Though this is at first sight a political rather than an economic crisis, the economic implications for the continent will be substantial. At stake is nothing less than the future of the EU and its common market. So far, Europe’s political and economic integration has been a one-way street. It is now becoming clear that the next integration steps may well be backwards.
Let’s put the current crisis in a broader context. Since the Treaty of Rome in 1957, which established the European Economic Community of just six member states (Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany), the European integration project has not only become larger but also much deeper.
Today’s EU has 28 members. It is much more than just a free trade zone. It has integrated its economies, created a common currency for most of its members, and effectively removed borders between them.
No matter whether one agrees with the speed and direction of the European project, one has to acknowledge the EU has been successful at driving it forward — until this year.
In many ways, future historians may well regard 2015 as a watershed year for the EU. First there was the renewed eruption of the Greek debt crisis, which led to unprecedented threats to suspend Greece’s eurozone membership.
Of course, there had been previous changes of government in Italy and Greece which happened under pressure from Brussels (leading to the removals of Prime Ministers George Papandreou and Silvio Berlusconi in 2011). But the pressure on Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to surrender to EU demands despite having just won a referendum rejecting them was unprecedented. Now re-elected the challenges remain the same.
The Greek debt crisis of 2015 was thus a fitting prelude to the pan-European refugee crisis. Once again, the old EU ways of multilateralism and compromise were replaced by unilateral decisions and cross-border blame games. As a result, Europe suspended its old Schengen system of passport-free travel between countries. It effectively abolished its previous agreements on refugee policy, and in doing all that it saw a return of the nation-state as the most important factor in European politics.
This has severe implications for the future of the EU. The past week has demonstrated that European integration can be reversed if national interests are at stake. If that is the case, however, then what is the purpose of the EU?
As all of these dramas unfold, Britain is heading towards its referendum on whether it wants to remain a part of this EU. The way things are going at the moment, who could possibly blame the Brits for saying ‘No’? The easiest way for British Eurosceptics to win the referendum, possibly held next year already, would be to just publicise Jean-Claude Juncker’s State of the Union address. Britain’s departure from the EU would be the ultimate proof that European integration can go into reverse.
I am not the greatest fan of the EU. It is an institution that has unfortunately become too bureaucratic, too removed from the people and too fractured. But I am worried that in its crisis, all the things that were once good about the EU could also be swept away, especially the common market.
If recent media reports can be believed, Angela Merkel has decided to run for a fourth term in 2017. This will come as a surprise to those who had speculated that the German Chancellor might resign sometime before the next election. After all, she has been in office for nearly ten years and led her party since 2000.
Though the next German election is still a couple of years away, the outcome is fairly easy to predict: thanks to her personal popularity and the chronic weakness of the main opposition party, the Social Democrats, Merkel will remain in power.
What is far less clear is why Merkel would even want to remain in office. At least there is no obvious project, belief system or grand plan that she really stands for.
Under Angela Merkel, German politics has entered a strange period of hibernation. Where there used to be passionate debates within and between the political parties, boredom has taken hold of the country. Merkel’s sober and dry way of governing has sedated friends and foes alike.
Europe in 2015 stands at the crossroads