European Union

EU: things fall apart…

The unthinkable is becoming thinkable - there is no way the EU can survive in its current form

BY Tim Marshall   /  5 October 2016

About 15 months ago I gave a series of talks at London embassies about the UK and the EU. I argued consistently that there was a real possibility the Brits would leave. The reaction was almost uniformly that of incredulity.

I based my argument on two main platforms. The first was that the real debate had not even begun and that once it did the clear lead for Remain would be steadily whittled away. The second was that conventional wisdom was based on the wise of Westminster, not the disillusioned of Dewsbury – a place far to the north of the capital which some politicians and commentators may have heard of but had never visited.

This is not written to say ‘I told you so’, but more as an argument that it is often helpful to factor in to planning not the world as you see it but as others, with whom you might disagree, see it.

Which brings us, post Brexit vote, to the future of the EU.

I’m now travelling around the country, and the continent, spreading more doom and gloom (at least for those who support the basic idea of the EU) by telling anyone polite enough to listen that there is no way the EU can survive in its current form.

This is based on three points.

The first is that the crash of 2008 has undermined the ability of the EU governments to properly provide the funds required for fully functioning welfare states, while simultaneously reducing the sort of investment needed for big state projects. We are all still feeling the effects of 2008.

This, in itself, could be handled. ‘Boom and bust’ is a regular pattern in capitalist societies. However, the second point is that this latest cycle came at a time when globalization accelerated thus endangering certain jobs in the accompanying shake up. Simultaneously there has been mass migration as the economic conditions and wars to the south, and south east of Europe, have propelled wave upon wave of people northwards. This in turn has contributed to the backlash against globalization which has now stalled, and to the rise in nationalist parties.

The third point is more ‘philosophical’. Sometimes in talks, admittedly for effect, I suggest that the award for the most stupid book title in the post war period should go to Francis Fukuyama’s ‘The End of History’. Agreed, his work is sometimes taken out of context, and he was not arguing that there would be no more ‘events’, but he did say that after the fall of the Berlin Wall we were witnessing – ‘…the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

Given the complexities of human societies, and thousands of years of recorded history, it is difficult to see how anyone could arrive at that conclusion. Liberal Democracy is no longer on the march. It has come to standstill in Russia, and nascent moves towards it in China have gone into reverse.

What does this have to do with our Liberal Democracies in the EU? The lesson is simple. Nothing lasts forever be it the Roman or British Empires, the concept of the Treaty of Westphalia, the League of Nations, or… the EU.

Once you accept that, and then factor in points one and two, it is not difficult to construct the agreement that that EU will not survive in its current form.

The 28 are now on course to become the 27 – that much we know. But what of the remaining states in which a majority of the populations still have more loyalty to country than to Union?

This summer’s Eurobarometer showed that across the bloc trust in the EU had fallen from 57% in 2007 to 33% now. The Pew Research Centre finds that only 38% of the French view the EU favourably. Support is growing for the National Front which wants out of the Union. Support for remaining in the Eurozone is down to 54% in Italy, and the Five Star movement wants a return to the lira.

All these figures can be countered with others showing solid support for the EU and Euro in, for example, Luxembourg, but that does not alter the overall trend towards Euroscepticism.

The Visegrad Group –  Poland/Hungary/Czech Republic/Slovakia – now meets ahead of EU summits to try and agree a joint strategy, all are resisting greater EU integration. Bulgaria, Rumania, and others are increasingly sceptical about the Euro. As net receivers of EU aid, they don’t want out, but their populations are telling them neither do they want ‘interference’ from Brussels.

To the north the Scandinavian countries also see a rise in scepticism. They too increasingly see themselves as a bloc within a bloc. Talk of a mini Schengen, and indeed a Nordic trading area, is now commonplace.

Amid all this, because of the economic downturn, some of the richer northern EU countries are asking, more publicly, why they must subsidize those to the south, and if there is one factor common to almost all the 28 members – it is the rise of nationalist, sometimes extreme right wing, political parties.

And so, across the continent, the unthinkable, is becoming thinkable. Brexit is not the cause, it is a symptom, but what Brexit will do is potentially offer a route map to others who want out, or least a changed EU on different terms.

So, ever closer Union? The breakup of the Union? Or, a restructured Union? My guess is the latter.

This article was originally published on The What And The Why and can be read here.