Europe’s three fault lines

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Ten or 20 years ago, the ex­is­ten­tial ques­tion fac­ing the Euro­pean Union was whether it still had a pur­pose in a glob­alised world. The ques­tion to­day is whether the EU can re­spond ef­fec­tively to ma­jor ex­ter­nal shocks.

Europe’s neigh­bour­hood is poor and dan­ger­ous. South of Gi­bral­tar, in­come per capita drops more than five­fold. War has re­cently raged in Ukraine. The Is­rael-Pales­tine con­flict has con­tin­ued for more than 50 years. And the war in Iraq barely ended be­fore the may­hem in Syria com­menced.

For sev­eral decades af­ter World War II, Europe could af­ford to over­look what went on be­yond its bor­ders: se­cu­rity was the busi­ness of the United States. But things have changed. The US re­treat from Iraq sig­naled the lim­its of its en­gage­ment, and the prob­lems in the EU’s im­me­di­ate neigh­bour­hood – not just in Syria, but also to the east and the south – are now knock­ing on its door. So it would seem that the EU’s top pri­or­ity should be to pro­tect it­self and help sta­bilise its en­vi­ron­ment.

Yet three in­ter­nal fault lines are making it dif­fi­cult for the EU to achieve th­ese ends. Bri­tain is won­der­ing whether it should exit. Western and East­ern Europe are at odds over the refugee cri­sis. And France and Ger­many dif­fer on pri­or­i­ties.

Bri­tain’s tor­ment over EU mem­ber­ship is rooted in history: In 1946, Win­ston Churchill fa­mously ad­vo­cated a United States of Europe – but with­out Bri­tain. Yet there is lit­tle sub­stance to Bri­tish Euro­pho­bia: noth­ing fun­da­men­tal sep­a­rates the United King­dom from the rest of the con­ti­nent. Tellingly, the Bri­tish For­eign Of­fice’s rig­or­ous re­view of how the EU op­er­ates did not de­liver an agenda for the repa­tri­a­tion of com­pe­tences.

The only sig­nif­i­cant de­mand ex­pressed by Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron in his re­cent let­ter to the EU con­cerns in­ter­nal mi­gra­tion. Bri­tain, the erst­while cham­pion of labour mo­bil­ity, has now be­come wary of for­eign work­ers and wants to limit their ac­cess to so­cial ben­e­fits. This is a po­ten­tial stick­ing point in the UK-EU re­la­tion­ship; but it is hardly a rea­son to end a four-decade-old part­ner­ship.

Polls sug­gest that Bri­tain’s ref­er­en­dum on con­tin­ued EU mem­ber­ship, which Cameron has promised to hold by the end of 2017, will be a close call. But it would be both a blun­der and a tragedy were Britons to vote for “Brexit” as a form of pro­tec­tion against tu­mult on the con­ti­nent.

The sec­ond fault line ap­peared along­side the refugee cri­sis. By 2014, the EU’s “big bang” en­large­ment in 2004 could be hailed as a suc­cess story, hav­ing con­trib­uted sig­nif­i­cantly to swift and peace­ful eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal tran­si­tion in cen­tral and east­ern Europe. True Euro­pean uni­fi­ca­tion seemed to be in the making.

Yet the refugee cri­sis has re­vealed that the EU’s western and east­ern mem­bers do not share the same con­cept of a na­tion. Most western Euro­pean coun­tries have con­verged, at least de facto, on a non-eth­nic, non-re­li­gious def­i­ni­tion. Most are home to sig­nif­i­cant eth­nic and re­li­gious mi­nori­ties. This has not been an easy trans­for­ma­tion, and there are dif­fer­ences in coun­tries’ per­ceived abil­ity to ab­sorb more im­mi­grants; but the change is ir­re­versible.

Most cen­tral and east­ern Euro­pean coun­tries, how­ever, ob­ject. Hun­gar­ian Prime Min­is­ter Vik­tor Or­bán has de­vel­oped a fierce anti-Mus­lim rhetoric. His Slo­vak coun­ter­part, Robert Fico, an­nounced in July that his coun­try would ac­cept only Chris­tian refugees. Ear­lier this month, Czech Pres­i­dent Milo? Ze­man ad­dressed a group called the Bloc Against Is­lam, telling its supporters that they were “not ex­trem­ists.” And Poland’s new Euro­pean af­fairs min­is­ter, Kon­rad Szy­man­ski, did not wait 24 hours af­ter the Paris at­tacks be­fore us­ing them to de­nounce Europe’s flaws.

This is not a dis­agree­ment over poli­cies. It is a di­vide over prin­ci­ples – the very prin­ci­ples of the EU’s treaties and Char­ter of Fun­da­men­tal Rights. In Ger­many, es­pe­cially, any per­son per­se­cuted on po­lit­i­cal grounds has a con­sti­tu­tional right to asy­lum. Con­trary to com­mon mis­per­cep­tions, Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel acted on the ba­sis of moral val­ues, not de­mo­graphic self-in­ter­est, in let­ting in about one mil­lion refugees this year.

Ger­many rarely expects sol­i­dar­ity from its Euro­pean part­ners. At the height of the mi­grant cri­sis, it hoped, for once, to re­ceive some. The pub­lic, cat­e­gor­i­cal re­jec­tion of Ger­many’s silent plea by coun­tries that con­tinue to ben­e­fit mas­sively from Euro­pean sol­i­dar­ity will not be eas­ily for­got­ten.

The third fault line lies be­tween France and Ger­many. Since the Novem­ber 13 at­tacks in Paris, se­cu­rity has be­come the over­rid­ing French ob­jec­tive. Mean­while, Ger­many is fo­cused on or­gan­is­ing the re­cep­tion and set­tle­ment of a mas­sive in­flux of refugees.

This di­vide is more cir­cum­stan­tial than es­sen­tial. Ter­ror­ism may spread to Ger­many, and refugees may move across bor­ders. Yet, at least for the time be­ing, pub­lic con­cerns and gov­ern­ment pri­or­i­ties dif­fer.

Both Merkel and French Pres­i­dent François Hol­lande have ex­pressed a com­mit­ment to mu­tual sup­port. France will wel­come some refugees, and Ger­many will dis­patch some troops to Mali. But sym­bolic ges­tures are not enough. The risk re­mains that each coun­try feels that it has been left alone at a crit­i­cal junc­ture.

More am­bi­tious ini­tia­tives have been pro­posed. Sig­mar Gabriel and Em­manuel Macron, the Ger­man and French econ­omy min­is­ters, re­cently called for a com­mon fund to ad­dress Europe’s refugee and se­cu­rity chal­lenges and to fi­nance joint poli­cies. The fund would serve as a con­crete risk-shar­ing mech­a­nism and would be a mod­est, yet mean­ing­ful step to­ward over­com­ing the dead­lock over EU ini­tia­tives, if not to­ward mu­tu­al­is­ing de­fense and se­cu­rity, as some schol­ars rec­om­mend.

What­ever form it takes, greater bold­ness is clearly needed. Oth­er­wise, the fail­ure to ad­dress com­mon risks and chal­lenges may well re­sult in cit­i­zens plac­ing ex­clu­sive faith in the na­tion-state, re­ject­ing sol­i­dar­ity, and call­ing for the per­ma­nent restora­tion of na­tional bor­ders.

It is no accident that the EU’s three fault lines have ap­peared at the very mo­ment when it is con­fronted with un­prece­dented chal­lenges. Ex­ter­nal pres­sures re­veal in­ter­nal weak­nesses. Europe can ei­ther over­come them or suc­cumb to them. The EU’s twin refugee and se­cu­rity crises con­sti­tute its mo­ment of truth.

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