A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

The Disheartened Continent


We are witnesses to deep divides within the EU. To overcome them, we must remember: the union is not a lofty enterprise, but a vehicle to tackle day-to-day challenges.


© mikie1/Stockphoto

How much of this seems familiar? The European Union really is in crisis now, on the verge of breaking apart. Centrifugal forces are out of control. Dams are broken. The common currency was built on sand, the young have no work, and values have been betrayed. The far right is on the march across the continent. Europe has been overtaken by new centers of power elsewhere, in a world that seems to be unraveling. Europeans no longer feel safe in their own backyard. The Britons are already taking steps toward a post-EU era. They have often enough demonstrated good instincts; they know what it is like to fall from a great height, and do not want to be part of that again. Failing states in our midst, in Central and Eastern Europe, are on their way back into dark times.

Moscow is challenging the Europeans with breathtaking audacity. And we are taking our sweet time to consider which weapons to reach for. Militarily, we have nothing left anyway. Now, it seems, we do not even have faith in our soft weaponry anymore. EU neighbors are no longer on the way to democracy; instead they are embroiled in war and chaos and many of their people are on their way to us. Schengen – borderless movement within the union – is at an end, EU governments divided, joint institutions unable to cope; public threats abound and mistrust is spreading. Now even the German chancellor looks wobbly.

For years it has been fashionable to worry about the state of the European Union. Yet the absolute bottom line moves a couple of centimeters each year. Did the Greek euro-tragedy not ring in the end of the EU, and even Europe? Now there is the refugee crisis – and that is much more explosive because it reaches deep into the identities of Europeans. It seems to expose what divides us and bury what unites us. How can the EU hang on?

The Moral Maze

It is a truism that the best recipe to combat diminishing faith in European policies is one that weakens the centrifugal forces in the EU. That includes a solution for the acute refugee crisis and a long-term strategy to deal with migration streams, a unified, strong presence in foreign and security policy, and a sustainable structure for the economic and currency union – all so difficult to achieve exactly because of those centrifugal forces.

Take upholding the values that EU countries promise to honor when they join the union: Democracy, the rule of law, the protection of human rights and minorities. The EU has always seen itself as the driver of transformation within countries wishing to join, leading them to respect these values as best they can. But the realization that this process can be reversed has provoked significant insecurity in Brussels and other European capitals. The fact that EU structures themselves do not always fulfill the expected democratic conditions does not make anything simpler. The gap between demands and reality has grown markedly.

Although the EU places a great deal of emphasis on values, it currently seems unprepared, even non-responsive, when dealing with this topic. This, however, is not about demanding a new debate on values. Rather, we have to realize that our posturing on values has practical consequences: it is on these that we are judged  and we must accept the fact that this applies not only to our own countries, but also to what happens within the EU. We cannot allow membership for those who continuously abuse basic values all union members committed themselves to respect. This is not a question of patronization or of interfering in the domestic matters of member states,. It is a natural part of a clear, albeit carefully conducted, European debate. We all have a great deal to lose if some of us begin attacking the values and rights we have achieved and upon which we have built the union.

The question of values is also valid in relation to European integration itself. Until now the current level of integration has pretty much held steady. Questioning the distribution of powers between European and national levels was practically unacceptable for those committed to building the union, something that was seen as an attack on the greater idea. But how can we, within the EU framework, deal with competing values? Is the value of the Schengen agreement, of passport-free travel within most of the EU to be regarded as greater than the value of security and order in EU member states? The refugee crisis clearly pushes this difficult question onto the agenda. Under what circumstances is the value of the level of integration that has already been reached secondary – and who should decide that? The general tendency to discuss “Europe” as an almost moral imperative has hampered the EU to take on this debate in a differentiated manner. But that is exactly what is urgently needed.

The Return of Nations

The political forces that have deepened and broadened European integration over the past few decades have been losing ground. But this has little to do with their Europe policies; rather, it is a function of the drift in the political party landscape within member states in general. New movements have emerged criticizing the fundamental direction and substance of European politics, and the state of democracy in many EU countries. Many of their supporters are asking valid questions.

These movements and parties, however, are different from the growing forces that question the basic idea of any peaceful integration of Europeans. These are the actual enemies of European thought and of peace within and between the peoples of Europe. They present themselves as Europeanized alternatives, but their touchstones remain national.

Established parties have in many places adapted their discussions to keep up with voters. Not only does that affect what is possible to be achieved now in daily EU politics. It also illustrates that the EU system’s many and high ratification hurdles make it very difficult to adapt. “Old” European political forces seem powerless. The best way to tackle these centrifugal forces would be a convincing political approach that prevents people from drifting toward the extremes. In the refugee crisis, though, the mood within the EU is making it much more difficult to find joint policy approaches.

The State We’re In

How can this vicious cycle be broken? The old political forces must credibly establish a conversation that demonstrates that they do not see the EU as a sacred cow, but rather as a tool with which to take on the challenges of the 21st century. If they talk of dramatic global changes, but are only ready and able to take on gradual changes within the EU system, the EU will lose ever more credibility.

Perhaps it would be helpful to indeed reconsider the balance of national and European approaches – as we are currently seeing with the refugee crisis. However, the return of state borders causes deep discomfort within the European debate. Did we adopt the post-national integration project with too much enthusiasm, and forget that, for most people, the state remains a significant point of reference? Even though the EU concept is still popular, it also prompts an uneasy feeling among many of its citizens that they no longer count in this new world without borders. Those who are committed to further build the European project must acknowledge that this feeling exists.

Centrifugal forces have also become stronger from a legal perspective. EU law has always been complex. But lately this tendency has been accelerated, first and foremost by attempts to fix the common currency. EU primary law has become a patchwork of international agreements, tied to the primary law of the EU but still making up a complicated web, with many loose ends. Further differentiations such as a “mini-Schengen” are already under debate.

In addition, a British exit from the EU would mean that a new legal basis for the relationship between the EU and UK would have to be found – one which would allow for close economic and trade relations stretching into the future. That is possible, but would only increase the complexity of the legal relationships between European states further. Legally it would probably be tolerable, but the element connecting all the pieces would become less and less visible.

Which Europe Do We Want?

Is the answer to all this to move toward a “core Europe” – an idea that is again winning supporters? The idea would be to counter centrifugal forces with a consolidation of the core in order to maintain the stability of the whole; yet there are a great deal of arguments to suggest the opposite would happen: Disintegration at the periphery could accelerate rather quickly, with fatal consequences for the EU as a model of order for the entire continent.

What then holds the European states together? To answer this question, we should discard the legal community as a frame of reference. Being European is not measured by depth of integration and the application of legal arrangements, but rather by joint values. Concentrating on this theme is not an empty phrase.  It is intimately linked to the lives of many people in Europe, even more so thanks to the dispute with Vladimir Putin’s Russia over the past few years.

It is no accident that Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, is busy with this question right now. The UK is set this June to hold a referendum on Britain’s continued membership based on a package of reforms David Cameron’s Conservative government recently negotiated with the EU. The negotiating position of the European Council included a re-interpretation of the aim of an “ever closer union” from the preamble of the 1957 Treaty of Rome. That has remained a thorn in the side of the British government, as it seems to stand for runaway continental integration – but the European Council president’s advisers offer another way to look at it. The phrase “ever closer union of the people,” they suggested recently, explicitly addresses the people of Europe. The union serves to “promote the trust and understanding between the people of Europe who are linked by living in open and democratic societies which are based on the same universal values.” This, the argument goes, is not the equivalent of aiming for political integration the British so fear; thus the formulation does not necessitate automatic integration in the sense of sovereignty transfer, and London should not worry.

Yet this interpretation provokes resistance. Former long-term MEP Andrew Duff of the British Liberal Democrats warned, with good reason, against a redefinition of the principle of “ever closer union,” which could lead in the end to the disintegration of the union. Clearly, there is a battle of ideas going on that at its core addresses the notion of “EUropeanness.”

What Unites Us?

When considered soberly, it looks like Tusk has his finger on the EU’s pulse. He knows that this interpretation could not only win over British referendum voters;it could also work elsewhere in the EU. The really decisive question is indeed one of common values. It is smart to reach now for the shared experience of universal values in democratic and open societies, which is far greater than the lowest common denominator. It is equally clever to focus initially on people and not states.
The challenge now is to form the debate about what unites us so that it does not push the people and countries of the EU further away from each other. Europe has become a continent of despondency. We are experiencing how thin the layer of Europeanization is, even after many decades. We are witnessing deep cracks within and between our societies, some of which are homemade, but which are also exacerbated from outside the union’s borders.

We must actively direct our focus to repairing these cracks, ask what caused them, listen to each other and acknowledge that we see things differently, and that we have experienced the crises of the past few years differently. We must ask ourselves how the European level has contributed to these developments, and how we are going to deal with that in the future. We must therefore create more places where Europeans can negotiate these difficult questions with each other. If we do this, we can ultimately return to a recognition of what unites us and what makes us confident again about the powerful story that European unity holds.

Read more in the Berlin Policy Journal App – March/April 2016 issue.