Is the European Union Doomed?

Except for the wildfires that ravaged Greece last July tragically claiming a hundred lives, Europe enjoyed a truly blissful summer, with record temperatures and a glorious World Cup soccer tournament (in Russia) which saw European teams reach all four semi-final places.

We should not be fooled, warns Ian Kearns, in the jeremiad he delivers in Collapse: Europe After the European Union. Calamity, if not Armageddon, awaits Europe’s half billion inhabitants on account of the overwhelming likelihood of the European Union’s imminent break-up and replacement by more anarchic arrangements liable to prove much worse, economically and politically, for them all. Kearns concludes his book by observing:

Everyone alive in Europe today, and many outside it, will be negatively affected if the EU disintegrates. One can hope it will go on to thrive… however, hope seems a very long way from expectation.

The starting-point for Kearns’ ruminations are the several threats he perceives currently facing the EU, both from outside and within. The chief external threats he identifies are the present incumbents at the White House and Kremlin, plus a small number of jihadis combined with a vastly greater number of perfectly law-abiding Muslims who have all lately entered Europe from war-torn parts of the Middle East and Maghreb.

Kearns begins his book by arrestingly observing of the first of the perceived threats:

Donald Trump is bad news for the European Union… He has described NATO… as obsolete and… been not only dismissive of the EU, but openly hostile to it… Trump flirts openly with protectionism… [and] behaves as though continued military support to Europe must be “paid for”… The truth is that Trump represents a threat to the European Union at almost every level.

Hot on Trump’s heels as a threat to the EU is his Russian counterpart of whom Kearns observes:

Vladimir Putin… too is hostile to the European Union and… trying to destroy it with a mix of military and non-military means… It is not an exaggeration, then, to say that Russian policy [towards Europe] is one of war by other means, with the goal being … to weaken its internal coherence and effectiveness without battle in the military sense.

Kearns claims that the influx of Muslims, “has been seized on by populist and Eurosceptic parties inside the EU… and used… to stoke fear and fan the flame of intolerance.” About these Muslim migrants, Kearns notes:

After an initial welcome… [several] countries in the EU have pandered to those who believe it is best to keep the migrants and refugees out. In doing so, they have contributed to a climate that has the potential to destroy the EU… If the numbers arriving go back up sharply or if the terrorist succeed in mounting an attack of hitherto unprecedented proportions, it is likely that some ideas that are foundational to the European Union [most notably freedom of movement within] will be attacked and abandoned… While Trump and Putin might weaken the EU… the challenge from the south could deliver the knock-out blow.

So much for the external threats to the EU. Internally, its integrity has been severely tested and weakened by the banking crisis of 2008 and the EU’s maladroit mishandling of it, about which Kearns writes:

Ultimately the measures introduced… were steps in the right direction… [and] have improved the economic picture of the eurozone overall. But… the social and political damage arising from Eurozone policy had already been done… The crisis led to the dismantlement of Greece’s social safety net… poverty has sky-rocketed… Greece has [also] been on the receiving end of the flows of refugees and migrants escaping the conflict zones and poverty of the Middle East… [which] has fed an increase in xenophobia and racist attacks on foreigners.

Kearns tells similar stories about a xenophobic populist backlash to have lately arisen across Europe. This has resulted in a general crisis of confidence among its populace in the EU’s ability to govern in their interests rather than in those of a privileged elite. The several internal challenges the EU faces, from its economic fragility, through the migration crisis, to an upsurge of national populism, have left it vulnerable to six possible “triggers,” any one of which could, in Kearns’ view, bring about the EU’s downfall.

On the economic side, the potential triggers are a new economic recession and a financial crisis in one of its economically more vulnerable larger members, most likely Italy, leading to its departure from the eurozone. On the political side, potential triggers of collapse are said to include a Eurosceptic populist breakthrough in some member of the eurozone like France or Italy; the spiralling effects of a secessionist crisis in some member state like Spain is currently facing from Catalonia; a breakdown of the fragile deal the EU has struck with Turkey to stem the flow of Muslim migrants from the Middle East; and, finally, a possible political backlash to attempted fiscal union of the sort French President Macron has recently advocated, with good reason in Kearns’ view.

When combined with the external threats emanating from Trump’s apparently isolationist and protectionist proclivities, the EU’s future prospects, as foreseen by Kearns, are nothing less than dire. As he concludes his survey of these threats by explaining:

The problem for Europe is that beneath the rhetoric of EU solidarity… it actually remains littered with national animosities, unsettled historical scores and deeply ingrained and often hostile stereotypes with the power to cause mayhem…. If the EU unravels and collapses… it will sap the capacity of Europeans to work together… Even peace in a Europe after the EU cannot be taken for granted because the end of the EU… could trigger the dynamic that leads the continent back to conflict.

Powerful though Kearns’ rhetoric is, I remain unpersuaded the EU currently is facing an existential crisis likely to imperil its survival. Quite the opposite, in fact. True, Donald Trump gave his European allies a dressing-down at a gathering of NATO allies in Brussels last July, for the continued refusal of most to meet their dues towards its upkeep. However, I see no sign or reason to think him intent on reducing the presence of American forces in Europe or a commitment to its defence. If his bellicosity towards them makes them realise there is no such thing as a free security-blanket, this can only be a good thing.

Likewise, on the economic front what recently seemed like an imminent retreat from cooperation with the EU on matters of trade, with threatened hikes in US tariffs on EU imports, turns out now to presage a great reduction in tariffs between the two trading blocs.

As to Muslim migration having the potential to fissure the EU, Kearns seems grossly to underestimate the galvanising effect a mounting pan-European movement to curb it might have upon the EU in the likely form of a new, pan-European grouping within the EU Parliament intent upon finding less intrusive ways of dealing with the problem at source, like that for which David Cameron in vain called when British Prime Minister.

Although, unlike Kearns, I am pleased Britain is about to leave the EU, like Winston Churchill I wish the venture well for mainland Europe. It throve before Britain joined, and can and will do so again, provided economic sense returns as opposed to the social democratic Keynesianism Kearns makes clear he favours. Maybe the EU could do with a leader equally as maverick as Donald Trump, and no less capable of effectively addressing the economic and social problems his continent faces. Rather than collapsing, the EU might well be about to reinvent itself along more vigorous and realistic lines.