Something is rotten in the superstate of Europe. Five years after the British voted to leave the European Union and after more than a year of pandemic, Europeans are more disillusioned than ever. They do not trust the EU to protect life, still less to preserve liberty or the pursuit of happiness. Europe, once a synonym for progress and civilisation, has become a source of frustration and cynicism. If the project of political and economic unification is still moving forward, it is motivated less by enthusiasm than inertia. An opinion poll for the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) paints a picture of acute exasperation, especially in the most powerful member states. In Germany, a large majority (59 per cent) believe that they can only rely on their own country to help recover from the Covid crisis. Just 14 per cent of Germans had any expectations of EU institutions.
The European Commission, having elbowed aside national governments, was culpably slow to provide adequate supplies of vaccines for its peoples. The vaccination rollout began later, has taken longer, and has resulted in lower rates of inoculation than in either North America or the UK. At the time of writing, more than 740,000 EU citizens have died of Covid: slightly fewer than the United States in proportion to population, but still a shocking total. This display of bureaucratic incompetence over a matter of life and death has been the greatest single failure in the history of the European Union. The worst of it is that those responsible are unelected. Donald Trump paid a price at the ballot box for his handling of the pandemic. Leaders of European nation-states may do the same. But the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and her fellow Commissioners will remain in office for the foreseeable future. They cannot be held to account.
The Unsettled States of Europe
The Covid crisis exacerbated a simmering discontent that has been growing for years. The Europeans are disillusioned by their closest allies, the US and the UK. In the same poll mentioned above, there was no EU country surveyed with a majority who saw either country as “an ally — a country that shares our interests and values.” Most saw the Americans and British rather as “necessary partners” with whom the EU must “strategically cooperate.” This wariness, not to say distrust, of the two nations that played the biggest role in protecting Europe during two world wars and the Cold War doubtless reflects recent experience, dominated by Trump and Brexit. Europeans consider themselves more sophisticated, more progressive, and more reliable than “the Anglo-Saxons.”
But Europeans are also what the Scottish poet Robert Burns called “timorous beasties.” They still rely on the US for their defence and security. They are no longer oblivious of the inexorable expansion of Chinese power and the challenges posed by a resurgent Russia. At the recent G7 summit in Cornwall, a flimsy attempt was made to paper over the cracks in the facade of the West. In his first venture abroad since his inauguration six months ago, President Biden gave Europe priority over the Pacific. This was evidently appreciated by friend and foe, the latter represented by Vladimir Putin. Biden’s description of the Russian as “a killer” had evidently been taken by the former KGB operative as a compliment.
No EU leader would dare to use such language about Putin. On the contrary: Germany has just rendered itself even more dependent on Russian energy, thanks to the new Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is quick to condemn Russian aggression towards its neighbours, but conveniently forgot about their interests when she backed a project that bypasses Ukraine, Putin’s principal victim. Her heir apparent, Armin Laschet, is such a Russophile that he doesn’t bother with virtue-signalling: he even questioned the Kremlin’s responsibility for the 2018 Novichok poisonings in Salisbury. From the obsequious attitude of most German politicians towards Russia, you would never guess that the power relationship is actually reversed: Germany is Russia’s biggest trading partner and its economy is well over twice as big. German leaders are equally nervous of letting human rights spoil their “partnership” with China. Realpolitik in the land of Bismarck no longer means blood and iron, but rather milk and water.
France, Germany’s perpetual rival for the EU’s leadership, has a different problem: the gap between the grandiosity of public display and the misère of private life. As one of the “yellow vest” protestors who brought the country to a standstill a few years ago put it: “The President talks about the end of the planet but we worry about getting to the end of the week.” Just as Emmanuel Macron was celebrating the bicentennial anniversary of the death of Napoleon Bonaparte, it emerged that his own army was in a mutinous mood. Thousands of officers, active as well as reservists, have signed protests about what they see as the Government’s failure to deal with the Islamist threat to French values and traditions. The Chief of Defence Staff has resigned and a purge of troublemakers has begun, but national and military morale have been undermined.
Last February, Italy repeated its experiment of appointing a technocrat as Prime Minister, in this case the former head of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi. So far, his “government of national unity” has held together, but this unelected EU bureaucrat has no party and no popular constituency. As the immediate crisis recedes, Draghi will find it hard to hold together his ragtag coalition of socialists, populists, and nationalists—especially if a threatened new wave of migrants arrives from North Africa.
In Central Europe, meanwhile, a full-scale revolt against the EU is brewing. The socially conservative, nationalist governments of Poland and Hungary are threatened with sanctions by Brussels for their defiance of “rule of law” treaty obligations and refusal to accept Muslim immigrants. The most recalcitrant (and also popular) of the rebels, the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, marked the end of Soviet rule three decades ago by urging “democrats with a national mindset . . . to take up the fight against those who wish to create a European empire.” Other former Communist member states are watching to see how these conflicts play out.
The pandemic and its mishandling by the EU have exacerbated these conflicts. It has convinced those who resent the incessant encroachments on national sovereignty by Brussels that the present system is broken beyond repair. The structural rigidities of the supranational bureaucracy, its arrogant indifference to reality, and its insatiable appetite for power, even when millions of lives are at stake, will leave a permanent legacy of scepticism about the European project. For example, badly-hit Mediterranean economies have been told to exclude much-needed tourists from the UK to accommodate the slower vaccination rates of Germany, France, and other northern countries. All 27 member states are supposed to be equal, but some are clearly more equal than others.
Still Fighting Brexit
Covid has affected the entire EU, but each of the member states has emerged from the pandemic with its own distinctive malaise. What most have in common, however, is a grudge against the British for leaving their partners in the lurch. Though not all countries are affected in the same way (or at all) by Brexit, the spectacle of the UK racing ahead of the EU in vaccinating their populations has infuriated the elites and bewildered the rest. Wasn’t Brexit supposed to have been an unexampled act of self-harm? Not necessarily. Globally, the nation-state has made a comeback, courtesy of the pandemic; supranational organisations, not so much. But even if ordinary Europeans, still awaiting their vaccinations, may have glanced enviously across the English Channel, EU leaders have not forgiven the British for Brexit.
This unforgiving attitude was apparent at the recent G7 summit at Carbis Bay, Cornwall. The European contingent, artificially augmented by the presidents of the EU Commission and the Parliament, ganged up on their British host over the issue of Northern Ireland. This dispute has arisen because the Brexit treaty includes a Protocol, designed to protect the EU’s single market, which establishes a trade border in the Irish Sea, dividing Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. This has led to shortages of processed meat in Northern Irish shops—the so-called “sausage war”.
The bellicosity of the exchanges stems from the cavalier attitude of the EU to questions of sovereignty and identity in Northern Ireland. Boris Johnson asked the French President how he would like it if Parisians were unable to obtain Toulouse sausages. Emmanuel Macron had the effrontery to inform his British counterpart that there could be no comparison between the status of the Province and that of a French region, because Paris and Toulouse “are part of the same country.” The Prime Minister retorted that Northern Ireland is very much still part of the United Kingdom—but the damage was done.
Macron’s remark was not accidental: his spokesman later justified it by observing that France is “a unitary state,” whereas there are four nations in the UK. Anyone hoping for a new Entente Cordiale in the Royal Duchy of Cornwall—which also claims its own Celtic identity—will have been disabused. This was more akin to the Dauphin’s dispatch of tennis balls to Henry V. Boris Johnson, who is writing a life of Shakespeare in his spare time, will know the king’s speech in response by heart: “And tell the pleasant prince this mock of his / Hath turned his balls to gun-stones…”
Riots in Belfast and a trade war with Europe may yet be averted, but time is running out. The issue is indeed more serious than the immediate casus belli—sausages—makes it sound. The British Government claims that a fifth of all border checks around the EU’s periphery are now taking place in Northern Ireland—a province with a population of less than 2 million, compared to the EU’s 450 million. This grotesquely disproportionate intensity of regulation is stoking the anger that has been simmering among the unionist majority ever since the Brexit deal was signed. That anger spilled over into violence after the EU’s abortive triggering of Article 16 of the Protocol last February, thereby suspending trade with the UK—an incident for which Brussels has never apologised, but which destabilised the Province and led to the replacement of its unionist First Minister, Arlene Foster, by a more intransigent leadership. Instead of de-escalation, EU leaders have raised the stakes by threatening tariffs on all British imports—a blatantly protectionist move, condemned by the World Trade Organisation. It is not clear how a confrontation is now to be avoided, unless the Biden Administration can act as an honest broker, as the Clinton Administration did over the Belfast Good Friday Agreement. Such are the levels of distrust on all sides, however, that the first Irish-American (and Catholic) President since Kennedy would struggle to be accepted on all sides as a neutral arbiter.
The present Northern Irish imbroglio is a microcosm of Europe as a whole: a continent where history, ancient and modern, still casts a long shadow. Brexit and Covid have, both separately and cumulatively, forced tensions to the surface that had lain dormant. Brexit forced Europe to revisit its ultimate purpose, only to find that nobody could quite agree about what “ever-closer union” actually meant. In theory, there was no limit to how far the “pooling” of sovereignty could go. That theory, however, was tested in the Covid crisis, with the result that the European whole proved less than the sum of its parts. The solidarity that had more or less lasted through the Brexit process broke down in the pandemic. The Brexiteer slogan “take back control” still resonates on the European mainland too. But even if there were a consensus on returning control to member states, and thereby rendering EU institutions more accountable, nobody knows how to make it happen. Europe has enjoyed the greatest of histories and survived the worst. The question now is: how does Europe prevent itself from becoming history?