, and general elections in the Netherlands and Germany.
If you’re curious about why these elections inspire unease, consider this: Geert Wilders, head of the leading Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, referred to Moroccan immigrants as “scum” on Sunday.
Nor have recent events in the US reassured EU advocates. Donald Trump’s chaotic first month as president and his lukewarm support for NATO and other multilateral arrangements have added to the malaise.
“Thank you for taking the risk of traveling to a country in turmoil,” Prof. Christian Martin, a visiting scholar at CEMS, said in his opening remarks Friday, Feb. 17. Displaying a photograph of a razor wire fence on the Hungarian border, Martin laid a question before the audience: “Could the crises sow the seeds for ever closer union?” Gesturing to the photograph, he said, “Let’s hope that this is the last fence that is built in Europe.”
Such hopes seem unlikely to be fulfilled, if only because the challenges, while less acute than in 2015, have begun to look structural—and pro-European political forces have been slow to react effectively.
So it’s no surprise that the conference struggled to find a comprehensive diagnosis of, let alone prescription for, the EU’s problems. But its participants—mostly academics and politicians from Germany—took on a range of issues that have collectively inspired angst among the EU’s supporters and detractors alike.
The refugee crisis that peaked in 2015 served as the constant background for the weekend conference. Of all the issues this was probably the most salient, and in some ways the most distressing, because it is migration against which some of the most strident anti-EU and nationalist parties have organized.
But the EU itself is hardly a model of effective and humane asylum policy. The EU’s deal with Turkey—which is serving as a model for further deals with countries in North Africa—has solidified the status quo, holding migrants at arm’s length to avoid further asylum claims and leaving Europe’s frontline countries of Italy and Greece with enormous numbers of asylum seekers, according to Luise Amtsberg, a member of the German Bundestag from the Green Party.
“The European Union decided to outsource the protection of asylum seekers to Turkey, a volatile and not very human rights-based country,” Amtsberg said. “We can anticipate that the number of regfuees will remain high, and the political trend indicates a closure and a tightening of the legal pathways into the European Union.”
For many participants, including Prof. Martin, it isn’t correct to speak of a “crisis” at all. A country like Germany, with 80 million people and a robust economy, should have little trouble absorbing even hundreds of thousands of migrants, Martin said.
“This is something I do not understand, because I, like you, did not perceive a crisis.” Martin said to Amtsberg. “We saw a lot of people who were helping refugees ,and beyond that everything went on as normal.”
So although the summer of refugees also spurred anti-migration groups like the right-wing party Alternative for Germany, it also had positive results. “There were millions in Germany who supported refugees and became political and engaged like never before,” Amtsberg said.
The end of high growth
But the EU has deeper and older problems than migration. To get at what ails the EU, one also needs to dive into history. Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Barnard College, made this historical perspective the center of her presentation. She argued that the EU’s present problems come from economic changes in the 1970s, before the bloc existed in its present form. The postwar ‘economic miracle’—when most Western European economies posted record growth—ended in stagflation, and trade exposed native industries more and more to competition from abroad. More than the end of communism, the advent of globalization appeared as a defining moment in Berman’s historical sketch.
International trade continues to be the bête noire of many post-industrial zones. Just last year, the district assembly in Wallonia, Belgium’s French-speaking southern half, staged a revolt against CETA, a Canada–EU trade deal. Although the Walloons eventually compromised, the episode was a reminder of widespread anti-globalization sentiment tied to declining industry: Wallonia was an industrial jewel in the 19th century; today it is something like Belgium’s Rust Belt.
Yet it was the failure of Europe’s social democratic parties to offer attractive policies to address the challenges of globalization that made space for today’s nationalist and anti-European parties, Berman said. Voters want policies that will promote economic growth but shield them from the caprices of the markets. Whether this is an impossible venture almost doesn’t matter: voters’ preferences punish politicians whether they are realistic or not.
“Whether or not those 30 years after 1945 were a historical anomaly or whether they can be recreated—the intellectual discussion is all over the place on this,” Berman said. “There are people on the left [who say,] ‘Look, that was built on sand.’ … And if you believe that then politically you’re in for some serious problems.”
No single problem
One especially important lesson from the conference stood out: there is no single problem troubling the Union. But some of the problems have similar forms—at least from the perspective of voters. For instance, economic globalization and mass immigration may both leave voters feeling out of control.
For some voters, “globalization is part of this larger panoply of forces causing immense changes and eviscerating their national government,” Berman said. “Immigration fits into precisely that same logic, which is, ‘Look there are people coming in who are influencing what happens in my country, and I don’t control them and they’re different than me.’”
The Euro crisis played into the same narrative of impotence. Citizens probably do not understand, and some may not care to understand, the sovereign debt crisis, but for just this reason it seems to be something distant and beyond their control.
And in fact it is: although technocratic institutions may prevent widespread economic catastrophe—remember Mario Draghi promising to do “whatever it takes” to save the Eurozone—their isolation from democracy makes them suspect. Yet, for supporters, this is exactly their usefulness. For instance, Prof. Christian Martin, the Max Weber Chair at CEMS, said that some decisions, like EU monetary policy, should not be subject to democratic majorities.
Martin advocated for a more technocratic, depoliticized EU, one that prioritizes prosperity and incentivizes member states to participate. The cultural issues that divide Europeans, such as homosexuality or Islam, might fade if people felt that the economy and welfare state served them well, Martin suggested.
But Eric Linhart, a political scientist from the University of Chemnitz, disagreed. He pointed out that those parties who promote liberal values and redistributive policies do not succeed.
“We see here, [voters] could have the Social Democrats [of Germany],” Linhart said. “But this party is just not elected to parliament.”
Martin responded: “What makes me hopeful is the following: for matters of redistribution it is important who gets what and how it is distributed. If my neighbor is allowed to marry his gay partner it doesn’t take away anything from me. It simply doesn’t matter. It matters only in an irrational and imaginary sense.”
“But if it does not matter,” Linhart said, “why do people vote for [Poland’s Law and Justice Party] and not for [Germany’s Social Democratic Party]?”
Threats to rule of law
Martin and Linhart’s was no merely abstract argument. Which parties form governments in each member state clearly matters. In countries like Poland and Hungary, national conservative governments have been accused of undermining the rule of law. In fact, one of the conference participants was responsible for a report on rule of law in Hungary: the so-called Tavares Report, by Rui Tavares, a member of European Parliament from Portugal.
Tavares gave a thorough explanation of why it has been so difficult for the EU to rein in member states who run afoul of EU norms. Poland and Hungary were his examples. In both countries, the press and judiciary have faced policies that undermine their independence. Poland’s Law and Justice government passed laws stripping the country’s constitutional court of its discretion on when and which cases to hear. Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has waged a campaign to shutter opposition newspapers and has praised so-called “illiberal” democracy.
The EU has mechanisms in place for punishing such countries, but this has yet to happen for Poland or Hungary, a misstep that Tavares attributes to faults in the EU’s institutional design. Tavares wants to put new emphasis on the values of the EU, which are enumerated in Article 2 of the Treaty of the European Union:
The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.
Tavares advocated for what might be called a constitutional approach to this article: states that violate it should be taken to the EU’s highest court, the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.
Saturday afternoon, participants gathered to brainstorm solutions to the many problems that had been aired so far. Some were optimistic that these challenges—especially the election of Donald Trump—would inspire pro-Europeans to mobilize. No one seemed to think that the EU would disappear. Everyone thought it would still be around in five years.
Yet, Rui Tavares might have put it best in his presentation when he compared the small group of academics and politicians to the biblical prophet Jonah.
“We are little like Jonah in reverse. We are not shy of prophesying,” Tavares said. “We are trying to answer the question mark in our conference title in order to be proved wrong. We hope that by making more explicit that there is a rule-of-law threat to the European Union, we are building up this threat … but mainly for the purpose of people being more aware of it. … I do think rule-of-law is a big threat, and could lead to the breakup of the European Union, but I hope I’m wrong.”
Editor’s note: A conference is a tough beast to cover. We have tried to give a fair overview of the spirit of this conference, without getting too lost in the details. If something in this article intrigues you and you’d like to read more about it, or if you have a response to the issues raised above, please write us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured image: Heroes’ Square in Budapest. Photo by Phillip Kalantzis Cope / Flickr