Europe today is in deep crisis:a political crisis of legitimacy, as our institutions have become entirely disconnected from its citizens; a social crisis of solidarity, triggered by the Global Financial Meltdown of 2008; a continental security crisis, stemming both from renewed Russian expansionism, from terrorist networks connecting our cities to conflicts in the Middle East, and from flows of refugees fleeing both and seeking safety, dignity, and a better life in the EU; a global relevancy crisis, as the European Union, this ‘unfinished project’, runs the risk of being marginalized in a world dominated by the US–Chinese global condominium; and now, in the wake of the Dutch, Austrian, and German parliamentary elections where hyper-nationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-EU Parties elected more national representatives than at any time since the Second World War, and above all after the shock win of the UKIP, Tory-Eurosceptic, and anti-immigrant Labour coalition endorsing the “Leave” option in the June 23, 2016 UK Referendum on EU membership, an existential crisis putting in doubt its very survival.
Europe’s current crisis stems out of two interrelated birth defects: its politicians’ diametrically opposed views on the very nature of the European Project, based on their attitudes towards both the EEC/EU and NATO; and their refusal to allow a truly pan-European political space to emerge, which would facilitate the development of a European demos–a cohesive democratic community supplementing but not supplanting its many nations. Only such a demoscan provide the EU with the vital performative legitimacy without which it cannot withstand its internal and external crises. But today’s EU retains only an indirect, strategic legitimacy, based solely on its continuing ability to deliver to its citizens peace, prosperity, and justice. At moments of crisis this indirect form of legitimacy vanes, and populist feelings of anger and resentment against a supposedly ineffective and unaccountable EU intensify. The two key variables defining our politicians’ views of the European Project can be summarized as support or opposition to a strong NATO; and conceiving the EU either as an intergovernmental organisation of sovereign states designed to assist its members in pursuing their national interests; or as a supranational, autonomous actor capable of making and implementing decisions in the interests of the entire organisation. The four ideological clusters emerging out of this matrix are those of the Anglo-Saxon liberal intergovernmentalists; the historical state nationalists; the ‘Europe First’ supporters of a European federal state; and the Atlanticist integrationists.
The Anglo-Saxons favor a strong NATO but a weak EU, and support the US strategic hegemonic project as economic leader and military protector of the West. The historical state nationalists oppose both NATO and a strong EU, as they wish to maintain the central position of their nation-states on the European and international stages. The ‘Europe First’-ers strongly support greater European integration, including in the military field, so as to enable the emergence of the EU as an independent super-state and strategic equal to the US, Russia, China, and India. Finally, the Atlanticists favor both a deeply integrated EU and a strong NATO, and thus are the only ones who point the way towards the development of a Euro-American system of multi-level governance beyond the boundaries of the centralized nation-state. The variable-geometry conflicts that arise out of these incompatible views of the nature and purpose of the European Project, as well as the changing political alliances that shift with every new national election, damage both the efficiency and credibility of the EU institutions and diminish even further whatever strategic legitimacy this project retains in the eyes of European voters identifying primarily with their own nation-states and remaining mistrustful of the ‘unaccountable Brussels bureaucracy.’
This is taking place not despite, but in accordance with the very wishes of most European national politicians, who aim to use supranational institutions of governance to achieve together what they cannot accomplish individually, but at the same time insist to take personal credit for these successes whilst blaming the ‘over-reaching EU’ for their failures. They can thus both continue to remain masters of the political processes of their own home countries with all the personal benefits resulting therefrom, and find an easy scapegoat to blame for their political shortcomings. Such is the terrible double bind that has been affecting the European Project for the past three decades: whilst an increasing number of political and economic tasks can only be successfully tackled at the supranational – European, trans-Atlantic or even global levels - effective performative legitimacy remains confined by design at the nation-state level. The EU’s Member States can neither transfer additional highly visible tools and symbols of national sovereignty to the supranational level, nor claw back for themselves various powers already ceded to the EU. To do so would result either in a further perceived unaccountable loss of national sovereignty in the eyes of their national electorates or – as the UK is just now beginning to notice, almost two years after the BREXIT Referendum - in a decline of their abilities to respond effectively to the internal and external challenges they now face. Therefore, both options currently available to its Member States will further delegitimize their already weakened national political institutions.
This explains European politicians’ propensity for delay and inaction, and the EU’s chronic inability to break out of both the institutional deadlock and the vicious cycle of delegitimation of their national and European levels of government it finds itself mired in at present. The still unresolved Greek financial crisis, the ongoing Russian aggression in the Ukraine, the morally unacceptable current refugee and immigration crisis engulfing today all of Europe, our national governments’ utter failure to coordinate their actions and those of their security forces to ensure that we can safely walk the streets of our communities and cities without fear of becoming victims of terrorist attacks – these are only four of the more publicized consequences of this political failure and resulting institutional deadlock. As an astute commentator of the on-going refugee crisis in Europe aptly noted:
“The European parliament, as ever, has plenty to say about immigration, but absolutely nothing to do because it has no remit over policymaking, which remains overwhelmingly national. The countries of Europe prefer it that way, while blaming Brussels for the ever-worsening state of the union” (Ian Trainor, The Guardian, Sept. 5, 2015).
As a result, today’s EU is increasingly incapable to deliver on its triple promise of peace, prosperity, and justice for the sake of which twenty-eight sovereign nations were willing to delegate many of their powers to a new, supra-national level of governance. And now, after the horror of the most recent terrorist crimes in Paris, Brussels, Nice, Manchester, San Bernardino, and Orlando, Europe’s top Eurocrats – the some forty current and former heads of state and government who play musical chairs in running the European Union and its member states - are advocating a vast expansion of EU powers by calling for the creation of Europe-wide security and border control agencies whilst refusing to consider any corresponding legitimate and democratic means of supervision or accountability. This total disconnect between European citizens and their political élites is threatening to bring down the entire post-war continental European structure that has kept the Old Continent at peace for the longest uninterrupted period since the 19thcentury Vienna Congress…
Metternich’s 1815 Vienna Congress marked the beginning of the modern Globalisation Era that is continuing to this day. Two hundred years later, however, Europe is no longer in command of the vast forces it unleashed. As newly developing countries emerge from the shadows of the once-dominant Euro-American states and become key actors in their own right, the Old Continent is therefore at a deep loss as to its future heading. Just as Harry Truman’s former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson remarked in a 1962 speech at West Point that ‘Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a new role’, we can now state that Europe as a whole has lost mastery of the world it shaped in its own image since 1815, yet failed to re-imagine its role and purpose in a ‘brave new world’ in which it finds itself increasingly marginalised and ignored as a consequential and meaningful actor. Derrida’s prophetic words voiced almost three decades ago thus still ring true and more urgent than ever than ever today:
“Europe today … is at a moment in its history, in the history of its culture when the question of the heading seems unavoidable. [I]t is necessary to make ourselves the guardians of an idea of Europe … that consists precisely in not closing itself off in its own identity and in advancing itself in an exemplary way towards what it is not, towards … another border structure, another shore.”
This unprecedented European crisis also offers us a unique opportunity to reach for this other border structure – perhaps our last opportunity to bring about a sustainable and resilient world –by redefining the meaning of supranational solidarity across European borders, and working together with all our European and North American partners to solve our common problems and challenges that we can no longer resolve on our own.