international analysis and commentary

The state of the European Union and Europe’s States

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Angela Merkel had it foreseen in August 2015: “The refugee crisis is going to challenge Europe’s rules and values, in the next years, even more than the Greek crisis did”. The German Chancellor, after ten years at the top of national and continental politics, learned to know well the European way of dealing with problems, and possibly guessed right. The EU has never been so fragile, because once again its member states did not react promptly enough to something that everyone could see coming.

The effects of the biggest refugee flow since World War II are ending up jeopardizing one of the main pillars of the European legal system, the Schengen’s agreement on the freedom of movement within the EU. Yet its member states cannot really claim to have been taken by surprise by this situation: the purpose of the thousands of people escaping the Middle Eastern and African conflict zones – in which those states are often involved, directly or indirectly – having the European peaceful and rich territories within reach, could be predicted quite easily. Unless one likes to believe that they could quietly and politely wait in the Lebanese and Turkish refugee camps for the wars in their countries to be over, or that the Greek bureaucracy could manage them on the Aegean shores.

Last summer, the decision of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán to build a wall between his country and Serbia to stop refugees to reach Hungarian soil had been widely criticized. “He is an authoritarian prime minister, he is a populist; what can you expect from him?” – was the comment of many European leaders. The other countries, maybe reluctantly, were following the German generous approach, introduced by Merkel in August and based on the commitment of welcoming a large number of the coming refugees.

Something has changed in the last months. The first new factor is the sheer number of EU states suspending the Schengen treaty: six re-introduced full border controls (Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Norway, Sweden); six more enforced “selective” checks (Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Slovenia). Moreover, walls of different kinds have been erected, beside Hungary, in Austria, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Slovenia. Those are in fact mainly countries that lie on the “Balkan road”, the path that more than 850.000 people have already travelled along to get to the core of Europe from the Middle East, or that they have picked up – for now – as their asylum destination.

The second shift is the fate of the “solidarity” motto, still honored at the October’s EU Council by the member states, that was eventually dropped in December: then, EU leaders only spoke of “regaining the external frontiers’ control” in order to retain the influx. A solution looking paradoxically like the one Viktor Orbán imagined for Hungary: Europe as a fortress.

Time will show if this fortress will be built on the strongholds or on the cracks of the European system. Temporary suspensions of freedom of movement are indeed included among the Schengen clauses, and no country so far actually violated the treaty. It is, however, legitimate to wonder for how long the deal can be upheld, if a majority of the signers are not enforcing it.

The fragility of Europe also lies in its internal divisions – a feature we can at this point define “business as usual”. Germany, Austria and Sweden’s governments initially stood for openness of the borders, while ending up raising some border controls and restrictions, overwhelmed by the pressure from part of public opinion and the right wing parties, and the difficulty of managing such a growing number of incoming people. Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary do not even want to hear about sharing asylum seekers, openly arguing that Muslim migrants are not compatible with Western civilization. Other countries, like France, Italy or Spain, are crossing their fingers hoping not to be hit by a major influx. And Greece is simply letting everyone pass by – even transporting them from one border to another – to get rid as quickly as possible of the related duties.

Meanwhile, Greece and the Central-Eastern European countries are united in refusing the Commission’s proposal to set up a European border police that could operate from a supranational control center. Other countries assure they will re-open the borders once the situation will be “normalized” again: Denmark welcomed 160,000 refugees last years, while Germany faced a daily influx of 3,200. No “normality” is coming in the short term though, as the EU-Turkey agreement on the control of refugees’ movements – along the border that remains the major transit route – is still far from being implemented.

However, these are not the only reasons why a common, coordinated answer could not yet be put on the rails. Indeed, two additional factors are the persistent economic uncertainty at the global level and the widespread perception that the EU as such has failed its citizens in the face of various external challenges. As a consequence, Europe’s nation states have regained some of their old conceptual attractiveness: citizen sentiment is moving in this direction and the political discourse is rapidly adjusting by describing state frontiers as a key protection, independence as a defence from the world’s dangers, the nation as a shelter.

“I favor my family over my friends, my friends over my neighbors, my neighbors over my countrymen, my countrymen over the Europeans”; maybe not every politician in Europe stuck to the very same vocabulary of Jean-Marie Le Pen (in his book “France“, 2006). But the inclination is clear without a doubt, and one cannot be surprised if one of the main targets of the resurgent nation-oriented discourse ends up being the whole set of European rules.

This behavior is business as usual in the Western European far right speech, yet the double economic and democratic crisis added a utopian and taumaturgic touch to it. “I have faith in the French people, but their freedom can only be defended and their democracy will just survive within the nation: the nation is peace”. “For the good of our people, we must leave the European Union and start standing up for our Judeo-Christian culture, becoming a self-governing, independent, good living nation”. These recent extracts from Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage could even be rated as moderate in comparison to some statements by the Polish, Slovakian and Hungarian governments during the refugee crisis.

What is new though is the wide spread this speech is having on other areas of the political spectrum and of the continental space – a fact to be well kept in mind before we make any guess on the outcome of the many political debates that will be held in Europe in 2016. Two examples will suffice. French opposition’s leader Nicolas Sarkozy, speaking with the head of the biggest Flemish nationalist party Bart de Wever at the Antwerp employers association, stated that the Schengen treaty never worked and “is now dead”. French President François Hollande not even mentioned “Europe” during his new year’s vows, in spite of France being at the very core of every continental political, diplomatic and strategic occurrence of the last twelve months.

Only Germany and the countries which were more recently home to fascist dictatorships (Portugal, Spain, Greece) seem not to join this distinctive come back to “nation”. Yet, even Syriza, the leftist party governing Greece, often recurred to a nationalist rhetoric during the talks with the eurozone this summer; and so does, extensively, the independentist side in Catalonia.

The echo of François Mitterrand’s words, in his last new year’s presidential speech in 1994, seems to come from far away: “Above all, my fellow countrymen, never forget to keep the greatness of your country together with the construction of Europe, our new dimension”. Coming back down to earth and considering the ongoing evolution, the European Union should be more than happy to make it through the next couple of years in its current shape.