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Europe’s hidden fractures

The continent’s old crises have not been resolved.

One of the more predictable and depressing rituals during the never-ending European crisis has been the reflexive sounding of the “all clear” after the latest onslaught. The euro crisis, we are told, has been banished by the stated determination of Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank (ECB), to “do whatever it takes” to defend the currency. The refugee crisis, they tell us, has been contained, and the Schengen passport-free travel area saved, through a combination of generous integration, increased border defence and a deal with Turkey.

Better still, so the narrative runs, the “populist” challenge has been seen off. Brexit, far from precipitating an avalanche in mainland Europe, is instead burying the British Isles under a mass of paperwork and regulations calculated to make the most ardent Eurosceptic blanch. Candidates of the far right have been beaten in the Netherlands, Austria and France. The optimists even take the election of Donald Trump in their stride, arguing – as Angela Merkel did recently – that Europe can now stand on its own two feet and provide for its own defence against Islamist terrorism and Russian aggression.

Unfortunately, what is hailed as the “return” of Europe is merely the temporary survival of the European Union. None of the old crises have been resolved, and a new one – the heightened tensions in Catalonia – has just been added. The EU and the British Remainers seriously underestimate Britain’s resilience and ability to retaliate against European “punishment” if the country were so minded, but since Brexit will happen one way or the other even the best-case scenario on this front is bad for Brussels and the national capitals.

Whatever harm the EU inflicts on Britain, or it inflicts on itself through the UK’s departure, the remaining member states will also pay a hefty price. Economically, the cost to Britain will be substantially higher than the cost to the EU – and much larger than the Brexiteers realise – but certain countries, such as the Irish Republic, and certain sectors, such as the German car industry, will be hit disproportionately.

The possible gains (for example, in Paris or Frankfurt at the expense of the City of London) will hardly offset such losses. A recent International Monetary Fund report, which warns Europe to “prepare for a rainy day”, reflects these realities. Politically, the questions that matter will not be who will inflict the most but who can endure the most, and whether the EU is configured to absorb any more pain than it has already suffered. The “EUropeans” like to say that, unlike the British, they are not talking about Brexit at all. If that is true today – and it is already untrue with regard to Ireland – it will not be so for long. The EUropeans will start talking about Brexit again towards the end of 2018 at the latest. By the start of 2019, they will be talking of little else.

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In the meantime, they have plenty of other things to worry about. The threat in the east has not gone away: it has merely slipped further down the Brussels agenda. Vladimir Putin still holds the illegally annexed Crimea and continues to support the two separatist republics in eastern Ukraine. The Baltic states, Poland, Finland, Sweden and Romania feel directly threatened and are distressed by the failure of Europe to anticipate or respond to the Russian menace.

Brussels and many other European countries, by contrast, are repelled by the often xenophobically expressed resistance in eastern Europe to Muslim immigration or the imposition of “progressive” values. They are appalled by the increasingly authoritarian behaviour of the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, as seen in his vendetta against the liberal Central European University in Budapest.

For all the rhetorical condemnation from Brussels and some member states, however, it is clear that there is no appetite for a confrontation and some sympathy for Orbán even in Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic party. The contrast with the Austrian crisis of 1999-2000, when the EU imposed sanctions on a coalition government involving the far-right leader Jörg Haider, is striking and reflects not the strength but the weakness of Europe.

The other crises haven’t gone away, either. Not one of them can be deemed solved. Draghi’s announcement in 2012 that the ECB would “do whatever it takes” did not lift the question mark over the euro, as the near-collapse of Greece in 2015 and various other crises have demonstrated.

Its fundamental flaws remain, in particular the impossibility of running a common currency without a common state. Likewise, the refugee crisis has not been settled but merely abated. Syria or some other part of the Middle East could erupt again at any time. The deal with Turkey is precarious. Meanwhile, smugglers are exploring new routes across the Mediterranean.

As with the euro, the fundamental flaw in the system remains unaddressed. The EU is trying to run a common travel area and a common foreign policy without a common state. The EU is unable to close the border effectively, because that is the task of the member states; it lacks the ability to ensure that refugees who are admitted are distributed fairly; and it does not have the capacity to intervene in the Middle East to prevent the flow of refugees. It attempts to achieve federal aims with confederal instruments, and that cannot be done.

As if all this were not bad enough, the EU is in the throes of yet another crisis. Though predicted for at least 18 months (see my NS article with Montserrat Guibernau, published in April 2016), the referendum and subsequent declaration of independence by the Catalan government this October caught Brussels and the national capitals largely unawares. The situation poses a challenge that the EU has helped to cause, has done nothing to prepare for, and is unequipped to deal with.

Catalonia exposes the contradiction at the heart of the current European project. On the one hand, because the EU is in important respects transnational in character, it has tended to weaken the nation state in favour of a “Europe of the regions”. The euro and the Schengen system, in particular, hollowed out key competencies of the member states and suggested that separation would involve a “soft landing”.

Besides, the improvement in mainland European political culture encouraged by the EU constrained the capacity of national capitals to contain the peripheries, or appeared to do so. Fifty years ago, Catalan aspirations would have been drowned in blood before they got as far as a unilateral declaration of independence. Today, Madrid – for all its clumsiness – has to tread more carefully. The admonition of Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, that the force of argument should prevail, rather than the argument of force, was a clear shot across its bows.

On the other hand, the EU is also – and perhaps increasingly – an intergovernmental confederation of member states. Most EU citizens have burgundy-coloured passports, but there is no European Union citizenship as such. Rights are enjoyed via the member states. The new European defence initiative for “permanent structured co-operation”, or “Pesco”, announced with great fanfare, is not a union army, or even a pioneering step towards one, but a reshuffled deck of the usual member-state armies acting in concert.

All of this was not what the founding fathers of the European project intended. Their vision was hijacked by Charles de Gaulle’s counter-project of a “Europe of the Fatherlands”. European integration did not transcend the continental nation state but threw it a lifeline after the experience of the early 20th century nearly killed it off.

Years ago, the economic historian Alan Milward described this process as the “European rescue of the nation state”. This is why, unlike British Eurosceptics, continental Europeans regard membership of the EU not as a qualification of their sovereignty but as its vindication. Both cannot be right, although it is possible that both are wrong.

The Catalan crisis forces Brussels and the member states to decide what the EU actually is. Is it primarily a supranational project that seeks to transcend the sovereign state? If so, Catalonia should pose no problem, for both sides would be merely two bald men fighting over a comb. After all, neither of them would control their currency or their borders after victory; these have already been ceded to the EU.

Or is the EU just an alliance of sovereign “nation” states with shared institutions? That appears to be the current position, for Brussels has not only adopted Madrid’s view that the Catalan government is “separatist” – even though, unlike the Brexiteers, it is fervently attached to membership of the EU – but has connived in the arrest of member-state citizens for what are surely political crimes.

Worse still, the flight of the Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont to Brussels and the issuing of a European arrest warrant against him by Spain threaten to make the EU the active accomplice of Madrid.

Before Merkel: an 1815 portrait of the Austrian chancellor Metternich by Thomas Lawrence. Picture: Deagostini/Getty

Talleyrand, who served both Napoleon and the restored Louis XVIII as minister of foreign affairs, remarked that treason was a matter of dates. So is separatism. To take but one example, the Republic of Ireland split violently from the United Kingdom and now enjoys separate membership of the EU. Brussels can insist that Catalonia, which is larger, more populous and much richer than many existing member states, has no right to a separate national status, but it risks making itself look ridiculous.

The EU claims to defend the “rights” of its citizens in a post-Brexit United Kingdom, yet it not only accepts the incarceration of Catalan politicians, in breach of EU human rights law, but provides the machinery for their extradition from third countries. It claims to have transcended the nation state, but it is actually privileging one national claim, that of the Spanish, over another, that of the Catalans. We are often told that the EU is primarily a legal order, but it is hard to see anything ordered or lawful in its response to the Spanish crisis. If that is what European law says and is, then European law is an ass.

The EU thus has the worst of both worlds. It has pulled off the feat of being too intrusive to be compatible with UK sovereignty, yet it has not sufficiently transcended the sovereignty of the remaining member states to make the common institutions workable. It is losing healthy limbs – both the British and the Catalans would feature highly on the “save list” in any European ark – while stubbornly retaining its sickest ones, dragging Greece along behind it like a shrivelled leg it would like to amputate.

Nobody is more conscious of all these travails than the leaders of the Franco-German axis. In Berlin, the defence ministry has started to make its first contingency plans for a possible disintegration of the EU, leaked this month – a wise precaution, and one that does not suggest that the union is out of the woods. Merkel’s strategy seems to chime with the overall direction of the EU away from political union towards something resembling the early-19th-century “Concert of Europe”, which emerged after the traumas of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Then it was the Austrian chancellor, Klemens von Metternich, who rallied Europe against revolution, forced German states to persecute radicals under the “Carlsbad Decrees”, oversaw the ramshackle military mobilisation of the German Confederation and managed interventions against uprisings in Spain, Italy and other places.

This was known as the “Metternich system”. Now it is Merkel, seeking to avoid disaster, sceptical of grand schemes for improvement, encouraging moderate reforms, enforcing “austerity” and generally  intervening whenever necessary to police the agreed norms, or “rules” as they are called today. Some have called the German chancellor “Merkiavelli”, accusing her of secretly planning the reimposition of German power; others have said she was “Merkozy” or “Merkcron”, focused on maintaining the Franco-German axis. But she was Merkelnich all along.

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The problem with this approach is that while the new Concert of Europe can just about manage current crises, it cannot solve them and will sooner or later be overwhelmed, just as Metternich was by the revolutions of 1848-49. The response to Catalan nationalist aspirations (and the use of the European arrest warrant against the leaders) is reminiscent of the Carlsbad Decrees, and the underpowered initiatives for greater EU military co-operation remind one of nothing so much as the pathetic failure of the German Confederation to provide for the defence of its territory.

Far from preparing the continent for new challenges, the current EU has ranged itself with the forces of stasis, rather than those of movement. To adapt Stendhal’s categories from Metternich-era France, Merkel’s EU increasingly stands for the “black” of austerity and conservatism against the “red” of hope (at least in southern Europe).

Recent events in Germany suggest that the end of the Merkelnich system may be at hand. Whatever one thinks of Merkel’s decisions on the euro and refugees, the result has been a surge in opposition not merely abroad but at home. The talks following her narrow victory in the September federal elections have collapsed, after she failed to assemble the necessary “Jamaica coalition” of the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union, Free Democrats and Greens. Fresh elections risk further boosting the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which is already on 13 per cent of the vote. If Merkel is forced out in a second election or palace coup, she will not need to leave Berlin – as Metternich fled Vienna – in a laundry cart, but like that earlier chancellor she might wish to consider a spell in Brexited Britain. Her popularity in the university towns and leafier suburbs is undimmed, and after Catalonia you never know what use a future AfD-dominated government might make of a European arrest warrant.

Amid all this, there is only one ray of hope. In his book Revolution, published in English translation in mid-November, President Macron has set out a clear vision for the revitalisation of the EU. First, he plans to demonstrate French bona fides – especially towards Germany – through a programme of domestic economic reform. Second, he plans to use this credit in Berlin to push for fundamental change in Europe.  Borrowing from the British “Leave” rhetoric, he wants the continent “to take back control” and address the grave challenges facing the union, especially the common currency, climate change, the digital transition, youth unemployment, terror, Russian aggression and illegal migration. Regretting the current failure of economic integration to create political union, Macron condemns the existing machinery of the union as “not workable” and insists that we have to “go back to the drawing board”.

Macron’s “true political plan” envisages “recovery” of “full sovereignty”, by which he means the exchange of an illusory “national” sovereignty for democratic participation in a wider “European sovereignty”; the locus of sovereignty is moved to a larger territory. The president proposes a eurozone budget and a finance minister with the ability to authorise investments and oversee the economy, responsible to a “eurozone parliament” made up of a monthly meeting of representatives of the state legislatures. Tax, social and energy convergence should be agreed in two years and achieved in ten. There should be a joint foreign and border policy. Unlike the usual incremental EU initiatives, these radical changes are not to be effected by stealth but through a Europe-wide process of national consultation ratified by referendums or the various member state parliaments.

Some dismiss Macron as a waffler, but there is nothing vague about his programme. Hiding in plain sight is a proposal for the creation of a full political union. If successful, it would at a stroke do everything that the current German-run Concert of Europe has failed to achieve. It would end the euro crisis and secure the union’s borders against terror, illegal migration and external aggression. It would help solve the Catalan crisis by providing a superior sovereignty – neither Spanish nor Catalan – to which both sides could relate. The difference between Madrid and Barcelona would then be no more than that between Virginia and West Virginia in the US. Europe is finally being presented with a plan that is at least viable in theory, and in Macron it has a leader with the standing, the energy and the ruthlessness to carry it out.

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Macron does not expect – and perhaps does not even want – all of the existing member states to join him. “It is up to France,” he argues, “to take the initiative and to work with Germany, Italy and some others to set our Europe right.” He is, to borrow the language of mid-19th-century German nationalists, hoping to create not a “Greater Europe” (a continental version of Grossdeutschland), of the EU27 but a tighter “little Europe” (Kleindeutschland), which is centred on a reformed and possibly purged eurozone.

The dangers are twofold. First, the sequencing is problematic. France no longer holds two important levers of sovereign power: control over its borders and its currency. While the former can theoretically be re-established (though only at the price of destroying the Schengen Area), the latter has, in effect, been given up for good. This makes it difficult to effect change in France without transforming Europe at the same time. Macron thus resembles the 1960s intellectual who said, “I cannot change myself without changing society, and I cannot change society without changing myself.”

The transformation of the EU and its member states must therefore be undertaken not piecemeal and sequentially but simultaneously, just as the two great British and American unions were in 1707 and 1788.

Second, there will be fierce resistance to Macron’s vision, abroad and at home. The “core” states will resist what amounts to their dissolution, and those slated to remain outside the new closer political union, such as Poland and Hungary, will not lightly accept their more marginal status within the wider EU. Their co-operation is essential if the external borders are to be secured; the alternative would be the erection of new barriers between Macron’s core state and the periphery.

Merkel, the “black” to Macron’s “red”, will be particularly hard to persuade. Treaty changes and referendums are not things Merkelnich welcomes, let alone the absorption of the federal republic into a larger political union. Above all, the French president’s plans must mean the end of de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic and the creation of a Sixth (French-European) Republic. They will galvanise not only the Front National, but also many conservatives and socialists.

There is still plenty worth saving in the EU but there is little time to lose. The crises are becoming more intense and the intervals between them shorter; the contractions are getting closer and unless something is done fast they presage not life but death. Emmanuel Macron should start his European surgery without delay and not wait for the success of the  operation in France. The chances of success may be no more than even, but without the attempt failure is certain.

Brendan Simms is professor in the history of international relations in the department of politics and international studies at the University of Cambridge. He is a New Statesman contributing writer

This article first appeared in the 22 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Europe: the new disorder