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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 1 New Delhi December 22, 2018 [Annual Number]

Challenges in Europe: A Critical Overview

Sunday 23 December 2018


by Purusottam Bhattacharya

The following is an edited, revised and updated version of a paper presented at a national seminar on “Regionalism in International Relations: Contours and Trends” organised by the Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University, Kolkata (March 14-15, 2017).


On March 25, 2017 27 leaders of the European Union (EU) gathered in the Italian capital Rome to celebrate 60 years of the European integration project which was literally born from the ashes of the Second World War. It was on March 25, 1957 that the leaders of France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg signed the historic Treaty of Rome which gave birth to the then European Economic Community (EEC) that began its journey on January 1, 1958.

However, Europe has been in international headlines since 2008 for the wrong reasons. Once considered a model for regional integration it is now arguably confronted with an existential crisis. The European Unity Movement, which was born in a nascent form in the aftermath of the Second World War, has generally inspired such movements in other parts of the globe, notably Asia, Africa, North and South America. After all it was in Western Europe that the first serious attempt to lay to rest the legacies of one of the most virulent forms of modern-day nationalism was made through a reconciliation between France and Germany whose bitter rivalry had brought much suffering and bloodshed to the continent during the 20th century and even earlier. (Kenneth J. Twitchett: 1980: 4-19; Desmond Dinan: 1994: 10-11)

This is the backdrop to this article which seeks to briefly chart the roadmap for the integration that has taken place in Europe over the past 60 years since the signing of the Treaty of Rome. It also seeks to understand the nature of the crisis that gripped the Union since 2008 after a five-decade record of integration which has raised many important questions, the most prominent of them being whether the level of integration that has been achieved is now being questioned by the people of the member-states themselves who, it has been argued by some experts, feel that too much power has accrued in Brussels and it is now time for a more loose organisation in which the member-states will not feel that their national identity is in danger; the question has also been raised—is the EU facing an existential crisis and what is likely to be its future?

The article is divided into three parts. The first part offers a brief sketch of integration that has been achieved in Europe so far to situate our discussion in a proper context. The second part focuses on the aftermath of integration while analysing the nature of the ‘crises’ during the period of 2008 till date. The third part addresses the question: whither Europe in the 21st century? It also explores as to whether there is an existential crisis there.

On the Road to Integration

The first move towards a united Europe was the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1952. The ECSC was born out of the Schuman Plan of May 1950. The Plan, which had been conceived from the ideas of the great French statesman and political thinker Jean Monnet, who had played a crucial role in the reconstruction of the French economy between 1945 and 1950 and was also concerned about a potential resurgence of Franco-German rivalry, envisaged the pooling of the coal and steel production of France and West Germany under a single supranational High Authority whose decisions with regard to the running of these industries were to be binding on the countries concerned. As coal and steel constituted vital elements of armament production as well as the key to industrial power, the arrangement envisaged under the Plan was designed to monitor any signs of rearmament by either of the two countries and thus offer the opportunity of defusing a potential confrontation between them at an early stage. (Jean Monnet: 1978: 293-303) More important, it would provide a sound basis for the beginning of a genuine move for unity in Europe and would be its linchpin in the form of a Franco-German union, considered vital for European peace and security. (Michael Curtis: 1965: 15-17)

The ECSC, which came into existence in July 1952, was only an initiation of the process of supra-nationalism which was anathema to Britain and the Scandinavian countries who did not participate in the venture due to their objections to the pooling of sovereignty. However, the most potent manifestation of the unity movement was the creation of the European Economic Community (EEC)—renamed European Union (EU) in November 1993. Starting its operations in January 1958, the organisation provided the framework for Europe’s experiment in integration during the past six decades. The exercise initially started as a stand-off between the federalists, who expressed their unam-biguous preference for a federal Europe where the member-states would eventually be transformed into constituent units with Brussels as the centre, and the champions of national sovereignty who favoured cooperation on an inter-governmental basis whereby the basic sovereignty of the participating states would be safeguarded. (Clive Archer and Fiona Butler: 1996: 1-8)

The Treaty of Rome was essentially a framework treaty. It dealt primarily with the establishment of the common market, the stages by which tariffs on trade between the member-states were to be eliminated and the establish-ment of the common external tariff which was to be applied to imports from outside the EEC. But the details of how the economic community was to be created and policies and instruments of intervention in national economies were to be harmonised were not spelled out. The Treaty embodied the intentions and principles on the basis of which the major common policies of the EEC, such as the Common Agricultural Policy, the common commercial policy, social policy, tax policy, transport policy, fisheries and, of course, non-tariff barriers to trade, were to be subsequently worked out. (Paul Taylor: 1996: 12-13)

Paul Taylor, a noted expert on European integration, has suggested that the grand purpose of the Treaty of Rome, as also that of the Treaty of Paris (which created the ECSC), “was to bind West Germany to Western Europe, and to meet continuing French concerns about their security in relations to Germany”. The German Government saw the framework of the European Community as an opportunity to rediscover Germany as a nation and as a state after its original identity had been tarnished by the Third Reich. “From the beginning, therefore, the European Community was as much about state creation as about integration.” (Paul Taylor: 1996: 14) In spite of its economic beginning European integration has always been a political project.

The two outstanding features of European integration to date has been the common institutions and the common policies. Creation of supranational common institutions was first manifested in the ECSC. The institutions of the European Union (hereafter referred to as EC/EU taking into account the changes in their nomenclature over a period of time) are a continuation of those developed over the years by the three European Communities (ECSC, EEC and Euratom). The High Authority of the ECSC was of a supranational nature whereby its laws were above those of the member-states in the area of its competence. “Its supranational character took into account the interests of the Community as a whole rather than to merely aggregate the demands of the original six members.” (Clive Archer and Fional Butler: 1996: 36)

The Union has evolved through a succession of milestone agreements in the 1980s, 1990s and in the first decade of the 21st century. The Single European Act (SEA) of 1986 came into effect in July, 1987 resulting in improved institutional and procedural measures as well as better performance in existing areas within the framework of the Treaty of Rome. Notably the SEA created the barrier-free Single Market eliminating the non-tariff barriers which ensured the free movement of goods, services, capital and people—the four principal pillars of EU integration guaranteed in the Treaty of Rome. The SEA paved the way for the more ambitious venture agreed later as the Treaty of Maastricht in December 1991. Billed as the most important milestone since the Treaty of Rome, the Maastricht Treaty—that aimed to carry European integration into the 21st century—created two more pillars, apart from the supra-national Community pillar which had already taken shape, the Treaty agreed on the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) in the shape of a common European currency and a central Bank by 1999 (which was to remain a part of the community pillar), a common foreign and security policy (CFSP) which has turned the EU into an international actor (the second pillar) and a Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) pillar which sought to ensure better co-ordination of the policies of the member-states in combating crime, drug trafficking, terrorism and also the issue of asylum and migration policies, among other things.

The process of integration continued further through three more landmark treaties—the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997, the Treaty of Nice in 2001 and finally the Treaty of Lisbon which came into force in 2009. These treaties, especially the Treaty of Lisbon, not only expanded further the ambit of integration in the EU but also consolidated what had been achieved over the past half-a-century. The Treaty of Lisbon remains, to date, the last definitive treaty on European integration. The Treaty effected major changes in procedural matters in the Council of the European Union, gave more powers to the European Parliament which became a bicameral legislature, made the EU a consolidated legal personality and created a long-term President of the European Council (the Council’s presidency earlier used to rotate on a six-monthly basis) and a High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The Treaty also made the Union’s bill of rights, the Charter of Fundamental Rights, legally binding. The Treaty for the first time gave the member-states the explicit legal right to leave the Union and the procedure to do so. The Treaty has been subject to many controversies which we will not be able to cover for the sake of brevity. (For details see Nathaniel Copsey: 2015)

Current Challenges facing the European Union

The movement for European unity is seven decades old now. The face of Europe has changed beyond recognition during this period. The Europe of today, notwithstanding the prevailing difficulties in which it finds itself, is a notable political and economic actor in the international arena enjoying an important say in the manage-ment of international affairs. The EU, the principal vehicle of the integration, is also a much transformed entity. Not only has its membership increased from the original six to the present twentyeight (the British decision to leave the Union will reduce the number to 27); the number is poised to go up in the near future as some of the former Yugoslav states, like Serbia, are keen to join. The EU’s areas of activity have also expanded considerably raising serious doubts as to whether the Union has reached its limits with regard to integration which is being resented by people in the member-states who are beginning to feel that too much power has been concentrated in Brussels, the EU headquarters, and the institutions of the EU are not sufficiently accountable. What follows is a select narrative of five areas where the EU faces its most daunting challenges today.

Eurozone Crisis

The Union hit a rough patch when it encountered a series of challenges beginning with the world economic depression in 2008. It sent an already depressed EU economy into a tailspin by triggering the protracted European debt crisis (also often referred to as the Eurozone crisis or the European sovereign debt crisis). It began in the EU since 2009 when all Euro-area countries (only 19 of the EU members are participants in the single currency project) with large external imbalances experienced severe financial pressures. Essentially the Eurozone crisis is a combination of three crises: a government debt crisis where some member-states, particularly Greece, had accumulated high public debt resulting in questions in its ability to finance further budget deficits; a banking crisis whereby banks in Spain and Ireland suffered losses because of their significant exposure to a property bubble that was shattered in 2009; and a macroeconomic crisis whereby declining competitiveness and slow growth compounded the burden of some indebted countries in the Eurozone. (Meiers: 2015: 17)

The fulcrum of the Eurozone crisis was that the Euro, which came into being in 1999, was based on a monetary union while a fiscal union was also an imperative that could not be achieved due to national sensitivities. In the beginning the single monetary policy generously accommodated divergent national policies contributing to the build-up of unsustainable imbalances in the periphery which comprised primarily the southern flank of the EU. As a result the Euro area was hit by a balance of payments crisis and ‘sudden stop’ of cross-border capital flows to the Eurozone periphery countries—Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Ireland (PIGS). (Micossi: 2015: 132, 135) The balance of payments crisis led to a public debt crisis in the peripheral Euro area (the public debts of the PIGS countries assumed astronomical proportions). This is considered by experts to be the fundamental trigger for the systemic crisis in the Eurozone.

According to experts, the systemic flaws in the structure of the Eurozone exposed it to the kind of failure that ultimately culminated in the crisis in the PIGS countries, specially Greece. The European Monetary Union had no instru-ments that could lead to uniform economic development in the participating countries. Consequently some countries experienced a boom, some others a recession, some improved their competitiveness, some others faced a worsening situation. These divergent develop-ments led to large imbalances. The Treaty of Maastricht had fixed certain convergent criteria for member-states to join the monetary union and the Eurozone. Subsequently these criteria were not rigorously implemented due to political and diplomatic subterfuge. The result was that some of the weaker members of the Eurozone, such as Greece, Spain, Ireland, Portugal and Italy, were plunged into a sovereign debt crisis which required substantial financial bailout packages, particularly for Greece as also for Spain, Ireland and Portugal.

As a result of these developments the Eurozone member-states agreed that a fiscal union was also necessary to address the situation. Therefore an inter-governmental treaty was drawn up on December 8, 2011 whereby the EU leaders agreed on a fiscal unity on the lines of a monetary unity which already exists. The treaty did three things. First, it enforced the budget restrictions of the Maastricht Treaty. Second, it reassured lenders that the EU would stand behind its members’ sovereign debt. Third, it allowed the EU to act as a more integrated unit. All these developments followed a bailout in May 2010 to the affected countries noted above. At that time the EU leaders had pledged 720 billion Euros or $ 928 billion to prevent the debt crisis from spinning out of control following the preceding Wall Street crash. The bailout restored faith in the Euro which had slid to a 14-month low against the Dollar. (Kimberly Amadeo: 2018)

The political implications of the crisis were enormous. The austerity programmes (cutting expenses to reduce the gap between revenues and outlays) led to social unrest in Greece and Spain and the removal of the parties in power in Italy and Portugal. It also led to tensions between fiscally sound countries such as Germany and a high debt-stressed country like Greece. Germany pushed for budgetary reform as a condition for giving aid, leading to an escalation of tensions within the European Union. Following a great deal of pressures Greece agreed to cut spending and raise taxes which had devastating social consequences (people were thrown out of work, salaries and pensions were slashed while taxes went up leading to an across-the-board impoverishment of people at large; the political leadership had to suffer the backlash). Germany however was unwilling to extend the generosity to the region’s other debt-affected countries since it would have had to foot a disproportionate percentage of the bill. The tension also opened up possibilities that one or more Eurozone countries would abandon the Euro. Doing so would allow a country to pursue its own independent policy rather than being subject to the common policy of the 19 nations using the currency; on the other hand it would have a major impact on the global economy and financial markets. This concern has been a contributory factor for the periodic weakness of the Euro relative to the other major global currencies during the crisis period. (Thomas Kenny: 2018) Finally the migrant crisis, that gradually enveloped the Union from 2011 onwards, also added to the tension in the most debt-ridden countries (Greece, Italy and Spain) which bore the brunt of large-scale migrant arrivals.

The situation has been stabilised somewhat over the past few years, especially in Greece, by enforcing austerity measures and thus cutting budget deficits. However, experts do not think that the crisis has been fully resolved and might recur in the absence of fundamental reforms. The possibility of a default or one of the Eurozone countries exiting the common currency is lower now than it was in 2011; the fundamental problem of the region however remains (high government debt). ‘As a result, the chances of a further economic shock to the region—and the world economy as a whole—is still a possibility and will likely remain so for several years.’ (Thomas Kenny: 2018)


Of late Europe has become a victim of international terrorism which launched attacks on Spain in 2004, Britain in 2005 and in March, May and June 2017, France in 2015 and 2016, and Belgium in 2016. Apart from these major attacks, which claimed a substantial number of victims, there have been sporadic attacks on the continent throughout the past decade-and-a-half which have lately shown signs of abatement following the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria though the danger of home-grown terrorism still remains.

The EU’s counter-terrorism has been to a large extent ‘crisis-driven’ and was influenced by several major shocks: 9/11; the Madrid and London bombings; the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS); the terrorist attacks in France in 2015 and 2016 which claimed a huge number of lives; the attacks in Brussels and Berlin in 2016 and those in London and Manchester in 2017. However, the EU response to these attacks has been mostly spasmodic as the number of action plans and measures adopted in each year clearly showed a steep increase in conformity with these attacks, that is, in 2001, 2005/2006, 2008 and 2015/16. The latest attempt was at the EU summit in Brussels on June 23, 2017. Since the aforementioned shocks are all related to Islamist terrorism, this has been the EU’s main counter-terrorism focus. A recent study sponsored by the European Parliament came out with certain conclusive findings. It identified (apart from the ‘crisis-driven’ nature of EU counter-terrorism policies) that attacks from separatist and Left-wing extremist movements have been on a steady decline though there has been a steep increase in terrorist attacks in Europe in the past ten years. The attacks have been carried out primarily by Right-wing and jihadist extremism. Analysts agree that lone-wolf terrorism is on the increase, facilitated by increased availability of information on the internet and calls upon Muslims in Western countries to commit lone-actor attacks on their countries of residence by the Al-Qaeda and more recently by the ISIS. One researcher has estimated that one in 15 to 20 returnees, who had travelled to Syria and Iraq from these countries to fight for the ISIS, poses a security risk. This estimate was based on foreign fighters who travelled before 2011 and it is more likely that the risks with regard to those who travelled after 2011 are much greater. This risk assessment combined with the defeat of the ISIS with the much awaited fall of their stronghold in Mosul increases the possibility of a higher number of returnees and the severe security threat they pose to the EU and its nationals. (Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs: 2017: 30)

Many of the EU member-states while allowing mass migration from the Middle East and North Africa, apart from South Asia, did very little to actively follow a policy of integrating these migrants into their societies leading to emergence of two parallel phenomena—alienation of the religious minorities from mainstream societies and a rising tide of xenophobia and racism among the native populations of these countries. Such xenophobia has been reflected in the recent elections in Germany, Italy, Austria, Hungary and Poland. The bottom-line is that the EU leaders are caught in the cross-current of this phenomena and are groping in the dark to come up with a suitable answer.

Migrant Crisis

Another big challenge that Europe faces today is the migrant crisis. Europe has been an attractive destination for migrants (both legal and irregular) for centuries and it has absorbed them with varying degrees of success though the continent never faced any catastrophic crisis as a result of the earlier migrations. After the Second World War Western European countries experienced large scale legal immigration which in many countries (Britain, France, Germany and Spain) was designed to attract cheap labour from the post-colonial societies to deal with Western Europe’s post-war labour shortages.

However, from the last leg of 2000 Europe started encountering a large flow of irregular migrants and refugees running into hundreds of thousands who entered the continent by resorting to various illegal means and methods. This continuous flow turned into a tidal wave of desperate migrants from Africa, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq in 2014 and 2015 leading to the European Migrant Crisis of 2015 the like of which has not been witnessed since the end of the Second World War. Millions of these migrants descended on Europe in search of a better future as they fled civil war, failed economies and persecution of all kinds.

Although immigration was a part of the EU policy-making for decades, it was considered primarily a domestic issue of the member-states and therefore left to them to decide their own course of action according to their labour market requirements. However, when the Schengen Accord of 1985 providing for a common border for the EU was implemented in 1990 the EU began to address asylum policies and irregular migration for the Union as a whole by incorporating it in the Justice and Home Affairs pillar of the Maastricht Treaty of 1991. Since then a slew of agreements gave shape (too detailed to be discussed here) to the EU Common Migration policy to combat and control irregular migration. (Albert Kraler and Madalina Rogoz: 2011) The situation, however, changed since 2000, as noted, as an increasing flow of migrants posed a major challenge to the EU leaders and policy-makers. As a first and immediate response to the crisis, a 10-point plan on April 23, 2015 on how to mitigate the crisis was put forward by the European Commission. The plan highlighted the need to strengthen the rescue operation (the bulk of the migrants from Africa as also West Asia attempt to cross over into the southern shores of Europe, especially Italy and Greece, through the Medite-rranean Sea), fight smugglers and traffickers in accordance with law, prevent illegal migration through supporting African countries and reinforce internal solidarity and responsibility. (European Council: 2015) The four pillars of this policy were reducing the incentives for irregular migration, border management, a strong common asylum policy and a new policy on legal migration. The EU also entered into an agreement with Turkey (through which most of the West Asian refugees were entering the Union) in November 2015 whereby Ankara would offer temporary protection to Syrian refugees and prevent migrants from entering Europe in exchange for incentives like financial support, visa liberalisation and re-energising Turkey’s accession process into the EU. (European Commission: 2015)

However, the EU response to the crisis has been unsatisfactory though the tidal waves have now been stemmed; yet boatloads of refugees, primarily from Africa, keep risking their lives in trying to cross the Mediterranean into Greece and Italy which is a regular occurrence. Public opinion in Europe is unfavourable to the refugees (due to rising xenophobia in the affected EU member-states) and the Union is also divided on how to deal with the crisis. The EU leadership (primarily Germany) had proposed a quota system to allocate the migrant arrivals of 2014 and 2015 to different EU member-states. However countries like Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland pointedly refused to accept any migrants ostensibly on the ground that they were relatively poorer than their West European neighbours to accommodate the numbers allocated to them though in many respects their negative attitudes were derived from the rising tide of xenophobia mostly directed against the primarily Muslim migrants. In sum the situation has only been contained though no permanent, satisfactory solution, acceptable to all, has yet been found. Some observers believe that the migrant crisis, if not dealt with to the satisfaction of all the member-states, can even threaten the survival of the EU as an institution.

European Identity

The history of European integration is a story of increasing encroachments and limitations imposed on national power and authority during the course of the different phases of the Unity Movement. At the root of this entire exercise was the objective of the creation of a sense of common European identity which had to be achieved through a process of assimilation of and not necessarily at the expense of national identities. However, a steady impact of the Union on the national identities of member-states through the promotion of a commonality of interest is noticeable over the past six decades. To quote an eminent analyst of the integration process, taking the mid-1950s as a starting point “a condition would be found which had existed in Western Europe, certainly for two centuries and possibly for much longer, and design and method of institutions in a sense represented that condition. It was summed up in one of the great insights about Western European identity penned by Montesquieu in the eighteenth century: that it contained an inner dialectic, ’unity in diversity’ or ‘diversity in unity’.” (Paul Taylor: 1996: 141)

Throughout its history Europe has displayed a common cultural unity with marked national plurality. Especially in Western Europe there were certain transcendent elements in the attitudes and values, common in various states, which were essentially an inheritance of the Renaissance and experience of the Industrial Revolution. There were also elements of separateness acquired through long periods of struggles and sacrifices. These comprised separate myths, own sense of identity and clear distinction with others. Each nation-state had its symbols, ceremonies and special histories which marked it out as a distinctive entity on its own right. Each was proud of its national identity and heritage.

These ideals and values provided the bedrock on which the Union was founded and set down in the treaties. These values are shared by the member-states in a society based on pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between men and women. The member-states, however, continue to have their own national histories and identities; despite the “Europe of values” it is clear that the nation-state is still the vital framework of reference for most Europeans. European societies also distinguish themselves by a high degree of secularisation (with the possible exception of Ireland and Poland). (Thierry Chopin: 2018; Nathaniel Copsey: 2015: 46)

Notwithstanding this diverse and contrasting mosaic, the Community experience made an impact on the nations participating in the European experiment. There was a gradual strengthening of the web of unity through such measures as the introduction of an EU passport, or the gradual extension of the use of the European flag and logo. Other notable changes include gradual mutual acceptance of each other’s food habits as a result of the Common Market’s encouragement of wider distribution of foodstuffs which had previously been local. There is a marked similarity in appearances—especially in terms of dress—in the younger generations of Europeans born after the Second World War, be they French, German, Italian, Spanish or even British.

However, it has to be noted that there was no uniform strengthening of the sense of common European identity throughout the Union. It varied from state to state. The importance of and attachment to national symbols continued to hold sway particularly in the major member-states. It may also be noted that the six original founding member-states—France, the Federal Republic of Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg—displayed greater willingness to transfer more national powers to the Community institutions than a latecomer like Britain which showed a marked reluctance in this regard and even hostility towards the Community ideal of supra-nationalism. (Purusottam Bhattacharya: 1994)

While a definitive answer to what constitutes a European identity is debatable, the following quote, which introduces another dimension to the debate, from an expert is worth pondering over keeping in mind not only European integration but also the notion of global inter-dependence. “The identity of Europe is necessarily of an intermediate nature: it must accept economically and from a human point of view, to be part of a globalised whole and comprise nation-states that retain their discrete identities. Europe’s specific vocation dictates its identity and vice versa. This identity involves finding a middle road between the global and the local, between dilution and self-withdrawal, to avoid, as much as possible, a brutal confrontation between world interdependence and blind, xenophobic, sterile isolation.” (P. Hassner: 2012 cited in Thierry Chopin: 2018)

It is obvious that Europe is not a nation-state with a clear set national identity, a number of familiar national myths and a common language; at the same time the terms ‘Europe’ and ‘Europeans’ are not merely figures of speech. A European identity, a European culture or a European society takes time to come into existence, keeping in mind the fact that the European integration project is only six decades old. So the vital question that requires an answer is: has a European identity emerged as a result of the European project?

An eminent expert who has studied this issue argues that the balance of evidence suggests that the European Union has changed what it means to be European, though only in the eyes of the elite. He singles out three elements for most Europeans to have an ability to identify with Europe: “(1) the individual engages in cognitive reflection about what it means to be European; (2) the EU as a subject is salient to the individual; and (3) at the conclusion of this thinking process, the individual recognises that European integration is of personal benefit”. (Nathaniel Copsey: 2015: 47)

At the practical level these elements are, however, problematic. It is rather unusual for an individual to reflect cognitively on his/her identity which is by definition more of a given than the subject of a discussion. “ the identity ‘bar’ is set very high indeed, which in turn explains why European identity remains the preserve of the elite”. Consequently, Copsey argues, “two Europes” have emerged since the early days of European integration; this effectively means that two distinct European societies have come into being which transcend national barriers in both old and new member-states. The first of these two Europes comprises of a broad ‘elite’ of about one in five or one in six Europeans. This group shares a ‘common European identity, believes that it benefits directly from European integration, and is usually politically Europhil’. (Fligstein: 2008; Risse: 2010 cited in Copsey: 2015 : 48) The second Europe consists of everyone else. This much larger group either has a very tenuous or non-existent bond to European identity and is not interested either in European politics or the EU. There is a sub-group within this larger mass of Europeans—the ‘Eurosceptics’; however, they do not form a majority since the great mass of this second group simply do not care enough about EU politics to take a stand one way or another, that is, whether they consider themselves to be European or not. (Nathaniel Copsey: 2015: 48)

In essence this is the current composition of the European political community. The challenge is how to bring these two Europes closer together and work towards a cohesive European identity. This has been rendered even more salient in view of the current problems—flagged in the introduction of this paper—the Union is facing. It is a challenge for the groups who control society to convince those who have less wealth, income and status that they belong to the same polity and share a common identity. (Deutsch: 1966; Habermas: 2009; Copsey: 2015: 48)


While the Union was trying to put its house in order, British voters voted in favour of a British exit from the European Union (Brexit) in an in-or-out referendum on June 23, 2016 by a narrow margin. This is the first time (without taking into account the departure of Greenland, an autonomous territory of Denmark, in 1985) an existing member has decided to exit the EU. Consequently the Union was thrown into another turmoil it could very well have done without. Britain has been an ‘awkward partner’ in the EU which has a long history that can not be recounted here for the sake of brevity. (For details see Purusottam Bhattacharya: 1994, 2006)

Brexit is going to be a long-drawn process taking almost two years after Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty in March 2017. The issue has already raised a lot of acrimony between London and Brussels (which represents the remaining 27 states). The negotiations between Britain and the EU (which are extremely complex in nature and cannot be discussed in detail here) started on June 19, 2017 after an inconclusive British general elections, called prematurely by May in the hope of strengthening her hands. The gamble, however, backfired depriving May of the slender overall majority in the House of Commons the Conservative Government enjoyed and leaving her in a much weakened position which has had debilitating consequences for the British side though the EU leaders have not sought to take any advantage of the apparently sticky position the UK finds itself in following the June 2017 elections in the negotiations.

The principal sticking points in the negotiations were whether the UK would continue to get free access to the EU single market after March 2019, the overall nature of its relationship with the EU after that date (the date of the termination of its EU membership) and what would be the fate of the three million EU nationals in the UK and the one million British nationals in the EU (agreement on this issue has now been reached). [For some details in this regard see Purusottam Bhattacharya: 2017: 34-37; at the time of writing (November-December 2018), a draft agreement has been reached between the British Government and the EU though its complex details are out of the purview of this discussion; the draft agreement has been approved by the European Council and is subject to approval by the House of Commons.]

At this stage it can only be said that Brexit will compound the anxieties and uncertainties the Union has been suffering from. It is now a problem which adds to those of repeated terrorist attacks and of rehabilitating and assimilating the millions of migrants who have been given asylum in various EU member-states, particularly Germany, and the unsolved Eurozone crisis; these are issues that will continue to bedevil the EU for the foreseeable future.

Whither Europe in the 21st Century?

As the EU leaders gathered in Rome to mark the anniversary of 60 years of the organisation on March 25, 2017 the need for unity was given the utmost emphasis. In the Rome Declaration, issued after the summit meeting of 27 leaders of the Union (Britain was absent as it had given notice of its imminent departure), the achievements of the Union like peace and prosperity over the past 60 years were highlighted and a pledge was taken to stand united noting the fact that in a turbulent world individual EU states did not have the clout to influence world events; only a united Union can do so.

The Declaration also noted that the Union is facing unprecedented challenges—both global and domestic—such as regional conflicts, terrorism, migratory pressures, protectionism, and social and economic inequalities. The Declaration promised that in ten years the Union wanted to build an organisation that ensured peace and security, its competitiveness, prosperity, sustaina-bility and social responsibility with will and capacity to play a key role in the world and shape globalisation.

Keeping these objectives in mind the leaders adopted the Rome Agenda which include a safe and secure Europe, a prosperous and sustainable Europe, a social Europe and a stronger Europe on the global scene. (European Council: 2017) These are laudable objectives no doubt. How-ever, the pitfalls that lie ahead are also formidable.

First and foremost, the Union is about to lose the United Kingdom (though it found no reflection in the Declaration) which was throughout a troublesome partner and yet is the second largest economy in Europe and one of the two, along with France, most powerful defence and security provider on the continent. The cost of Brexit has also been estimated to be around 60 billion Euros (though this figure is variable).

Secondly, there is the fear of a contagion effect of Brexit though no other member-state is showing any inclination at the moment to quit the bloc. Populist pressures on the EU to reform itself however was reflected in the elections in Germany in September 2017 and Italy in March 2018 where Right-wing, anti-EU parties have gained considerable support (which has been further bolstered by the chaotic handling of the refugee crisis of 2015 by the EU). All this has happened in spite of the victory of the pro-EU Emanuel Macron in the presidential elections in France in May 2017 fighting off the Far Right challenge there. Prior to that in the Netherlands elections on March 15, 2017 the populist, anti-Muslim and anti-EU parties failed in their bid to win power. As things stand now, Angela Merkel is in a considerably weaker position following her failure to gain a decisive victory in the German elections in September 2017 and the shaky coalition she has had to put together to stay in power. The newly installed Right-wing, Eurosceptic government in Italy and its stand on the migrant crisis has further added to the woes of the EU leadership. In spite of these setbacks if the pro-EU Franco-German partner-ship can consolidate its position within the EU, it will provide the much needed leadership to steer the organisation out of its present crises and on to the path of reform which is the need of the hour.

Thirdly, the Eurozone and migrant crises remain largely unresolved.

Fourthly, the threat of terrorism continues unabated with the London and Manchester attacks of March and May 2017, and other minor attacks in Europe since then—a stark reminder that the continent remains extremely vulnerable to such attacks.

So what is the way out? In the weeks and months ahead all sorts of innovative ideas will be tried out. Experts are also divided in their prescriptions in this regard. One way to re-invigorate the project would be to have a two-speed Europe with Schengen (a group of member-states participating in a borderless EU), Euro (enforced by a select group of member-states) and the inner core of the single market forming the first tier. The remaining member-states can participate in the project according to their own ability and pace. It has also been suggested that some powers of the EU can be returned to the member-states as resentment has gathered momentum over the years of over-centralisation of powers in Brussels and lack of accountability of EU institutions (the so-called ‘Democratic Deficit’). The Eurozone needs to be fixed and there are many suggestions as to how this could be achieved (too numerous to be discussed here).

One thing is, however, clear. For the EU to survive status quo is no longer an option; it must reform or perish. In that sense the EU faces an existential crisis; it has to navigate a perilous course in the weeks and months ahead.

However, in conclusion it would be premature to say that European integration is facing its ultimate denouement as it grapples with the five-fold crises discussed above. Even acknow-ledging the unprecedented nature of the present crisis it can be said that in the past the EU has demonstrated its ability to accommodate the divergent interests of its member-states which increased in number from the original six to 28. The Union is sufficiently resilient and this has again been highlighted in the Rome Declaration. The successes of European regionalism are well established and still sought to be emulated in other parts of the world. Whether the EU will survive in its present form is another question. However, the path it has charted over the past seven decades, especially in overcoming centuries of bloody conflicts that tore the continent apart, is well recognised and will continue to inspire endeavours for human unity around the world. 


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Dr Bhattacharya is a Professor (now retired), Former Head, Department of International Relations and Erstwhile Director, School of International Relations and Strategic Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata. Having specialised in European Integration for more than four decades, the author has many publications on the subject. Currently he is engaged in research to write a book on European Integration.

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