Is the European Union in Crisis?

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2016 was an unsettled year for the European Union. While Euroscepticism has grown within the hearts and minds of European citizens for decades, Europe has experienced unprecedented levels of anti-EU sentiment throughout 2016. Although, evaluating the causes of such hostility is anything but straightforward, the increase in the number of acts of terror across Europe, and poignant images of attacks in Paris and Berlin have undoubtedly multiplied fear and a feeling of insecurity amongst the citizens of countless western European states.

These images, coupled with pejorative headlines on the refugee crisis in Syria and the migrant jungle in Calais by numerous right wing publications, have been strewn across both old and new media platforms. This has resulted in greater antagonism between alienated citizens across European democracies and the established political elite. Individuals within several states have consequently turned their attention to questioning the effectiveness of the European Union in safeguarding the rights and security of their citizens, and the scaremongering ability of these individuals has proven particularly paramount in the resurgence of the far right. The outcomes of the British and Italian referenda, coupled with the ambiguity surrounding France’s and Germany’s 2017 Presidential Elections amid the rise of nationalist parties, will undoubtedly have ramifications for the future of the EU.

However, the threat of the far right towards the continued existence of an international organisation is not an unknown phenomenon. Comparisons are frequently drawn to the dissolution of the League of Nations in the 1930’s, where the authoritarian regimes of Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy were seen as increasingly effective at maintaining state security and economic stability in contrast to a Britain and France severely inhibited by the Great Depression. However, comparisons between the League of Nations to the EU today are not entirely representative; as the League of Nations was not solely a European institution and was also particularly undermined in Asia by Japan.

Accusations of ineffectiveness in Europe’s regional institutions today are evidently not without merit. As in the 1930’s, populist individuals on the right wing have capitalised on public dissatisfaction. Through the use of propaganda, these individuals have effectively been able to convince citizens of a better alternative to the European Union through a return to state sovereignty. The outcomes of Britain and Italy’s referendums serve as a testament to these trends. While it is evident that the resurgence of the far right is not universal in Europe today, as seen in Austria, the rise of the right wing in Europe was by no means unanimous in the 1930’s before the dissolution of the League.

With Europe plagued by extensive political discord and cultural differences throughout the twentieth century, the first question which should be examined is whether the EU was destined to fail from the start. It was founded with the core objectives of peace, collective security, solidarity and mutual respect amongst all citizens. Europe’s belligerent history and rivalry between former superpowers meant such utopian ideals were always going to be difficult to achieve. The fragility of the EU’s utopian vision is most clearly illustrated when acknowledging that these ideals undermined state sovereignty and the antagonism this would cause in the affected states.

The Brexit vote undoubtedly acted as a catalyst for the growth of the far right, not simply in Europe but also on a global scale. The United Kingdom’s referendum over the continued membership of the EU provided a particularly significant example of the causes of antagonism against the EU.  Several commentators viewed the leave vote as little more than a protest against the European political elite disregarding their concerns, particularly in regard to the free movement doctrine.

Yet, despite such disharmony, the collapse of the EU is by no means inevitable. While there is still uncertainty over what deal the United Kingdom will be able to secure from its negotiations with the EU (either a ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ deal), the exit alone will have a relatively minor political impact on the EU. Similarly, the outcome of Italy’s referendum is predicted to cause greater political and economic problems on the domestic rather than international front. While Matteo Renzi, the Italian Prime Minister, resigned in the aftermath of the election, his successor has already been appointed and has formed a cabinet filled with politicians from the centre-right of the political spectrum. Italy is expected to experience a severe recession, and while several commentators contend that such recession could affect the Eurozone, it is unlikely this will cause a prolonged economic crisis such as that which shook the Eurozone in 2009.

It is unlikely any western state will attempt to follow Britain out of the EU in the immediate future. Indeed, France could be the next state to fall to the radical right, with President François Hollande polling at 4% at the end of 2016. His decision not to stand for re-election in 2017 has surprised few. In the build-up to the first round of voting Marine Le Pen, the right wing National Front leader, has emerged a surprise frontrunner for President, and is widely expected to be successful in the first round. While there is little consensus surrounding Le Pen’s electability beyond this point, Trump’s election in the US will undoubtedly have energised Le Pen’s campaign to believe that the right wing might pull off another upset. 2016 has highlighted the danger of discrediting political outsiders, and upsets in France and Germany might further threaten the stability of the EU.

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Wessex Scene Politics Editor 2016/17 Modern History and Politics Student

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