The European fairy-tale is over, but the story continues

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

The ECB headquarters in Frankfurt [jpwers65/Flickr]

If we are to believe the stock markets, all is well in Europe. But markets are in danger of underestimating looming perils such as populism, a Brexit, German dominance and weakening European power, writes Andy Langenkamp.

Andy Langenkamp is senior political analyst at ECR Research.

The Greek crisis has been gnawing at the foundations of European unity for quite some time now. Because of the way negotiations over new aid have been conducted in combination with domestic political developments, Europe-wide trends, external threats and personal clashes, the initial goal to strengthen Greece and the Eurozone has obtained a dynamic of its own. The parties dug themselves into a hole, acquired tunnel vision, and ignored emotions, feelings, and arguments put forward by the other side. In this polarised climate, the real purpose has largely disappeared from view.

The Greek crisis has increased the popularity of Europe’s left-wing as well as right-wing populist parties. Nietzsche stated that “the democratisation of Europe is at the same time an involuntary arrangement for the breeding of tyrants.” Today, many citizens feel disenfranchised; powerless to influence the governance of their own country, for which they blame globalisation, European integration and self-serving elites. The ordinary man in the street regards himself as the plaything of overwhelming global political and economic forces.

In the words of conservative commentator George Will, “The question we settle in an election is not whether elites shall rule but which elite shall rule.” Numerous voters think that the elites have made a hash of it. This helps politicians who are seen as “outsiders” or are good at creating the illusion that they do not belong to the political establishment. A sceptical approach to Brussels, at the very least, tends to be par for the course.  

European integration could be undermined further due to the threat of a Brexit. Prime Minister Cameron has promised a referendum on Britain’s EU membership by 2017 at the latest, when he hopes to have negotiated new conditions. It is feared that London’s demands will compromise a fundamental tenet of the European project: the free movement of goods, services, capital, and people. Cameron wants to curb the latter, in particular. He is also opposed to any attempts to implement an “ever closer union”. In addition, he wants to reduce the EU budget and repatriate powers from Brussels.

The sorry Greek saga has reinforced the British belief that the EU should be overhauled. Bridge loans for Greece are financed by the EU, not the eurozone. Every attempt is made to ensure that non-EMU states do not run risks in this respect. And yet, the British do not like the way things are headed.

Simultaneously, British Eurosceptics see Greece’s woes as an opportunity. They hope that Cameron can land several scoops for the UK during the negotiations on strengthening the eurozone and EU. His approach will be: “I really want to put the eurozone on a firmer footing but can you guarantee that it will not steamroller London when taking future decisions, and what will you give me in exchange for my support, which is essential?” A fascinating high stakes political game is guaranteed.

Even more important than hanging on to the British is keeping the French-German relationship on track. The European project was built on the Paris-Berlin axis from the start. France’s political and military might and the German economic miracle made for equilibrium of sorts. German reunification threw the relationship off balance to some degree and it has continued to deteriorate. France cannot hold a candle to Germany when it comes to economic performance. Plus, the eastward expansion of the EU has put Berlin at the geographical heart of the union, replacing Paris as the central hub. The credit crisis and its ramifications have definitely put Germany on the map (not always voluntarily) as Europe’s dominant power.

It was hoped that European integration would render Germany more European. Now, many fear that Europe is becoming more German. Berlin is not consciously striving for hegemony. Whereas it is prepared to take the lead, it does not want to be seen as a ‘bully’. Many think it is already too late. The euro crisis has poisoned Germany’s attitude towards Europe and Europe’s attitude towards Germany.

Nationalism, populism, ideological rifts, and economic worries are distracting leaders from other pressing issues, like the chaos at its southern borders and the Russian threat. The EU has always found it difficult to take a hard line – politically and militarily. Its USP seems to be economic as well as ideological/moral. In the latter areas, it has incurred heavy damage. Internal divides are widening and political unity has declined.

Greece may have been saved from the abyss but the underlying weaknesses of the euro remain in place. The eurozone and EU are no longer bywords for unity, prosperity, democracy, solidarity, and mutual respect. The project should be revamped to stop the rot but this is unlikely to happen. Visionary leaders are lacking and the sprawling EU is incredibly complex and often rigid. Reforms are years in the making. Europe will continue to muddle on as it tries to cope with the constant threat of disintegration, waning global influence and the gap between economic viewpoints in the North and the South. Not to mention the rise of populism and problems arising from Germany’s ascendant dominance. The European fairy-tale is over, but the story continues.

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