Is it true that the EU will collapse if it stands still?by Robert Cottrell / May 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
Excited about European Union enlargement? I thought not. The EU has never done well as a popular project, at least among those whom it claims as its citizens. Nor, since the ebbing of its supranational ambitions, has it offered much in the way of a political project, as shown by its recent failure to draft a constitutional treaty declaring crisply what it is and what it does. To the considerable extent that the EU has succeeded, it has done so as a bureaucratic project. But even here, it could soon be in serious trouble. The admission of ten more countries on 1st May threatens to make it so big and disparate as to be at least temporarily unmanageable. The time may be coming to test the proposition, often repeated in Brussels, that if the union does not keep on moving forward, then it will collapse.
Other EU enlargements have been difficult in this way, but not on such a scale. The new members on this occasion are much more numerous, and much more diverse. They include eight central European countries whose economies were wrecked by half a century of communism. All are recovering, but incomes in the region will take decades to reach west European levels. Relative poverty will make these countries natural opponents of the costly regulation and standardisation which the EU has made a habit of imposing on business and governments. Throw a bit of bad feeling into the mix, of which there is plenty available from the past year’s wrangles over Iraq and the EU constitution, and a messy outcome is guaranteed.
For the sort of worst-case scenario towards which this might lead in the next 12 to 18 months, imagine a furious and sustained bust-up among governments in Brussels over tax harmonisation, structural funds and the EU budget all at once; a refusal by one or two of the new members, and one or two of the old ones, to ratify the proposed EU constitution; another collision between old Europe and new Europe over policy towards America, or perhaps towards Russia; and all this against the backdrop of a continuing sense of crisis in the German economy, the arrival of populist parties in the ruling coalitions of one or two central European countries, and, God forbid, another terrorist outrage in a European capital to set nerves on edge. How much of the EU would be left standing after that?
This is not to suggest that the current enlargement is rash, still less wrong. On the contrary, it is right and necessary. The idealised prospect of EU membership has given the post-communist countries of central Europe the motives and the models which they have needed to remake themselves, albeit imperfectly, as market democracies. Europe is a better place for their return, and if the price of that achievement is a crisis for the EU when they join it, then the price is worth paying.
But since the EU pervades so much of European life, it is prudent to wonder how much of it could survive a crisis in the union’s institutions, or among its governments, if this were to happen. And it is more than enlargement alone which prompts the reflection.
The conservative historian Niall Ferguson has argued recently that at least three other factors are conspiring to bring closer the EU’s fall. One is a poor relative economic performance, caused mainly by low productivity. The second is a growing reluctance on the part of a struggling Germany to go on footing most of the EU’s bills. The third is the ageing of Europe’s population, exacerbated by what Ferguson calls the "decadence" of its societies, in which "politicians and voters try desperately to prop up… moribund welfare states and what little remains of their traditional cultures."
To this can be added the general observation that the conditions which allowed and encouraged the formation of the EU almost 50 years ago – shame and weakness among governments after two world wars, fear of an unstable Germany, the communist threat, a US defensive shield – have passed into history. The single currency was launched as a bid to lock the union into place when everything around it began to change, but it has been only partly successful. The rehabilitation of central Europe did more to carry the EU through the 1990s, but the current enlargement brings that task close to an end. Without a new history-making project to animate them, the institutions of Brussels look more and more like a lame duck administration, fidgeting with the care and maintenance work until some new organising principle emerges among the countries of Europe.
To imagine what Europe might look like with an EU in crisis or decline, or even without a union at all, we need to identify briefly what the union does, and then to assess the value and the survival prospects of those various functions. A crude sketch might arrive at six main categories of activity: spending policies carried out through the EU budget; the single market for goods, services and capital; the Schengen system and the free movement of people; the single currency; attempts at common foreign and defence policies; and enlargement.
Of these, four can be dealt with briskly. Common foreign and defence policies will not be a major casualty if the EU fails, since they scarcely exist yet, and the EU is not proving very promising ground for their construction. If they do take shape through deep co-operation between a small number of countries, that will happen despite the EU as much as because of it.
The spending policies carried out through the EU budget could be abolished even if the EU itself were to survive and thrive. That would at least put an end to the common agricultural policy, the worst of the EU’s follies.
Any further enlargement is hostage to the success of the current one. If this round succeeds, and the EU is rejuvenated, then adding a few more countries in a few years’ time will be easy. If this one goes badly, the EU will be too weak and demoralised to repeat the experience soon, if it is still there at all.
The single currency would be a nightmare to dismantle, whatever one thinks about the wisdom of creating it. Fortunately, its organic links with the EU are slight, so its future does not have to be tied up with that of the EU at all. The European Central Bank could run the currency without any input from other EU institutions, answering directly to the governments of participating countries, which would no longer have to be EU governments.
That leaves the Schengen system and the single market to worry about. Almost every citizen who knows them likes them, but some governments chafe still at the loss of control. Schengen looks the more fragile: Britain still thinks borders are better, the new members from central Europe will be shut out of Schengen for years yet, and the current climate of justified paranoia will make it hard to argue back if governments start closing borders "temporarily" for security reasons. The hope must be that the freedoms to travel and to trade are so deeply engrained in European hearts that mechanisms for ensuring their existence will be preserved or reinvented, whatever happens to the rest of the EU’s legacy.
Some hope. Still, this is a happy moment for central Europe, and worries about the EU’s future should not obscure that fact. Welcome to the European Union, all you new members! Enjoy it while it lasts!