Is this an ultimate test for the EU?

With Russia-Ukraine conflict, fierce debate about immigration and looming Grexit (and other problems) is this an ultimate test for the EU, what’s next for the EU in your opinion? Read few comments.

Paulo Vila MaiorAssistant Professor, the Faculty of Human and Social Sciences, University Fernando Pessoa

Europe is at a critical juncture. Several storms waved at the same time, putting Europe in the middle of the hole of a gigantic hurricane. Challenges ahead brace fiercely with concerns about the survival of Europe as a polity. Europe is like a huge vessel ploughing untameable seawaters hastened by the winds of the hurricane. The storm is, according to the sceptical approach, like a perfect storm that might end up with disintegration. A simultaneous emergence of the Greek debacle, African migrants trying to move into Europe and the Ukrainian conflict fed the hurricane. For the sceptics, despite Europe looks like a large vessel it is more a fragile, tiny boat looking at the daunting clouds that whisper the ghost of disintegration. Europe is at the edge of a fatal catastrophe and political leaders are unprepared to understand the symptoms and to provide efficient solutions for a revived Europe.

Despite chaos that comes with an infuriating hurricane, this is also the window of opportunity for a renewed Europe. Challenges are, of course, of considerable dimension. Nonetheless, as it happens frequently in our lives, challenges are also an opportunity to change. Change itself might be the answer to overcome the myriad of problems that threaten the survival of a polity like Europe. More than ever, the motto is to change or to die.

The crisis in Ukraine is a very sensitive issue of high political salience. If there is the opportunity to give Europe a voice in this conflict, it is also a threat for the security of the whole continent. The key is diplomacy, not the muscle of weapons – the cleverness of words and bargaining instead of armies’ irrationality. That alone is not a guarantee of success, since Russia seeks to reassure itself in the theatre of international relations. Yet, Europe cannot remain a passive actor. The prospect of accession of Ukraine to the EU is not the appropriate tool to face the security crisis. It is a laudable act of solidarity, but it can also be understood as a provocation to Russia. If anything, this can trigger a vigorous position of Russia that, in the end, might entail a no-win solution for all actors involved. Europe will not stop being a political dwarf if the option is a clash against Russia. A reasonable solution is to use reason, not force.

The migration crisis calls for an urgent solution and, therefore, it is also an opportunity to put Europe at the centre of the stage. What is not needed is a long-standing discussion that focuses mainly of national interests, as if they were more important that the considerable number of human lives perishing in the Mediterranean Sea. Europe should act as the catalyst of national political authorities and forge a solution that puts migrants’ basic rights before self-centred concerns of national authorities. Again, it must be recognised that Europe lacks effective political power to impose solutions on national governments. Maybe a more persuasive action that encompasses something like an organised public relations’ campaign, with the help of non-governmental organisations, could transform Europe in the key actor in the migration crisis. Europe has a genetic cultural heritage of humanism. It cannot be jeopardised by member states’ lack of long-term vision and selfishness that shed a cloud on humanistic values.

The third issue at stake is the prospect of Grexit. At the time of writing, the Greek government announced a referendum about the measures that the EU and the IMF want to be implemented in Greece in order to soften the long-standing problems that affect that country. A treacherous political battle seems to be going on. Amidst a considerable rhetorical noise that might affect an agreement between Greece, the EU and the IMF, my understanding is that this is far from being the end of the movie that forecasts Greece’s exit from the Eurozone and, possibly, the beginning of many contagious effects that in the end might entail the collapse of Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). Without considering tactical moves within this negotiation process (maybe because Varoufakis is an expert in game theory…), Europe is full of examples of how an almost collapse of negotiations turns into the window of opportunity to narrow differences between the parties involved. What is different now is that one of the actors is a far-left government who is not willing to accept all positions of the EU and the IMF.

The Greek case is rich for Europe’s reinvigorated potential. Grexit is, on my understanding, far from being real. It is nothing more than a threat used by the Greek government (despite they do not want to go outside the Eurozone, according to recent statements). The Greek government’s stake is definitely high. Nevertheless, it is an illustrating example of the renewal of Europe. On the one hand, because a radical left government challenged the orthodoxy of the Eurozone and, thus, it triggered a normative discussion of Europe that was largely absent. On the other hand, this is the opportunity for a catharsis on EMU, namely the recognition of some of the weaknesses on the Eurozone’s architecture. What is sure is that EMU is filled with scars, it was shaken as if an earthquake touched it, and probably other “exits” might be in the table if past mistakes are not corrected appropriately. At the end of the day, all that is going on is more about “Grexin” (so to speak) than Grexit.

I am aware that the solutions envisaged for these issues that bite on Europe’s knees call for what can be termed of a revolution on politics and mentalities. As such, it moves within an oneiric dimension. It is something like a scission between the political authority of EU institutions and that in the hands of national governments whenever the latter are unable (or unwilling) to provide solutions to problems that come to the surface. National authorities’ inertia might be the window of opportunity to a resolute action of EU institutions. It is an opportunity for Europe to step into the centre of the stage.

I also realise that this is only possible as long as the EU treaties are amended so that Europe’s action is no longer kept on a leash by national authorities’ political willingness. This is the opportunity for the vindication of Europe. It is time for member states to understand that their political autism is the worst-case scenario, like the terrible storm that is hitting Europe nowadays. Thus, they should also understand that it is turn for Europe’s leading role.

Hylke DijkstraAssistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Maastricht University

The agenda of last week’s European Council was indeed full with Ukraine, immigration, Grexit, and not to forget the upcoming British referendum. This not only shows the challenge to Europe, but also that the EU has become the reference point for major discussions of international affairs. While the EU sometimes seems to struggle with many of these dossiers, it has arguably also managed. In particular, the member states have managed to find common positions. Both on Russia and Greece, the member states largely agree and have kept the line. The debate on immigration was fierce, but they agreed to voluntary quotas nonetheless. This is a major step forward. These crises are the ultimate test, and while the EU has not receive top marks, it has neither failed spectacularly.

Kalypso Nicolaïdis, Professor of International Relations, University of Oxford

Those who predict the end of Europe are too enamoured with sensationalism. In truth, the EU is a very resilient and solid construct and we all know its worth. Unfortunately, we have seen that on this journey Europeans —both peoples and elites — have not yet learned how to practice the crucial value of mutual recognition — of each other’s democratic and socio-economic reality and of each other’s cultural make up and collective psychology. This is what is at stake in the Greek-German duel which is tearing the rest of Europe apart.

Kristian SteinnesProfessor, Department of Historical Studies, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

The big questions you bring up are in my opinion to some respect a test for the EU. Yet it depends on the way you look at it.

The great challenges you mention are slightly different in character. The biggest current one for the EU is Grexit. The looming Grexit problem might be regarded as a test of the political will to keep up the momentum in the integration process. If Merkel and the other leaders let Greece fall out of the Euro group, it might be regarded as a reduced will to an ever closer union. Basically, the Euro is a political decision put in place by economic means (a common currency). By introducing the Euro, the states agreed to let go one of the greatest symbols of the nation state – a symbol that peoples in these states carries in their pockets. Thus, in one way, we may argue that Grexit is a test for the EU. If Merkel, Hollande and the others let Greece fall out of the Euro, it may be argued that it is a blow to the political will to integrate, which in the long run might have implications for the EU. It might also influence the Brexit question, which also has the capacity to change the course of the EU. There is no provision in the EU Treaties on withdrawal from the Euro, which indicates that Grexit might be a range of unforeseen consequences – how will an exit of a former Euro member influence other Euro states getting into trouble in the future? How will a Grexit influence political movements and parties in other Euro member countries? Although Grexit mainly has been treated as an econoimc problem (media largely have asked economists to comment on the problem), it rather should be treated as a political challenge. It has in different ways been badly handled on both sides, which also have contributed to push the economic part of the problem farther than had been necessary.

Yet crisis is nothing new to the EU, and the club has been able to agree to disagree on many important questions since the 1960s and the 1966 Luxembourg compromise. Thus, although a Grexit might be regarded a test of EU integration, it is unlikely that it will undermine the Euro or the EU as such. Possibly, it is a bad omen if Greece is left to ‘sink’, yet it is likely that the rest (or a large majority of the rest) rather will continue to deepen their cooperation and strengthen the economic union part of the economic and monetary union in stead of heading towards a disintegrative future.

Except that a possible next big issue might appear ‘out of the blue’, the next one set is the Brexit question. It is a sign that the French draws a red line when it comes to treaty changes. Thus, Cameron might achieve some concessions in the coming negotiations, but it is unlikely that it will have real influences on the EU as such. Yet Brexit has the potential to have real influence on the trajectory of EU integration, yet that is another story.

Dimitrios Triantaphyllou, Associate Professor, Chair, Department of International Relations, Director, Center for International and European Studies (CIES), Kadir has University

The history of European Integration has been forged on conflict and confrontation which has been surpassed through constant negotiation and compromise. I think this phase is the same. The differences between the member states are indeed great and the issues that divide them are many yet they are not unsurmountable. An internal debate about the Europe we want is necessary as is a better understanding of the expectation of member states. The EU is primarily comprised by medium sized and small states that joined on the understanding that their national prerogatives would be advanced within the shell of the Union and its institutions and that within this context they would be able to withstand pressures from the big powers that may want their national interests advanced. Of the issues you mention (Russia-Ukraine conflict, immigration, and looming GREXIT), the most important for the future of the EU is GREXIT as it raises fundamental issues regarding how a member state can or cannot be kicked out because the policies of its government find it in opposition with those of other EU member states. Yet, we have to consider that should a country be forced to leave, the very notions of solidarity, debate, and compromise are threatened and this could thus occur to every small and medium sized states in the future of other issues of equal concern to them. Forcing a country out basically implies that the EU has transformed itself from a union of likeminded liberal democracies to one where the centers of power are not its institutions but its national capitals and by extension those of its bigger member states — in this case, Berlin and Germany. Forcing a country out instead of fighting a solution within the Union, thus implies that the EU is acting more like the COMECON or the Warsaw Pact where one country or two dictate the rules of the game and the perceived security of small and medium sized states to join it to advance their interests and security is lost. Also the problem of this logic which seems to prevail today is the correlation with the government currently running Greece and its extremist and ideological positions, I would say, and the country it represents…governments rise and fall while countries remain. In other words, a forced GREXIT challenges the foundations of the EU — its values, norms, and democratic processes and this needs to be fought and compromise reached.

On the issues of Russia and immigration, there is more room for consensual solutions among the 28 never mind how difficult the negotiation and consensus reaching process might be. On the issue of GREXIT, the EU risks losing its soul for the first time in its history although I hope that cooler heads will be prevail. Should this be possible, the EU will come out strenghtened and able to forge future consensus on these and other conflictual issues that will undoubtedly emerge in the future with a renewed sense of mission and common purpose.

John O’ Brennan, Lecturer, European Politics and Society, Director, Centre for the Study of Wider Europe, National University of Ireland Maynooth NUIM

I think it is probably best to focus on each of these micro issues as separate entities. But I should stress that as long as I have been studying the EU it has been beset by one crisis or another. If it wasn’t a constitutional Crisis (‘Luxembourg crisis’ to Maastricht, Nice, Constitutional Treaty, Lisbon, and Brexit) it has been economic crisis (economic ‘sclerosis of the 1970s to Grexit). The EU has been propelled BY crisis since its inception and this may not be so different. Already we see ideas about a potential settlement of the Grexit emerging (although contested) and there is no reason to think it will have serious implications for the EU. To those Greeks who are saying (mainly on the Syriza side) that a No vote will strengthen their capacity to bargain, well, I wish you were right. But you are living in cloud cuckoo land. Brussels and Frankfurt are not perfectly prepared to cut the cord. The tragedy is that this will hurt the EU norm of solidarity. In fact it will leave it in shreds. But the Union has demonstrated an astonishing capacity for self-repair after similar episodes in the past and Greece is simply not systemically important enough to produce a sundering of the EU.

The challenge presented by Russian aggression in the East is (in my view) potentially more important. Because it is insidious and has the capacity to change geopolitical realities. The tide may have swung against Putin in recent months with the latest Court rulings on Yukos in the Hague and elsewhere adding to his woes causes by the falling oil price and rouble value. But he continues to attempt to ‘hive off’ East European states from the EU (and Greece) and it is crucial that the Union pays renewed attention to this, and to enlargement where the Western Balkans remains extremely fragile, and to the Eastern Neighbourhood where Russian aggression is most in evidence.

Marta PachockaDepartment of Public Administration, Warsaw School of Economics, Secretary of Polish European Community Studies Association

The European Union from its beginning has been confronted with various challenges, both internal and external. The functioning of the Union is conditioned by diverse factors at national, regional and global levels. Currently, the Union is formed by 28 sovereign states having their own interests and goals. These countries, however, voluntarily chose to join the EU, and to achieve this goal, they had to fill out numerous political, social and economic criteria. They share common interests and goals whose effective implementation and realization is possible only at EU level.
Instead of asking whether the Union will survive, we should rather think about the major internal and external challenges that the EU faces today in order to identify, develop and implement the best possible solutions and tools.

The EU dealt largely with the financial and economic crisis. Currently, the EU has to face, among others, the challenges resulting from demographic changes that are already taking place and will continue. One of them is the demographic aging of European society; another one are migration processes, especially the growing influx of legal and illegal immigrants. The Union makes efforts in this direction, e.g. through a common migration and asylum policy. In that context, a very good example of joint action is the European Agenda on Migration.

Davide DentiPhD student, School of International Studies, University of Trento, Editor for East Journal

Indeed the main challenge in these years ahead will be to guarantee the unity among the member states and the functioning of the institutions and their policies, among strong turbulence in both domestic and foreign affairs, and to prepare for the post-crisis setting with more efficient, legitimate and democratic domestic institutions (immigration policy and Eurozone governance included) and more effective and strategic foreign policy relations.

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