The Future of the EU


Angela Merkel and Xi Jinping at the 2017 G20 summit in Buenos Aires (Picture Credit: Casa Rosada)

The world is becoming bipolar once again. If we’re not already in a US-China cold war, we are, as Henry Kissinger put it in 2019, in its foothills. The world’s democracies are now faced with a choice. Do they line up behind the US and stand in opposition to China’s aggression and oppression? Or do they take a more neutral approach, refraining from principled criticisms for the sake of Chinese trade?


Some broad shifts are already discernible. The UK and Australia seem to be aligning with the US against China, and Canada and Japan may soon follow. But the biggest geopolitical player remains unaccounted for. Where will the EU stand?


Some important figures within the EU have criticized Chinese policy, most notably Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission (EC) (the EU’s executive), who last year condemned the Hong Kong National Security Law and Chinese cyberattacks on European hospital systems during the COVID-19 crisis. Yet, on the whole, the EU’s policy towards China has been circumspect, tempered by a hearty appetite for Chinese trade.


Human rights are negotiable for the EU – at least when the great Chinese honeypot is at stake. This January – despite abuses in Hong Kong, atrocities in Xinjiang, clashes on the border with India, sanctions against Australia for calling for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, and rising bellicosity towards Taiwan – the European Union signed its much-vaunted trade deal with China. As Financial Times analyst Gideon Rachman put it: “By signing a deal with China nonetheless, the EU has signalled that it doesn’t care about all that.”


Nor are von der Leyen’s assurances that the deal “will also commit China to ambitious principles on sustainability, transparency, and non-discrimination” at all convincing. Many Chinese pledges to moderate state subsidies and foster transparency in its labor laws are, in fact, recycled from China’s 2001 pledges upon its accession to the World Trade Organisation – pledges China hasn’t honoured for 20 years. The EC is not naïve: it probably expects China to violate this deal – and is prepared to turn a blind eye to it.

Ursula von der Leyen (Picture Credit: Global Panorama)

In the past few years, the EU has drifted away from the United States. Brexit saw it separated from the UK, its most pro-American member. Donald Trump’s election on an “America First” platform scuppered negotiations on a “Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.” Trump also considered withdrawing from NATO and even threatened sanctions against EU states if they refused to join him in reneging on Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal. At the same time, massive Chinese bond purchases during the 2015 Eurozone crisis made China a major creditor of all the major EU countries. By 2017, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was stressing the need for Europe to look for “other partners” across the globe. The truth was, it had already found them.


The realignment is part of a new, conscious strategy for the EU. As Josep Borrell, its Minister for Foreign Affairs, has noted, for the past four or five years the EC has been preoccupied with a wider goal: an economic and geopolitical hedging of alliances that it calls “strategic autonomy.” In Kissinger’s “new Cold War,” it seems, the EU is not so much wavering between the two sides as angling for non-aligned status.

In Kissinger’s “new Cold War,” it seems, the EU is not so much wavering between the two sides as angling for non-aligned status.

This new non-alignment policy has already been welcomed by some European commentators. Anti-American sentiment has always seethed beneath the European dermis, with roots in both the anti-Vietnam left and the reactionary right of Charles de Gaulle and Anthony Eden. Yet a new, independent Europe, rid of the guy ropes of international alliance, will have a new question to answer – one it has repressed, in one form or another, since its inception. What, exactly, is the European Union? What does it stand for on the world stage? And what, if any, are the values that make it cohere?

We should begin by considering European integration in its proper, post-war context. The European Coal and Steel Community, the precursor to the EU, was established after WWII on the notion that economic co-operation would discourage war. “Comparative advantage” was invoked: a common economic future would convert the zero-sum game of competing nationalisms into an economic “win-win.” France and Germany, in particular, would be bound together like boxers in a clinch. And a robust ideological liberalism would unite members in a commitment to the rule of law, a suspicion towards the grand claims of race and nation, and a dogged commitment to free trade.


The initial European ethos was thus liberal, capitalist, and internationalist – and these three pillars endured through the Cold War. As Stephen M. Walt, Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University put it, the Cold War helped suppress the EU’s internal contradictions, since Europe “didn’t need a comprehensive or coherent foreign policy, because security issues were handled by NATO, and the United States ran the show.”


Tellingly, the moment the Cold War paradigm broke down, the EU floundered. In the Balkans, where a disintegrating Yugoslavia gave way to a riot of competing nationalisms, the EU’s abstract commitments were its downfall. So committed was the EC to internationalism and “ever-closer union” that for several years, a powerful faction headed by Britain and France refused to abandon the idea of preserving the Yugoslav Federation, despite the fact that by 1992 it had become a naked cover for Serbian irredentist ambitions. As soon as the neat binaries of the Cold War were replaced by the more rugged terrain of historical, ethnic, and national grievance, the EU’s central principles became a handicap.


The contradictions exposed by the end of the Cold War have never fully been resolved, and look set to threaten the EU’s “third way” position between the US and China. The EU is making its bid for “strategic autonomy” at a moment when the three central pillars of liberalism, capitalism, and internationalism look weaker than ever.


The global rise of right-wing populism since 2016 has been well charted. Across the EU, the migrant crisis sparked the most sustained backlash against liberalism and internationalism the EU has ever seen. The epicentre of this backlash is the so-called Visegrád Group – comprising the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia – all of which have been incubating powerful far-right movements for some time. Two Visegrád leaders, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Poland’s Andrzej Duda, have even begun to roll back press freedom and judicial independence.

Andrzej Duda of Poland (upper left) and Viktor Orban of Hungary (second from lower right) with other leaders at the 2018 NATO summit in Brussels (Picture Credit: Tauno Tõhk)

Of course, some are still treating the rise of authoritarianism as a temporary glitch. The COVID-19 crisis has stemmed the tide of migrants for a while, and already a triumphalist school of commentators has emerged. Over the past year, authoritarian offshoots in the EU’s major countries – France’s Front National, Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD), Italy’s Cinque Stelle, and Spain’s Vox – have taken a beating: lockdowns have seen racial tensions subside, and far-right politicians took up the anti-lockdown banner and lost votes as a result. The AfD had a particularly disastrous 2020, drowning in conspiracy theory and infighting: in its stronghold of Mecklenberg-Western Pomerania, it plummeted to 15% in the state election — down from 20.8% in 2016.


But how long will the reprieve last? The migrant crisis will likely outlive the coronavirus. And even if it were to wane in the post-COVID-19 era, the task of integrating 2 million refugees without stoking xenophobia and cultural division would remain, and the resumption of normal social life will see the resumption of social frictions and feuds. The far-right challenge will likely last far longer than our COVID-Panglossians think.


Indeed, the legislative cracks are already showing. Many resolutions in the Council of the European Union (where constituent national governments vote to adopt or reject EU laws and policies) require a unanimous vote, including those involving common foreign and security policy, the granting of new rights to EU citizens, and EU finances. In any of these domains, each Visegrád member already has an effective veto. The enormous threat this poses to EU stability was demonstrated last year, when Viktor Orbán, facing EU sanctions for his rollback of the rule of law in Hungary, threatened to sabotage the entire EU budget in retaliation.

Viktor Orban and Angela Merkel at the European People’s Party summit in Brussels in 2017 (Picture Credit: European People’s Party)

The Visegrád veto is just the start. Most votes in both the Council of the European Union and the “European Council” (the body for national heads of state to raise issues and set the agenda for the Council of the European Union), require a “qualified majority” – that is, for 55% of member states and at least 65% of the EU population to vote in favour of a piece of legislation. So, to veto the vast majority of EU legislation, all that a reactionary bloc would require is 35% of the EU populace. And sure enough, there are many other Eastern European countries threatening to join a reactionary coalition – particularly non-Visegrád post-Soviet states like Latvia, where the new Vienotība party has swung the country to the right, and the Balkans, where Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša is busy earning a reputation as the “Slovenian Trump.” In fact, with the UK now out of the picture, it would take only one major EU state to elect a right-wing populist – France to elect Marine LePen, for example – for the entire European Council to be deadlocked.


As Europe forges its new identity, Visegrád and its imitators will clamor for more and more representation. For these elements, human rights and civil liberties are empty abstractions rather than firm principles – and a Visegrád-style EU would be one in which the capitalist imperative overshadows liberalism and internationalism. Tellingly, both Orbán and Duda have been making sycophantic overtures to China – with Orbán even flouting the EU regulatory process by approving the SinoVac COVID-19 vaccine for import to Hungary.


The EU’s policy reflects its inner conflict. It has decided to sanction Myanmar’s military over its coup and Russian officials over the jailing of dissident Alexei Navalny. At the same time, however, the EC surrendered to Orbán’s threats to veto the budget,fearing it would trigger a chain reaction of Visegrád departures, and allowed Hungary to continue to flout rule of law standards. And, of course, it’s taken a conciliatory stance towards China, in spite of its abuses. But this willingness to compromise its liberal, internationalist principles only exacerbates the EU’s crisis of legitimacy.

Its willingness to compromise its liberal, internationalist principles only exacerbates the EU’s crisis of legitimacy.

How, if at all, can a sense of legitimacy be regained? Conservative Eurosceptics in the UK offer one perennial piece of wisdom: the EU needs to snip the red tape and become a truly democratic institution. The problem, they suggest, is that Brussels bureaucrats simply don’t listen to their indignant constituents: only by receiving a mandate from its people – for instance, by bringing a greater proportion of EU policy under the control of directly elected Members of the European Parliament – can the EU hope to survive.


There’s something attractive about this view. But it’s too easy. First, there’s no reason to assume that the right-wing malcontents of Hungary and Poland would respect the legitimacy of the votes cast in, say, Sweden and Denmark, whose friendly-faced, social-democratic “Nordic Model” Orbán and his acolytes scorn. Legitimacy is something that derives from a sense of common identity, not something that causes it. Second, a truly democratic EU would be forced to roll back many of its most glowing achievements – particularly environmental legislation, which remains bizarrely unpopular in countries like France. And consider this: would a truly democratic Europe be more likely to adopt the migrant policies of Angela Merkel, or those of populist former Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, who closed Italy’s ports to migrants in 2018?


The fact is that many Europeans are now questioning the liberalism and internationalism on which the EU was built. And if the EU did become a conglomeration of nationalists, populists, and authoritarians, it would probably break apart. How can an international organisation survive without a spirit of internationalism? What’s more, given the dynastic chaos from which all modern European states emerged, it’s highly likely that the new right-wing nationalisms will soon discover old, irridentist grievances. Can the Balkans experience a new wave of nationalism without spiralling into war? Can Eastern Europe? Europe is a mess of old wounds, and it’s only a matter of time before its new leaders begin picking at the scabs.


Crude invocations of “democracy” are not the answer. If the EU wants to regain its legitimacy, it will have to do it the traditional, technocratic way.


It should start by showing the European people what it can do for them. For the last five years, the EU has been treating its internal threats – right-wing populism, nationalism, xenophobic opposition to migration – as cultural phenomena, and ignoring their economic bases. Perhaps if the EU used its legislative might to push social security programmes and labor regulation, the anger and disaffection against it can be quelled.


The remedies would have to be region-specific. In France and Germany, for instance, right-wing populism is the preserve of rural communities – particularly small farmers left behind by the Common Agricultural Policy. A reform of 2003 legislation linking subsidies to the size of farms would help remedy this. In countries like Greece, a more accommodating attitude towards debt restructuring programmes put forward by parties like Syriza would likely temper the rise of far-right parties like Golden Dawn. In the Visegrád countries, as the academic Bodan Todosijević has pointed out in an article for the International Political Science Review, it was the political left’s perceived failure to regulate monopolies and address income inequality that led to the rise of right-wing populism: more aggressive corporate regulation would therefore be the place to start.

Yellow Vest protestors demonstrate for “economic justice” in France in 2019 (Picture Credit: Patrice CALATAYU)

But there is a common thread. For 30 years, for all the EU’s commitments to liberalism and human rights, it remains riven by inequalities between regions, income groups, and classes. The result has been the discrediting of liberalism and human rights, and a swing back towards the old certainties of race and nation, not to mention the grand promises of unscrupulous strongmen. Only by translating its abstract liberalism, internationalism, and humanitarianism into a broad project of social redress can the EU shore up legitimacy and goodwill.

Only by translating its abstract liberalism, internationalism, and humanitarianism into a broad project of social redress can the EU shore up legitimacy and goodwill.

Internationally, EU policy should be principled and coherent. The EU should ensure China honors the terms of the new trade deal. It’s perhaps too optimistic to insist that China maintain a spotless human rights record, but the “ambitious principles on sustainability, transparency, and non-discrimination” von der Leyen boasted about should mean something. If China returns to the 2001 playbook and ignores its commitments entirely, the EU should consider the deal void. And it should be equally assertive with Russia.


In short, strategy and policy should be derived from principles, not the reverse. For much of its early history, the EU was as close to achieving this goal as any international organisation has ever been. But increasingly, the “comparative advantage promised by its post-war architects has failed to materialise – and infighting, schism, and decay are the natural results. Its principles have come to be seen as empty, fictions which sustain a greedy, bureaucratic class. Only by reclaiming them can it regain its legitimacy and become a force to be reckoned with on the international stage. Pragmatism or idealism? Cynicism or principle? The EU must make its choice.