Disarray in the European Union
The European Union is one of the most important and most transformative international organizations created in the 20th century. Founded initially as an economic community of six nations, it has grown into a giant that now numbers 28 member states. It has generated unprecedented economic prosperity for most of its members. Equally, if not more importantly, it has created and presided over a zone of peace in a Europe that had traditionally been the scene of endless and bloody wars. At the heart of this latter achievement was the agreement concluded in 1963 between French president Charles de Gaulle and German chancellor Konrad Adenauer. This put an end to a hostile relationship that had seen the two countries fight three wars against each other in a period of 75 years. It was also an agreement that solidly established Paris and Bonn/Berlin as the axis on which the European Union would turn in future. And so it proved to be.
In recent years, Germany has emerged as the anchor of the European Union, both economically and politically. Under the unspectacular but very solid leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany has helped the European Union to cope with the Greek financial crisis and other economic woes experienced by its southern member states. As France staggered under the leadership of the somewhat erratic Francois Hollande, Germany soldiered on registering fairly respectable rates of economic growth and a very low unemployment rate. It was widely viewed as a model of political and economic stability, as well as a staunch defender of the liberal world order.
In 2015, German politics took a sudden and unexpected turn, when Chancellor Merkel took the courageous decision to admit more than one million asylum seekers who had been rejected by other European countries on their way from the Middle East. The German authorities did a remarkable job in welcoming and integrating these refugees, but their presence on German soil gave rise to bitter political controversies. A far right party called the Alternative for Germany (AFG) railed against the government’s decision. Seizing on a couple of criminal acts committed by refugees, it sought to influence public passions against them all. And it was at least partially successful, having increased the number of seats it holds in the Bundestag, largely at the expense of Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. The most recent state elections in Bavaria have dealt yet another blow to the chancellor, and she has announced that she will not seek re-election at the next federal election. In fact, many now wonder whether she and her coalition government will be able to last that long, thus casting a shadow over Germany’s political future
In France, the political scene is somewhat rosier. Since coming to office last year, President Emmanuel Macron has shown himself to be a dynamic leader. He has implemented a long series of much needed socioeconomic reforms that his immediate predecessors had been incapable of doing. His still fairly new political party, La Republique en Marche, commands a substantial majority in the National Assembly. And he enjoys the luxury rare among current European leaders of having a one-party government as opposed to a difficult coalition. Macron’s problems have more to do with style than with substance. He is widely viewed as arrogant, and one of his senior ministers resigned recently complaining about the president’s “lack of humility.” His image has taken a beating. His approval rating as reported by pollsters has sunk from 53 per cent at the beginning of the year to 33 per cent in October. This is a worrying trend for the future political stability of France, where support for the old traditional parties has collapsed and only the far right National Front appears to be holding its own.
The situation is far messier in Great Britain. Since the Brexit referendum of 2016, the country has been stumbling from one minor crisis to another. The early general election precipitated by Prime Minister Theresa May was a disaster for the Conservative Party, which lost its majority in the House of Commons and has remained in office only thanks to the support of an unreliable Northern Ireland Party. The prime minister’s authority has been undermined by a frequently vicious civil war within Conservative ranks. The former foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, has been relentless in his attack on Mrs. May and has sought to discredit her in the eyes of Britons and Europeans alike. Her performance in negotiations with the European Union over Britain’s exit has been less than stellar and there is still no solution in sight. Whether or not a deal is eventually reached, Britain’s departure will be detrimental to the country’s economy. It will also be detrimental to the European Union to lose its third-largest economy, and one of only two European countries (the other being France) that is able and willing to project military force abroad.
In Italy, the European Union’s fourth-largest economy, the government is now in the hands of two populist parties that came out on top in last March’s general election. The government has now put forward a budget that proposes increased benefits for the poor and unemployed, as well as selective tax cuts. These will result in a budget deficit of 2.4 per cent of GDP, thus adding to the country’s already huge public debt, which amounts to 130 per cent of GDP. This budget violates longstanding norms established by the members of the Euro Zone and has provoked a strong response from the European Commissioner. As The Economist put it in a recent article: “Like a couple of prize fighters before a grudge match, the European Commission and the Italian government are standing toe to toe. On Oct. 23, Brussels demanded that the populist coalition in Rome rewrite its 2019 budget. It is the first time since the launch of the Euro that the commission has rejected outright the fiscal blueprint of a member state.” The Italian government has so far refused to comply, producing yet another crisis at the heart of Europe.
When Donald Trump was elected president of the United States in 2016 on a clearly nationalist and protectionist platform, it was widely hoped that the European Union would be able to step into the breach as the defender of the liberal international order. Unfortunately, the European Union has been plagued by so much political uncertainty and so many divisions that it has not been able to take on that role. This is very regrettable since it leaves the West somewhat rudderless as it thrashes around on the world scene trying to cope with the challenges presented by China and Russia.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks at the European People's Party (EPP) congress in Helsinki, Finland, on November 8, 2018. - EPP, the largest political family in the European Union (EU), are to elect their top candidate for the 2019 European elections.