Is Europe on the Ropes?

The survival of the European Union and the “European Idea” is important not just to our traditional allies and some newer members but bears also on the long-term security of the United States.  All who share that view and those who dismiss it as exaggerated may wish to retrieve and read an opinion piece by John Lichfield in the British daily The Independent on April 23.  (  His opening and closing lines furnish the gist.

“RIP, The European Dream.  Born in Rome March 1957; died at the unlovely Franco-Italian border railway station of Ventimiglia, April 2011.  OK, d’accord, ist ja gut, bene, the demise of the European adventure has been forecast many times before.  The European Union as an institution will, doubtless, stumble and rumble on for a little while yet.  But the Great European Idea – the proposition that 400,000,000 Europeans will be safer, happier and more prosperous if they work together rather then against each other – has never faced so many overlapping threats to its survival….  It was created out of the immediate memory of two European wars, both driven by ancient national hatreds and ambitions.  The rise of a nasty, new, well-spoken, plausible, xenophobic nationalism is reason not to abandon the EU but to remember why it was created in the first place.”

Indeed, certain recent developments would appear to bode ill for the unity of the Union.  The economic/financial travails plaguing Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Spain (and, as a result, the richer members who are being (t)asked to make sacrifices so as to lift the plague and keep it from spreading) are leading many citizens to ask themselves whether the EU and the EURO are worth it.  No less important, internal political events in several key member states are shifting attention from the Union to the Nation, including most prominently the growing and credible threat posed to French President Nicolas Sarkozy by the far right with elections just a year away, the tragi-comic opera starring Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the recent loss suffered by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in regional elections, and the growing disintegration within the coalition governing Great Britain as elections approach there.

These are not merely passing domestic disputes.  To prove his mettle and machismo, Sarkozy has thrust French forces and threats into the growing unrest in the Middle East and North Africa, while National Front leader Marine Le Pen’s platform features withdrawal from the EU.  (It is worth noting that elements in Finland, Hungary and Italy, some perhaps mischievously, are also proposing reconsideration of the benefits of membership.)  Berlusconi has made Italy a laughing stock within and without the EU, while Merkel is pursuing her own not easily definable foreign policy.

Both Sarkozy and Merkel have unashamedly played the racist card at home, ostensibly in the name of secularism or nationhood.  The unmistakably and unapologetically anti-Islamic tone of their pronouncements has obvious implications for foreign policy, as do Germany’s open criticism of its Turkish denizens and France’s public stance against Turkish EU membership, sentiments echoed in The Netherlands and Denmark.  (In turn, a senior Turkish official’s recent reference to European involvement in Libya as a “crusade” was not a throwaway remark.)  As the prospects for Turkish membership fade (even as accession talks proceed), one must consider the consequences in terms of the future of the EU, the fate of EU member Cyprus of which 40% remains under massive armed occupation by Turkish troops, and the role of Turkey in Europe, the Middle East and the world as a whole, not to speak of its relations with the United States and within NATO.

Is Europe on the ropes, and might one strand threaten to strangle America?? Let’s not panic:  dissolution of the EU after more than half a century is not a matter for casual political posturing or pontificating; the ties that bind are not love and respect but rather the large number of substantive and technical issues on which member states have over the years surrendered sovereign decision-making to the center.  Rules and regulations governing fisheries, coastal waters pollution and civil liability for drivers, for example, are the business of the European Commission.  When the UN Convention on The Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was opened for signature in 1982, no EU member state was qualified to sign absent the separate, simultaneous signature of the EU as a body, precisely because sovereignty over several matters dealt with in its two-hundred-plus pages had already been ceded to the Commission – which itself could not sign without accession by all member states.  Signalling its unique international identity, the EU was the only non-state actor both required and eligible to sign.  And, any state hoping to join the EU must sign on to UNCLOS as one of the innumerable requirements of membership – including, incidentally, electoral civilian government and assuring the free movement of people, goods and services to and from all Union countries.  In short, loose talk about dissolution is just that.

This does not free the U.S. from the potential fallout of lesser chaos within the ranks of the EU.  Failure of national EU leaders to achieve consensus on major external issues may well translate into dissension within NATO.  (It is important to note that NATO and EU membership lists largely overlap, with only six out of twenty-seven EU members not also in NATO.)  It is easy to imagine, for instance, French or German policies within the EU context conflicting with American goals and making the required unanimity, code-named consensus, within NATO unachievable.  Once again, it is necessary to recall the hard fact of Turkey’s NATO credentials.  All in all, it would be wise for Washington to encourage peace and progress within the EU.  As for Turkey’s candidacy, many factors require detailed study and consideration – separately and later.

One thought on “Is Europe on the Ropes?

  1. Harry Blaney April 28, 2011 / 1:32 PM

    “It was created out of the immediate memory of two European wars, both driven by ancient national hatreds and ambitions. The rise of a nasty, new, well-spoken, plausible, xenophobic nationalism is reason not to abandon the EU but to remember why it was created in the first place.”

    The quote above from Alan’s blog post quoting John Lichfield, says it all. How soon we forget. And how our most venomous and greedy motivations came to the fore when faced with an onslaught of vindictive, misinformation, and self-interest and worse. But the sad reality is that this trajectory is true on both sides of the pond. And its affecting our common national security and interests.

    In Europe we are indeed seeing a return of narrow nationalism, of particularism, and much of it is drummed up by the many emerging parties of the right who play upon racism and the fear of those left at the bottom of the ladder or who wish to exploit the sense of deeper uncertainty that has been exacerbated by the recent economic downturn.

    On both sides of the Atlantic these right-wing parties and groups are playing their due to their wealthy backers who are happy to support these crazies to prevent focusing on the reality of growing gap in wealth and power between the average citizen and the powerful wealthy and how the tax system favors the very rich and punishes the middle class.

    Governments in Europe led by very conservative parties, and their even more extreme allies, are largely responsible for exploiting the wide sense of helplessness and despair. As in America, we are seeing center-right or traditional conservative parties moving to the far right as even more extremist parties gain ground especially on anti-immigrant sentiments. I saw it in Britain this Spring when the Tory/LibDem coalition undertook draconian cuts in the budget aimed at the poor and unemployed in Britain. They announced new restrictions on immigration and criticized Islamic citizens for not integrating to “the British way of life.” One can recognized these “code words” for what they are on both sides of the Atlantic.

    The willingness to exploit both the prejudice and ignorance of many alienated citizens seems to be common in both America and in Europe. It is a threat not just to the EU and NATO but it is a threat, as Alan Berlind intimated, to the survival of the concept that both America, NATO, and the EU have stood for, namely a humane, democratic, fair, and responsive society. It is on those grounds that “national security” really stands in all our communities.

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