It is time to save the EU
A surge of far-right parties is about to hit the European parliament. Last weekend’s success of the National Front in France was led by the party’s leader Marine Le Pen, who pledges to take France out of an agreement that is destroying jobs and flooding towns with immigrants. Similar advances by the right are appearing in differing degrees of intensity elsewhere in Europe.
The European elections next month will likely see 100 or more deputies from the Freedom Party of Austria, the British UK Independence Party, the Dutch Freedom Party, the Finnish True Finns, the Flemish (Belgian) Vlaams Blok, the German Alternative for Germany, the Greek Golden Dawn, the Hungarian Jobbik, the Italian Five Star Movement, the Swedish Democrats as well as the National Front enter parliament. They’ll be noisy, passionate, insulting, disruptive and in some cases well-primed to exploit every weakness and mistake in the European parliament.
The arrival of these deputies is the most recent bit of bad news for the Brussels politicians and officials whose job is to steer the European Union through its roughest patch in half a century. Together with two other hammer blows, this bad news could actually save the EU.
A no-holds-barred argument about the purpose of the EU would dynamize this somnolent assembly. Some would be forced to face the euroskeptic issues that are raised by far-right parties, including the difficulty of attracting interest to an organization in which the members are unknown.
For decades, these issues have been ducked. But in the next election they will be forced on to the agenda. Finding the words and the passion to defend and promote the EU in debates will mean that Europeans will perhaps begin to see the point of the organization.
The second bit of bad news is now familiar. The revelations of public debt in euro zone countries where growth has slowed or gone negative, as in Italy, Spain, Ireland, Portugal and Greece, have raised fears of defaults. The total debt of the 17 member states that make up the euro zone was a cumulative $12.2 trillion (8.84 trillion euros) at the end of last year, or nearly 93 percent of gross domestic product in the euro zone states. That is way above the 60 percent limit that the euro zone had pledged.
Mind you, that’s an improvement. The debt has come down slightly in the past few months (though it’s still higher than it was a year ago) and the current account is now in surplus because the euro zone states are exporting more than they import. That’s good news. The account deficits they were racking up a few years ago was one reason for the crash.
But the surplus is also a sign of weakness. Depressed domestic demand in the euro zone states is largely responsible for the turnaround, as consumers cut purchases of imported goods. If these economies don’t begin to show stronger growth leading to restored consumer confidence, the good figures could point to stagnation, and renewed crisis.
So what can be good about that? For one thing, it can lead to a greater integration of the euro zone, and maybe the EU. The European Commission — the business end of the EU — is trying to pull a rabbit of triumph from a hat of tragedy by arguing for “a deep and genuine economic and monetary union,” which should be accompanied by parallel steps toward a “political union with reinforced democratic legitimacy and accountability.”
The logic underlying the crisis is the construction of a new state. A United States of Europe — the vision of the EU’s founders. It’s happening slowly, but it may, in the end, be a reality.
The third piece of bad news is an impending tragedy. Crimea, part of Ukraine, has been taken into Russia, from which it is unlikely to emerge. NATO is pointing to “very sizable” Russian forces massing on the border between Russia and Ukraine. Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, is pushing a plan that includes a veto on any Ukrainian application to join NATO and a decentralization of powers in the Ukrainian regions, thus allowing the eastern regions to institute a “soft secession” to Russia.
Ukraine’s former President Victor Yanukovich had toyed with the idea of an association agreement with the EU for months when, a few weeks before its signing, he abruptly cancelled it and opened talks with Russia on joining the Eurasian Union. He was soon driven from office by protesters.
It’s right to blame the EU for not thinking through what the offer to Ukraine would mean for Russia, and how, if taken, it would destroy Ukraine’s balancing act between Europe and Russia. I’ve placed blame myself.
But, careless or not, the fervor with which many Ukrainians embraced the EU and aspired to democracy, clean government and the rule of law, is moving. It jerked us out of our solipsistic brooding on our own problems and reminded us that we’re lucky and we should continue to spread that luck around. Sometimes you need to have your belief in the advantages of law, freedom and democracy confirmed by the power of those who yearn for them.
All three of these hammer blows, each one serious and difficult, could be turned around — but only with a revival of the passion and idealism that lays behind the founding of the EU after World War Two. It was a move designed to put an end to future wars. The setbacks could force Europe to rediscover its values and its energy and to understand that through struggle against adversity can come a stronger union — one that can shape its future for the good of the world.
For Europeans, the challenge is there to be met. If its leaders can rise to it then the union has a future. For the moment, in its introspective and fearful state, hoping its troubles will lift, it does not.
PHOTO: A Member of the European Parliament attends a debate on the situation in Ukraine at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, February 26, 2014. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler