Europe's crisis

Europe’s Crisis is More Serious than EU Leaders Admit

21 June 2008

The following article was published in the Japanese edition of Newsweek.
European leaders remain in a state of denial over the gravity of the existential crisis now facing the European Union. The Irish No to the Lisbon Treaty and the failure of the summit meeting of 27 heads of government in Brussels to find a way forward means the European Union is now facing a turning point which will have a profound impact on 21st century global politics. The issue at stake is simple. Can Europe continue to unite its different nations into one single force in world affairs or will the European Union become a jungle of competing nation states unable to rival the rising nationalist powers of Asia? Can Europe be a partner for the weakened United States or is the Euroatlantic hegemony in place since 1945 now over?
Old powers like Russia and new powers like China and India are all watching to see whether the future of geo-politics is now to be based on the nation state and whether the unique experiment of sharing power and sovereignty of the big and small nation states of Europe is now coming to a close.
The European Union, of course, can continue its present existence for years and decades to come. But as President Sarkozy of France rightly said, a failure of the Lisbon Treaty means the end of enlargement. Hopes that the western Balkan states like Croatia, Serbia and Kosovo, as well as Turkey, possibly Ukraine and even Israel could join the European Union are all suspended because 860,000 Irish citizens out of a total EU population of nearly half a billion voted down a new Treaty which set out the architecture for the next stage of Europe’s destiny.
Instead, the very real fear is that the nations of Europe will reassert their separate identity to the point that the European Union declines into weakness leaving history again to belong to big, determined, confident nation states like China and Russia which show little interest in democracy, rule of law, freedom of expression or human rights.
The hopes of creating imitation European Unions in south-east Asia, in Latin America and in Africa as the small quarrelling nations of these regions reduce trade barriers and find common rules to work and grow together will fade away as the parent model of the European Union is seen as weak, poorly led and unable even to agree the new set of rules contained in the Lisbon Treaty.
Of course, when the Irish – one of the many small European nations to emerge from years of colonial and imperial rule after World War 1 – voted they were not worried about the bigger geo-political picture. Their worry was rather that their proud national identity would be further eroded by an increase in power for the European Union institutions. The difficult balancing act between two competing sets of identity – the nation and Europe – tumbled to the ground as the Irish said No to more Europe and refused to say Yes to the lucklustre campaign of their political elites in favour of the Treaty.
And therein lies the dilemma for Europe. Reason lies with the EU. Emotion belongs to the nation. The head says Europe, the heart says England, or France, or Germany, or Poland. The poet of imperial Britain, Rudyard Kipling, wrote of “One law. One land. One Throne!” and the European Union has never commanded the passion that the nations of Europe, big and small, old and new, rich and poor, generate amongst their citizens.
But the EU does not exist independently of its leaders and on too many issues, the leaders of Europe refuse to speak as one. President Sarkozy, for example, attacked the European Commission at the Brussels summit because its trade negotiator, Peter Mandelson, is trying to reduce agricultural protectionism in order to get movement in the Doha round of world trade talks. Sarkozy’s outburst and violent verbal abuse of Mandelson drives a dagger into the heart of Europe as the one area where the European Union speaks for all 27 member states is trade.
European soldiers are active in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Balkans, Lebanon and Africa. Yet there is no agreement on how to create a united European military profile or strategy and no agreement to build common European warplanes, naval ships or tanks. Europe’s national leaders take different approaches to Iran, to the Middle East conflict, and relations with the United States. Europe under its existing rules and treaties could today decide a common policy on energy but Germany vetoes any discussion of nuclear energy because of German’s emotional obsession with the perceived dangers of nuclear power.
Most European nations have joined with the United States and Japan in recognising the right of the people of Kosovo to form their own nation-states. But key European nations like Romania, Greece and Spain refuse to do so and Spain is leading a diplomatic campaign in Spanish-speaking Latin America to stop further recognition for Kosovo. So Europe’s ambition to speak with one voice on bringing stability and peace to the Western Balkans is blocked by its own member states.
So to blame the Irish voters for stopping Europe’s march to integration and unity is wrong. It is the failure of today’s leaders of Europe to rise above national interests and national political egoisms under the existing law and institutions of the European Union that is equally responsible.
Both Senator Obama and Senator McCain have made clear that if elected as the next president of the United States they will try and repair the damage done to EU-US relations by the Bush administration. But at least the people of America will be able to choose their 44th president. The Lisbon Treaty proposed to create a President of Europe to speak for all 27 nation states on key global issues. Unless the Treaty can be brought back to life – and it is far clear that the Irish will vote a second time and say Yes – then the next US President will face a Europe lacking in coherence and unity.
The leaders of Europe are seeking to present the Irish vote as a headache which the right kind of Euroaspirin will cure. But supposing the Irish No was a symptom of deeper malady – a fundamental desire to turn the clock back to the Europe of competing, separate nations? If so, the hopes of a European Union growing in unity and strength to become a leader rather than follower of 21st century world history will disappear into the glasses of Irish Guiness beer the No campaign raised when the Lisbon Treaty was derailed on the western edge of the European Union.