On the Brink of Collapse: The European Union’s Transition as it Strives to Survive

The recent vote for the United Kingdom (UK) to leave the European Union (EU), commonly called Brexit, was a manifestation of Euroskepticism, a term coined to describe resistance to European integration or involvement in the EU within the UK but which has now spread to other countries. Before the establishment of the EU, the UK, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, and Germany came together to form the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), which bound France and Germany’s coal and steel industries together, the two industries absolutely necessary to wage a war, hoping to bring lasting peace to Europe. The ECSC has since expanded to encompass other policies and countries, transforming over time into the EU as it is now. However, the EU is now seen as a failed utopia, and Euroskepticism, encompassing everything from uber-nationalist political parties and their supporters to those providing constructive criticism with a goal of reform, is on the rise in many European countries. The recent struggles the EU has faced began with the acceptance of poorer nations without strong democratic histories, a principle on which the EU was founded, and is culminating in peripheral countries such as Greece, Portugal, Spain, and Italy, which were formerly pro-EU, succumbing to Euroskepticism. Euroskepticism is also rising in countries like Germany and other solvent members of the EU because they now have lacking finances and little willpower to bail out financially struggling members. Euroskepticism is the manifestation of problems in the EU like economic stagnation, the Euro crisis, conflict over migration, and Russian threats and pressures, many of which stem from the much-enlarged, poor, and diverse EU. Overall, the EU is struggling with overall coherence, policy, and solidarity, and while the majority of young people feel they have a European identity, many others feel a European identity is overshadowing and threatening to their national identity and sovereignty. Additionally, there is a tendency to blame Brussels as the head of the EU for problems that may or may not be covered under national responsibilities. Throughout this uncertain period in EU history, there have been many options for the EU: to disband altogether, to remain as it is, to strengthen the binding ties between EU member states, to leave the Euro and keep the EU intact, or have members pick and choose which parts of the union to adhere to. Given all the potential solutions for the EU’s future, the most effective solutions would be to establish a “two-speed Europe”, a pick and choose system.

One factor sparking a call for change in the EU’s operation like a two-speed system is the normalization of far-right political parties in Europe and around the world, marking the first time that far-right groups have been widely popular since World War Two. If far-right parties succeed in key upcoming elections in Europe, they will restrict freedom of movement in the EU, potentially catalyzing the breakup of the Eurozone and the EU as a whole. The upcoming elections in Italy and particularly France have led to uncertainty surrounding the future of the EU and the Euro. The Front National’s Marine Le Pen sees political conflict in Europe as populists, or Euroskeptics, against globalists, or pro-EU thinkers. Le Pen sees the Euro as a political move, rather than a currency, in order to get countries to follow EU protocol and rules. Additionally, Le Pen, claiming that the EU has an authoritarian nature, supports Frexit, the French exit from the EU, if France cannot gain control over their border, currency, sovereignty, economy, and laws (in other words, everything that the EU was created for: linking France and Germany together to prevent another war in Europe).  A Le Pen victory could signify the end of the EU, as France was a founding member of the EU. While Le Pen is most certainly the most conservative and controversial candidate in the French election, Francois Fillon, a conservative candidate, is also Euroskeptic, anti-Euro, and anti-migrant. While the French election won’t be finalized until May, the Dutch general election held in March resulted in a win for the ruling liberal party (VVD) with the second most seats going to the far-right party (PVV); however, all other parties have stated that they will not collaborate with PVV to form a government. The UK will also be holding local elections at the beginning of May, and the pro-EU party, the Liberal Democrats, is strong in the polls. Finally, October will mark important elections for the EU as Chancellor Angela Merkel seeks another term and is likely to succeed, but the far-right party AfD is polling well and is likely to take several seats in the Bundestag. AfD is campaigning on a platform that is anti-EU, opposed to funding for Greece and Italy, and anti-migration. The Brexit vote illustrates the importance of the upcoming elections, as any further dissolution could be disastrous for the future of the EU.

        One option for mitigating problems in the EU is to create a “two-speed Europe,” or a pick-and-choose system of membership. In other words, this system would allow groups of members to continue integrating while others continue as they are. This solution would have eased the concerns in Britain over losing sovereignty in the EU, which may have prevented Brexit had this been in place to begin with. Some pro-EU thinkers believe that this system is the best option. For example, Greece should not have been able to join the Euro because it wasn’t ready; however, as part of accession to the EU, new member states agree that they will one day join the Euro. Likewise, states that are not ready or are resistant to certain policies should not have to or should not be allowed to partake in those programs, as they won’t gain anything by participating in a program they don’t agree with. These ideas are cemented by the fact that the EU member states are very diverse, which should encourage flexibility rather than uniform convergence. However, some countries like Hungary and Poland fear marginalization through this two-speed system. Even though EU membership is still popular in many periphery countries, as citizens have benefitted from EU funding and the freedom of movement, many politicians fear that Western liberalism is eroding their identities.

Dissolution of the Euro is another option, as much of the strain on these countries stems from the financial obligations and burdens of carrying member states with struggling economies that use the Euro. Britain, Scandinavia, and Switzerland never joined the Euro, and now developing members not on the Euro yet, like Poland and the Czech Republic, are reluctant to join because of its economic shortcomings. In order to make the Euro work, the EU would need to streamline policies like taxation, spending, and banking, which would create a super-state weighted toward Southern Europe. A super-state Europe is out of the question, as many countries are disenchanted as it is now and believe that they are losing sovereignty and identity. Thus the only feasible solution to making the Euro work, creating a super-state, is out of the question and would only aggravate current political conflicts.

The final option for the EU is its complete dissolution, meaning every member state would become completely sovereign once more. These countries would have complete autonomy over their economies and policies, which is appealing to many nationalist or populist political parties and supporters across the member states. However, Germany is the powerhouse of the EU and has held the EU and Euro together for many years, meaning it has the most to lose if the EU or Euro failed. Therefore, Germany would not let the EU fail and would try its best not to let the Euro fail. Many other member states still enjoy the benefits of the EU and would want to keep it from failing as well. Finally, since the EU was created to prevent another war in Europe from breaking out, some politicians and citizens understanding the significance of this union would need to find another solution to prevent another war in Europe or make peace with the fact that there is no longer a safeguard. The complete dissolution of the EU is not a realistic option for the future of Europe.

        When determining the best course of action for the future of the EU, we must take into account both the current political situation in many of the key countries like France, Britain, and Germany and the options for the future of the EU. Considering politics in the decision between creating a “two-speed Europe” and just dissolving the Euro, countries would still be unhappy even if the EU dissolved the Eurozone because it would not solve the problem of sovereignty, national identity, border security and migration, and a plethora of other controversial subjects. When taking all of this into account, creating a “two-speed Europe” is the best option for the future of the EU. In order to keep countries content, the EU must offer options and the member states can choose which best suits their needs, preparedness, and willingness. Countries will participate in programs that are suited for what they are prepared for. Despite the concerns of some peripheral countries, this option would be the best system for each individual country because they would be able to keep their national identity, have say over their sovereignty, and hold referendums on issues that are important to them or controversial in their country rather than being forced to participate in programs that they don’t agree with. Creating a “two-speed Europe” would ensure that member states are content with their membership in the EU and would make justification for leaving the EU more difficult, meaning another Brexit would probably not happen. Thus, a “two-speed Europe” is the best option for the continuation and future of the EU.