Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 12 December 2023


Brussels needs to wise up to a Europe in crisis


It’s that season again in Brussels, the mid-December summit during which tired and emotional (not just a Private Eye euphemism for drunkenness) Eurocrats seek to tie up a few loose ends and put on brave faces. There’s always a bit of brinkmanship, as rogue leaders seek to exploit the impatience of their colleagues to rush home. This time it is Viktor Orban, the bull-necked Hungarian prime minister, who is pushing for last-minute bargains.

With war still raging on Europe’s eastern borders, Ukraine needs cash from the West. Orban says he is not convinced. And he is against Ukraine embarking on eventual accession to the EU. The commission’s solution: an offer to unfreeze ¤10 billion of EU funds that had been earmarked for Budapest. They had been frozen because of concern in Brussels about Orban’s adherence to the rule of law and alleged state corruption. Will Orban repay this bung by lifting his veto over aid for Ukraine? Don’t bet on it; there’s still more this Putin advocate can lever out of Brussels.

The brazenness of the horse trade obviously weakens the EU’s strategic and moral credibility. It is particularly malign when Ukraine, a country that is shedding blood in the western and European interest, is close to buckling. But there is an even larger problem: as long as energy is being poured into backroom deals and open feuding, the really big questions get shoved into a corner.

The EU has its own diplomatic service, its forward thinkers, yet no brain power is being applied to the big questions for Europe. What will happen if Donald Trump wins next year’s presidential election? At the moment almost all European forward planning is based on the continuation in one form or another of a centrist, alliance-minded Democrat president. What happens if a re-elected Trump quits Nato? And where does European security go if Ukraine loses the war? It is not impossible to imagine a reverse-ferret, a collective appeasement of Russia.

There’s another crisis looming for Europe: the prospect of Germany and France, the beating heart of the eurozone, radically diverging on economic policy. Germany, stuck in a public spending mess, is under pressure to introduce unpopular austerity measures. There is the risk of a long recession. Emmanuel Macron’s France, meanwhile, is spending like there’s no tomorrow. Previous euro meltdowns were caused by conflict between the supposedly prudent north and the spendthrift south; soon it could be a rift at the euro’s core.

Some of these outcomes may be averted. Let’s hope so. But hope is a poor adviser. The fact is that the original European project tempered its hope that the continent could be reborn and flourish without war with some hard-nosed realpolitik. Today’s EU has become short-termist. Almost all of the leaders at this week’s summit have their eyes on next June’s European parliamentary elections and the racing certainty that the far right will gobble up votes.

The former German chancellor Angela Merkel, who issued a warm welcome to more than a million Syrian refugees, now seems something of a reckless figure. Anti-immigration groupings are mushrooming in France, Italy, Hungary. Geert Wilders’s militantly anti-Islam Freedom Party won 23.6 per cent of the vote in last month’s Dutch elections, doubling his party’s seat tally. In Germany the Alternative for Germany is systematically sweeping up seats in regional parliaments. There have been riots in Ireland, fights in the normally placid Czech Republic between local Roma gangs and Ukrainians. The mood of voters is souring.

The centre-right, which should be engaged in thinking up ways to steer societies from a polycrisis, is trying instead to steal the clothes of the far right. It is a failing stratagem. Macron’s latest immigration bill, promising faster expulsion of unsuccessful asylum seekers, curbs on migrants bringing dependants into the country but also the legalisation of undocumented migrants who work in understaffed industries, has been shot down as inadequate by the far right and as callous by the left. In Denmark, meanwhile, ruling Social Democrats have authorised the use of bulldozers to knock down ageing housing estates on the grounds that “non-western” migrants living there are creating crime-prone parallel societies.

There’s little doubt that both large-scale migration and faltering integration stir communal tensions across Europe. Votes are likely to shift away from the centre to the radical right. Or the mainstream parties will have to toughen up. There is a great deal of interest in the rest of Europe in how Britain’s Rwanda deal works out; whether it will be an effective deterrent and legally fireproof. But where is the EU’s own framework for illegal or uncontrolled migration? How does it intend to deal with its external borders in the coming decade? For such a huge bureaucracy Brussels seems to do a lot of flying by the seat of its blue-and-yellow starred pants.

Europe is more than a conglomeration of social anxieties and should not be defining itself purely in terms of fear of the foreigner. Rather the EU states should be setting out and co-operating on the challenges of the future, finding forms of co-operation with the US even though it may not be led by a president regarded as sufficiently Europhile by the Brussels blob. There has to be an answer to Russian expansion in the borderlands, policies that don’t just strive to work around Orban’s veto muscle.

The EU has been capable of accommodating great things (the peaceful reunification of Germany was a hard-won, spectacular achievement) but it is becoming a reticent geopolitical power operating without flair or vision.

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