The European Union is facing a truly terrifying array of crises. After prolonged euro and sovereign-debt crises polarized and radicalized the continent, creating a deep north-south rift, the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees has pitted east (plus the United Kingdom) against west. Add to that numerous other divides and contradictions, and the EU’s collapse seems to many more likely than ever.
Consider the wide variations among EU countries’ energy policies, beginning with incompatible energy-pricing structures that run counter to the idea of a single internal market. Countries have also adopted incompatible solutions, making it extremely difficult to integrate national energy networks.
For example, whereas France derives the majority of its electricity from nuclear energy, Germany rushed to close all of its nuclear power plants after the 2011 meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima plant. Now Germany, along with Spain, is focusing on renewables like wind and solar – but remains highly dependent on fossil fuels when there is no wind or sun.
Meanwhile, the security challenge posed by Russia has grown steadily since 2008, and has become especially serious since last year’s illegal annexation of Crimea and invasion of parts of eastern Ukraine. Continued fighting and unresolved territorial claims have injected a new sense of urgency into discussions about Europe’s energy policy and, specifically, its dependence on imported energy.
Russia is also involved in another serious challenge to European security and stability: the crisis in Syria that is producing the hundreds of thousands of refugees now flocking to Europe. The refugee crisis is rooted partly in the failure of European foreign policy to prevent North Africa and the Middle East from descending into chaos. But Russian attacks on groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime are exacerbating instability in large swaths of the country, driving even more desperate people to seek shelter in Europe.
As if these challenges were not enough, the EU is plagued by fundamental questions about its democratic legitimacy. Extremist ideologies are gaining ground, and separatist movements have been reenergized.
During the first half of this year, Greeks seemed to be pitted against Europe. A similar drama is now playing out in Portugal, where a left-wing coalition includes politicians deeply hostile toward Europe, while the president insists that the old center-right government can win support by emphasizing the country’s commitment to Europe. Spain may soon face a similar dilemma.
Simply put, Europe is overloaded by crises – so overloaded, in fact, that many claim it is too weary to respond effectively to new challenges as they arise. Years of trauma, according to this view, have sapped the psychic energy its leaders need to design effective solutions, and the political capital needed to win support for these solutions. That is why the response to the refugee crisis has been so sorely lacking.
But the EU was built on the expectation of crisis. Jean Monnet, one of the EU’s founding fathers, repeatedly returned to the notion that the urgency of emergency would propel integration. As he put it, “Europe will be forged in crises, and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises.”
And yet the problems driving such crises, one could argue, must be small enough to be manageable. Too large a crisis – or too many crises at once – threatens to overwhelm the EU’s capacity to respond, ultimately leading to breakdown. In Hamlet, Claudius, contemplating Ophelia’s deteriorating mental state, observes that, “When sorrows come, they come not single spies/but in battalions.” Ultimately, of course, Ophelia goes mad and drowns herself.
But Claudius, a tyrannical murderer, is not exactly a font of political wisdom. In fact, addressing multiple crises simultaneously can make them all easier to resolve, by increasing the scope for tradeoffs. In the EU, where competing interests often impede effective responses to crises, this approach could be the key to progress. Far from imposing on countries’ sovereignty, the EU would thus become an arena for the negotiation of mutually beneficial compromises.
For example, Germany’s reluctance to provide debt relief to southern European countries has helped to prolong their woes; now, however, it may have sufficient incentive to do more, as it would reap immediate benefits from an EU-wide solution to the refugee crisis. Similarly, military integration could boost strategic effectiveness and reduce costs, especially for countries with larger defense budgets.
A form of this “issue-linking” approach is already used in international trade negotiations. Though major breakthroughs are difficult to achieve, they result in overall gains for all participants.
Europe needs to recover the mentality of 1989, when the movement of large numbers of people across borders – initially, the Hungarian-Austrian frontier – prompted reform and openness, rather than a silo mentality. During that wave of revolutions, protesters seeking freedom thought in terms of Europe and their own countries’ aspirations simultaneously. The strengthening of the former was integral to the legitimacy of the latter.
In 2015, no less than in 1989, European nation-states need more insurance against external pressures and strategic shocks than the nation-state can provide. And now, as then, only the EU can provide it.