Saturday,17 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1400, (5 - 11 July 2018)
Saturday,17 November, 2018
Issue 1400, (5 - 11 July 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Europe shaken

The very phenomenon, globalisation, that brought Europe together is what has also sown dissension and rifts that could tear apart the European project,
writes Abdel-Moneim Said

 

On 28 and 29 June, European leaders met in the EU headquarters in Brussels. Although the venue epitomises a project for unity and integration that now includes 27 nations, there are numerous visible cracks in that pioneering foray into engineering international relations.

Since its beginning in 1951 with the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), that venture moved forward, despite obstacles, through a series of agreements covering free trade and the movement of people, capital, goods and services. Among the landmarks of progress were the customs union, the creation of a unified security fence as defined by the Schengen Agreement, the establishment of a European Central Bank and a unified currency, the Euro. By the end of the 20th century, the continent that had plunged the planet into two world wars could say with confidence that war between its members was now impossible due to the bonds of mutual dependence, the free common market that comprised them all, and the elimination of arms as a means to settle disputes. In practical terms, the division of the continent ended with the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union. It was now just a matter of managing the largest expansion of the European Community which became the European Union upon the incorporation of the former Warsaw Pact countries and then the countries that emerged from the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Never before in history had Europe achieved such peace and economic growth relying on the instruments of communication and cooperation between peoples and democratic governments and on the principles of liberal philosophy. “Project Europe” became a model for the conduct of international relations and inspired some non-European nations, such as Morocco, to try to join. The European Union has become a world power, in the economic sense. Some in the continent envisioned Europe as a superpower alongside China and the US. That did not last long. When the global economic crisis struck in 2008, Europe was put through a gruelling test. Some countries, like Italy, Spain and Ireland, were not entirely honest when they committed themselves to a fiscal policy that would enable them to keep their deficit under the stipulated three per cent of GDP limit, a condition for joining the EU and the Eurozone. Greece was worse yet when it embarked on the same adventure with near catastrophic consequences. Not only had it furnished false figures and verged on bankruptcy, the Greek public rose up in arms against European pressures for fiscal and economic reforms.

Nevertheless, while the remedies to the Greek economic crisis and crises in other countries may be chapters in the EU success story, they generated major rifts over how the costs for such remedies should be borne by other countries. This applied in particular to the UK which, after eight years of economic straits, decided in a general referendum to leave the EU entirely. Two years later Brexit became a reality and an “exit day” was officially set. Brexit sent shockwaves throughout the continent. Although the initial response of France, Germany, the Netherlands and other countries in the EU was to support the union, “Brexit” became a rallying cry for far right, ultranationalist movements. In every European country there are major currents pressuring for exit referendums, with Poland, Hungary and, more recently, Italy at the top of the list.

A third crisis, coming on top of the economic crisis and Brexit, created more fissures. The influxes of migrants and refugees from civil wars and political oppression in the Middle East and Africa have presented an unprecedented challenge to European liberal values and beliefs. As with every crisis, there were efforts to mend the cracks and in the process some countries and peoples complained of having to bear more than their shares of the costs. Germany, which is experiencing a powerful resurgence of a racist ultra-right, is a manifestation of the trend, as is France.

One of the causes of the rise of the EU was the concurrent rise of globalisation of which the EU was one of the most salient manifestations. During the past decade, globalisation has begun to encounter a series of challenges as it became apparent not all it brought was good. It generated huge discrepancies between North and South and fed one of the largest migration movements in history. While it put an end to conflicts between nations, it did not end cultural and civilisational conflicts which were manifested in the rise of terrorism and the wars it generated. Europe has been one of the theatres.

To make matters worse, the European-American alliance, which had been one of the pillars of international relations in the 20th century, sustained a debilitating blow with the rise of Donald Trump to the presidency in the US. Trump sought to drive a wedge into Europe when he differentiated between “old” Europe (Germany, France, Britain and Italy) and “new” Europe (the countries recently emerged from the Soviet Union). He also began to insist that European countries should pay for US protection, to dismiss the importance of NATO, and to speak of moving closer to Russia and Putin. More recently, he ignited a trade war with the EU by imposing customs duties on key European products. Washington is also acting unilaterally on a number of major international issues from the Korean peninsula to the Middle East. When Russia and the US convene their summit in Helsinki on 16 July, an already strained Europe will be watching nervously, for fear of US-Russian understandings at the expense of Europe on matters related to Ukraine and other European concerns.

The recent meeting of European leaders in the European Council occasioned a certain degree of content because the number of illegal crossings into Europe is 96 per cent lower than in 2015. However, this reduction not only came at the expense of many of the principles on which the EU is based, but also jeopardised commitment to Schengen and a common European border policy. Add to the foregoing the recent elections in one of the six founders of the EU: Italy, in which ultra-right anti-EU parties won.

The current rifts in the EU are threatening the European project as a whole. This may not be the end of the European journey, because that ancient continent writes long stories. But it is important to take note.


The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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