What the European Union needs is someone like John Jay.
Appealing in 1787 for the ratification of the U.S. constitution, the American founding father said “a cordial Union, under an efficient national government” would provide “the best security that can be devised against hostilities from abroad.”
From Ukraine’s upheaval and the renewed Russian menace to Syria’s civil war and chaotic post-revolutionary Libya, today’s EU confronts no shortage of external dangers. But instead of knitting the bloc’s 28 countries together, the threats have exposed what is keeping them apart.
“The EU is internally divided about the right answer,” said Jan Marinus Wiersma, a former Dutch member of the European Parliament who is now with the Clingendael Institute in The Hague. “As long as there is no common direction in how to react to Russia’s ambitions, we will keep a divided Europe.”
Throughout history, perils from abroad have been spurs to unity. Continued British animosity after the American revolution led to the setup of the U.S. federal government; the consolidation of federal power after the U.S. Civil War was one of the factors that led Britain to turn its Canadian colonies into a confederation. Switzerland evolved out of a medieval alliance to defend Alpine trade routes.
The modern-day EU has taken a different path, and hasn’t gotten as far. Post-World War II western Europe relied on the U.S. for defense, allowing it to stitch together a market that culminated with the creation of the euro currency in 1999. The result is a loose federation with limited authority in Brussels and most power residing in national capitals such as Berlin, Paris and London.
Europe doesn’t need to be much more than that, said Thomas Hueglin, a professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada, who studies federal systems. What matters is that the decision-making apparatus that was revamped in response to the euro debt crisis brings back the prosperity that nurtured the bloc in the past, he said.
“When people think of federalism, they have in mind this idea of the American federal state, so strongly and overpoweringly centralized,” Hueglin said. “But the European Union is a much more decentralized form of federalism that is a more adequate model in a globalizing world.”
That thesis is being tested by U.S. military disengagement from Europe and focus on Asia. President Barack Obama’s four-country tour of the Pacific rim that ends tomorrow affirms the U.S. “pivot” to Asia, even if it is punctuated by small-scale European deployments to show NATO resolve against Russia. From authoritarian Belarus through the Caucasus, to the Middle East and the unfinished Arab Spring across the north of Africa, the EU is ringed by downtrodden economies plagued by social and religious strife, in many cases ruled by dictators or sham democrats.
Wedged against Poland and the Baltic states, Belarus has managed to antagonize both the EU and Russia. President Alexander Lukashenko, once dubbed Europe’s last dictator for a litany of human rights violations, broadcast that he is no puppet of the Kremlin. “I’m not toilet paper,” Lukashenko, whose regime is under EU sanctions, told a Minsk audience including the Russian ambassador on April 22.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea and infiltration of southeast Ukraine has captured so much attention that former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair felt compelled to warn that a graver crisis is unfolding to the south, pitting the forces of modernity against the forces of reaction in the Muslim world.
“Ukraine has served to push the Middle East to the inside pages, with the carnage of Syria featuring somewhat, but the chaos of Libya -- whose government we intervened to change -- hardly meriting a mention,” Blair, now a United Nations envoy to the Middle East, told an audience at Bloomberg’s London office on April 23. “However, the Middle East matters. What is presently happening there still represents in my view the biggest threat to global security of the early 21st century.”
Syria’s three-year civil war has left at least 150,000 dead. Egypt underwent two popular uprisings, the first to end military rule and the second to restore it. Two prime ministers of Libya have quit in as many months, reflecting the country’s lurch toward failed-state status three years after Muammar Qaddafi’s ouster. Turkey, once seen by the EU as a bridge to the Muslim world, is regularly condemned for democratic infringements such as the censoring of Twitter Inc. services; its bid for EU membership is moribund.
Believers in a more centrally managed Europe contend that unstable surroundings will jell the EU together, just as the looming presence of the British navy helped unite the United States.
“European integration is a tool for a better future and to keep that peace on our continent, in our own countries, in the Balkans and in our neighborhood in Ukraine,” Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister, current candidate for European Commission president and author of “United States of Europe,” said in the European Parliament on April 16.
Compared to past federations forged in hostile environments, today’s EU faces more diffuse hazards. Only Russia, with 40,000 troops mobilized on Ukraine’s borders, stands for military aggression. Even that old-style threat has failed to bring European governments together: economic sanctions against Russia have yet to materialize, almost two months after the EU warned of “additional and far-reaching consequences for relations in a broad range of economic areas” unless the Kremlin leaves Ukraine in peace.
Disorder on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea hasn’t bolstered the pro-EU cause; the opposite is the case. With EU-wide unemployment at 10.6 percent and youth unemployment at 22.9 percent, protest parties such as Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France are cashing in on fears of economic disruption, an influx of refugees and the export of radical Islamist ideologies from trouble spots in the Middle East and Africa.
Elections to the EU parliament on May 25 are shaping up as a no-confidence vote in people in power, whatever their political hue. Le Pen’s party may win more seats than any other French party, with 24 percent of the national vote, according to a CSA poll for Nice-Matin and BFM TV published on April 24.
Across the EU, none-of-the-above parties may pick up 12.5 percent of the seats in the next parliament, up from 4.3 percent in the current term, according to projections by PollWatch, an independent statistical organization.
That outcome would turn the parliament, which serves as a lower house in EU policy making with the national governments functioning as a more influential senate, into the battlefront between EU promoters and rejectionists united by distaste for anything with the “Brussels” label, putting a coherent foreign policy even more out of reach.
“We reflect in our foreign policy the incapacity we also show internally to deal with the financial crisis,” said Ana Gomes, a Portuguese socialist campaigning for a third term in the EU parliament. She said the election may produce “a more fragmented Europe, a more polarized situation that can be in the first moments even extremely dangerous to the European project.”
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