Maybe the EU isn’t in crisis after all

Maybe the EU isn’t in crisis after all

By Luke Vargas   
Courtesy: EC Audiovisual Service / Etienne Ansotte
Courtesy: EC Audiovisual Service / Etienne Ansotte

You wouldn't know it from the tone of media coverage, but the EU has a reputation for overcoming crisis. And with Britain soon to be out of the picture, Europe can refocus on integration.

On this week’s foreign policy radio broadcast, we asked two experts whether the European Union is in crisis.

We discussed:

  • What the E.U. is doing right
  • Why E.U. doomsday predictions are so common
  • If Brexit will inspire copycats
  • The impact of Euroskeptics on the E.U.’s agenda
  • And the future of the E.U. budget and agenda

What the E.U. is doing right

Ivan Berend, Distinguished Research Professor, UCLA: The strength of the European Union is still a huge common market – which is nearly 500 million people, the biggest advanced region in the world – with a stable currency, which is shared by 19 countries of the 27 of the union and one of the world’s reserve currencies next to the dollar. And it’s a huge market with a harmonized legal system, a harmonized standardization for products.

Second, they are just starting to unite the national armies – at least armaments, standardized armaments

They have common courts of justice, which really regulate many, many areas of life.

It has several rules, for example, that help aid less developed regions within the union –each region which has less than 75 percent of the average per capita GDP of the European Union – so many less developed countries in Central Europe, Eastern Europe and the Balkans gain tremendous amount of E.U. aid as well. So it’s strong.

Mai’a Davis Cross, Edward W. Brooke Professor of Political Science, Northeastern University: I would add to that that the E.U. has really demonstrated a resilience in response to major crises. So every time we see in the news that it seems the E.U. is about to fall apart or it’s the end of Europe, this kind of rhetoric continually proves to be overblown. And in fact the E.U. has actually strengthened itself in many ways after major crises, like the Eurozone crisis, for example.

And if we look at opinion polls recently we can really see that the trends are improving, at least since the Eurozone crisis. Trust in E.U. institutions has always been higher than trust in national institutions for E.U. citizens, but this trend is clearly improving in the past few years and optimism in the future of the E.U. is going up.

Why the media peddles doomsday predictions about the E.U.

Mai’a Davis Cross: In general, bad news sells. So it’s the kind of cliché that the media does tend to only focus on the E.U. when it seems that things are going badly and very, very rarely reports on really significant new achievements. For instance, a few years ago after the Lisbon Treaty, the creation of the new European Diplomatic Service – one of the largest diplomatic corps in the world – barely received any news coverage at all.

Whereas, every time there’s some hint of something potentially going wrong with the E.U., the media sort of rushes to cover it.

Why Brexit isn’t the beginning of the end for the E.U.

Mai’a Davis Cross: Initially, Brexit was certainly regarded as a huge blow to the integrity of the E.U., but unlike with how the E.U. reacted to the Eurozone crisis – as Ivan said, the reaction was slow – if we look at Brexit I actually think the E.U. did a lot better in responding to that crisis, because the leaders reasserted the strength of the remaining member states of the E.U. and they really framed it as a British decision to leave – and if the British leave, they face the consequences of that – that really does not have a severe effect on the integrity of the E.U.

So I think the E.U. leaders might be learning from previous crises and figuring out how to respond a little more strongly to these challenges.

Ivan Berend: In my view the panic about Brexit – which really characterized the entire media – was totally baseless. First of all, it was forecasted, it was prophesied that several countries will follow and will leave the union. Nothing similar has happened.

Second, Britain was always a very hesitant member – [it] joined too late, only in ’73 – always wanted to be one leg outside the union – did not join the common currency – opted out from the Schengen Agreement of borderless Europe, so Britain was a hesitant member and opposes anything when it has a possibility to go further with integration.

For example, Britain was a country that always opposed military integration. Britain is leaving, now military integration is starting. So in my view, Brexit is not a major crisis – although there is a crisis element in it – but it basically will and is strengthening the European Union.

Why ‘Euroskeptic’ countries don’t need to bog down the E.U. agenda

Ivan Berend: The E.U. must make major reforms regarding the so-called ‘two speed concept.’ Which means that they don’t have to do everything together, all the member countries. And nowadays the Eurozone – the 19 member countries of the 27 – are much more integrated, especially [as] they are developing a banking union – they go further in terms of fiscal cooperation. So this inner group, the Eurozone, might go further in many ways. Emmanuel Macron [even] suggested an almost federalization [and] a common minister of finance.

I always had the feeling that in a certain period it was an over-enlargement [of the European Union to include] countries which do not really fit 100 percent to this cooperation. So if they will remain in a so-called outer zone – members of common market but not members of everything which the core is doing – then it’s better solvable these problems.

A view of the European Commission's Emergency Response Coordination Centre in Brussels, Belgium. February 15, 2018. Courtesy: EC Audiovisual Servce / Ezequiel Scagnetti
A view of the European Commission’s Emergency Response Coordination Centre in Brussels, Belgium. February 15, 2018. Courtesy: EC Audiovisual Servce / Ezequiel Scagnetti

The future of the E.U. budget and E.U. ambitions

Ivan Berend: There is a suggestion to increase the membership fee. Nowadays the member countries pay a, relatively speaking, huge amount, but if you count it per citizens, it’s a very small amount of payment. A year is less than the price of a cappuccino per person. So I think increasing the membership fee would be a very reasonable issue.

A huge part of the budget is spent for aiding the less developed regions, which is a very paradoxical issue. The biggest amounts are going to Poland, Hungary – countries which are opposing the European Union in many ways. So I think this financing will expire in 2020 and this will ease the entire budgetary problems of the European Union.

Mai’a Davis Cross: I think one of the most consistent responses in opinion polls regarding the E.U. is citizen support for a stronger security and defense and foreign policy at the European level. And this has become more pressing and desirable in recent years with Russian aggression, with the election of Donald Trump and his threat to NATO and also even with Brexit, because the British have stood in the way of many of the more ambitious defense plans.

I would anticipate more bold proposals, actually. Many of these ideas are actually already being launched, and so I wouldn’t be surprised if leadership in Brussels – and especially the Franco-German leadership axis – continues to push for things like the 2016 E.U. Global Strategy. This strategy was signed with the acceptance of all of the E.U. member states – actually including the U.K. – and it outlines a very comprehensive way in which the E.U. intends to approach foreign policy and to speak with one voice in many areas of security, defense, migration and so on.

But I wouldn’t say that it’s all high politics. I’ve seen quite a bit of emphasis as well on  the public diplomacy aspect of what the E.U. has been emphasizing. And this can mean everything from free access to internet to free travel for 18-year-olds across Europe, which was one of the newest initiatives.

And it’s not a secret as to what impact something like this can have; it really allows the re-emphasis on the freedom of movement, the access to jobs, education, a sense of a common European identity. So I think everything from high politics to just the day-to-day issues that affect Europeans will be strong on the agenda going forward.

French President Emmanuel Macron is greeted by Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission. March 25, 2017. Courtesy: EC Audiovisual Service / Etienne Ansotte
French President Emmanuel Macron is greeted by Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission. March 25, 2017. Courtesy: EC Audiovisual Service / Etienne Ansotte

Ivan Berend: I’m sure it will be not very fast, not without opposition, but they will go further in the integration process. They are going already to have a kind of energy union,  an independence from Russian oil – which is really dangerous for Europe, especially [for] some countries [which] are 100 percent dependent on Russian gas and oil – so they have a program in various areas from banking union, to energy inion to military cooperation.

It’s a very good thing, again, that we have Emmanuel Macron in France, who is a very dynamic person and has a lot of ideas how to go further. And now, at least, we have a German government again – the so-called ‘Grand Coalition’ – so the French-German tandem can work again.

Read more:

“Wake” is a weekly foreign policy broadcast produced by Talk Media News and hosted by Luke Vargas at U.N. Headquarters in New York.

Subscribe to weekly episodes of “Wake” on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Google Play, and follow the broadcast on Twitter @WakeOnAir.

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