The fading dream of European unity

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Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi

THE EU is largely viewed as a cornerstone of European stability and prosperity. For much of the last decade, however, many EU countries have faced considerable economic difficulties. Since 2017, Brussels has undergo an acid test of becoming EU’s power hub because of the rise of populist and anti-establishment political parties harbouring anti EU or Euro-skeptic sentiments. Such trends have complicated the EUs ability to deal with multiple internal and external challenges. And above all, the European policy cleavage between Germany and France remains one of the prime causes of EU’s political disarray. “Europe has to stay together,” Germany’s Angela Merkel said, “Especially in this situation, in which Europe is in a very fragile position, it’s very, very important to me that Germany doesn’t act unilaterally.”
Following the 2017 election of French President Emmanuel Macron, EU supporters hoped that France would resume its traditional role as a strong leader of the EU alongside Germany. Many viewed this as crucial for the EU’s future, especially in light of Brexit. Although Macron is a committed European integrationist and has proposed ambitious EU reforms, Merkel’s tenure is drawing to a close. Now in her fourth term of office, Chancellor Merkel is increasingly facing domestic opposition and challenges to her authority, including from within her own center-right political grouping, amid growing tension over migration and asylum policy. In late October 2018, Merkel announced she will step down as her Party’s leader in December and will not run for reelection in 2021.
Riots, looting and vandalism plagued Paris and other cities as France witnessed its fourth consecutive weekend of anti-government demonstrations that have made President Macron’s government look vulnerable. The unrest, coupled with political uncertainty in Europe – seen in Germany as Angela Merkel winds down her leadership and wider Europe ahead of European parliamentary elections in May 2019 – mean that Italy’s controversial 2019 budget should no longer be the main focus of attention in the region. During most of that time, Germany was taken as the paragon of economic and political stability — a critically important counterweight to France’s notoriously volatile body politic. Those two countries made a deal — French agriculture in exchange for the free pass to Germany’s powerful manufacturing industries — in order to move the European project forward.
The deal still holds, but that uneasy alliance stumbled upon major difficulties posed by the last financial crisis, because Berlin and Paris have always been worlds apart in the way they could handle their fundamental economic, social and political challenges. Macron’s chances of political survival and recovery seem heavily compromised. But even if he somehow beats the odds and remains in office, the ill-fated French-German couple is already condemned as a terminally dysfunctional engine of EU management. That leaves Germany alone, with possibly some smaller northern allies, to exercise a European leadership — a totally unacceptable prospect to France, Italy and the Visegrad Group (Poland, Hungary, Czechia and Slovakia). According to Al Jazeera, the German Government is mulling over replicating the police controls they have already imposed on the Austrian border with France as well.
And undeniably, over the last several years, many EU countries have seen a rise in support for populist, nationalist, anti-establishment political parties. These parties are often termed “Euroskeptic” because many have also been fuelled by worries that too much national sovereignty has been relinquished to Brussels. Although not a completely new phenomenon in the EU, the uptick in support for such parties largely began in response to Europe’s economic difficulties, austerity measures, and the Eurozone crisis. For some voters, how Brussels handled the Eurozone crisis renewed long-standing concerns about the EU’s “democratic deficit”—a sense that ordinary citizens have little say in decisions taken in faraway Brussels. Increasingly, heightened fears about immigration amid a sizeable influx of migrants and refugees in Europe appear to be driving rising poll numbers for populist and Euroskeptic parties.
Populist and Euroskeptic parties, however, are not monolithic. Most are on the far right of the political spectrum, but a few are on the left or far left. The degree of euroscepticism also varies widely among them, and they hold a range of views on the future of the EU. While some advocate for EU reforms and a looser EU in which member states would retain greater sovereignty, others call for an end to the Eurozone or even to the EU itself. Differences also have emerged between Germany and France on certain aspects of key issues, including potential Eurozone reforms and the future of EU defence policy. A number of analysts suggest that smaller EU members, such as the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and the Baltic countries, are not keen to see a reinvigorated Franco-German engine in the absence of the UK, which often served as a check on more federalist impulses. Meanwhile, as noted above, Italy’s current government harbours Euroskeptic views and is considered unlikely to champion EU reforms.
Apparently once Britain leaves, Germany and France will once again be the motors of Europe, as they were when the original Common Market was formed. But this scenario still faces remarkable inter and intra-states challenges. There were hopes that a Macron-Merkel axis would lead the European Union to the sunlit uplands of a new era, but the French President’s ambitions to deepen integration are not matched by the German Chancellor’s caution. Angela Merkel whose era has been closed-seems to have been chastened by the eruption of German populism in the shape of the Alternative for Germany, the far-right anti-immigrant party that is now the official opposition in the German Parliament. There is no denying that European leaders do not reflect a vision of strategic unity that is intrinsically required to fulfil the European credo. And it seems that the European project depicts certain policy miscarriages that are gleaned in EU’s institutional reforms glaringly manifested by ongoing power interplay between a transnational European orientation with that of an inter-governmental European outlook.
— The writer, an independent ‘IR’ researcher-cum- analyst based in Pakistan, is member of European Consortium for Political Research Standing Group on IR, Critical Peace & Conflict Studies, also a member of European Society of International Law (ESIL).

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