The future of the EU… and the world

I’ve been thinking about the European Union and Europe a bit recently – partly because of the obvious reasons, such as the media saturation of the Hollande/Merkel showdown and the Greek crisis, and partly because I’ve applied for a job working with the EU delegation here in New Zealand. This has led to ponder on the future of the EU and what that means for the world in general. With the Eurozone on shaky ground, little has been written about what any sort of rush for the exits will do for the wider EU as a whole (at least that I’ve seen) but to me this raises some very serious questions.

The EU can be viewed as an experiment in liberal international relations theory and the results of this experiment could influence global politics for years to come. Should the EU manage to evolve and strengthen through dealing with the current crisis then other regional unions such as ASEAN might see it as a reason to pursue closer economic and political cooperation. However if the Eurozone crisis damages the EU’s credibility and weakens its institutions then the future of regional unions as important units in international relations will presumably be less rosy. On top of this, there is the simple fact that Europe is still a major player in global affairs even in the post-colonial era. The EU is home to half a billion people and represents 20% of global GDP. Although some experts think its influence is in decline these numbers alone show that it is still a big player, while the impact of its history on the way the rest of the globe works today is undeniable.

So where does theat leave the EU today? Even if we assume that Greece exits the Eurozone in the near future and triggers the other troubled countries (Ireland, Spain etc) to do the same, would that necessarily be bad for the EU? Some say it would, some say it wouldn’t.

I would personally answer this question with a definitive “maybe”. Sure, that’s a cop-out but with no real precedent to compare to that I’m aware of this is all dangerous new territory. The EU is already considered by some to be undemocratic, and there is at least some popular support for its dissolution, but whether this would reach critical mass following a Eurozone collapse is hard to say. I think the safest thing to predict is that the EU would continue to exist but its powers would be limited to what they are today (excluding the Eurozone bit of course) and it would take a very long time for Europe to move towards closer integration again, if it ever could. While Russia at least would probably welcome this move, from a broad historical perspective it would be a rather tame and sad end to one of the first real attempts to develop a post-nation-state way of approaching global politics. On the other hand, if the EU deals with the Eurozone crisis well it could signal a way forward for states to surrender sovereignty to a higher power in order for economic and political security – which is after all the whole point of the EU anyway.

In some ways the EU’s current problem with the Eurozone shows that it is stuck in the  middle of the pull of nation-states and state sovereignty on one side, and the push to closer integration and a possible federation of Europe on the other, and the halfway point has not been a compromise that has worked. At a deeper level though I think this reflects a constant in European history – the diverging sides of the European experience as it were. There’s the Europe of the enlightenment and humanism, and the Europe of bloody conquest and rampant nationalism. Not that I’m equating nation-states with evil deeds, or saying that a post-nation-state way of governing peoples would be superior, but simply that it is mistake to think of Europe purely in one sense or the other. Although Europe has historically been progressive, it has also historically been reactionary. Another example of this duality is the fact that Europe itself was the birthplace of the modern nation-state yet it still retains some pre-nation-state entities, such as the city-state of Monaco, or San Marino, or even the Vatican.

Even if the EU comes out of the Eurozone crisis stronger, there are still a number of challenges facing it. Foremost among these is where to stop expanding – check out the GIF on this Wikipedia page to get a sense of what I’m talking about. Will Turkey become a member? Georgia? Armenia? How far can the European Union expand and still be European? As it expands eastwards it also run up against the Russia’s sphere of influence and this could be a very difficult relationship to manage, especially considering the partnership between the EU with NATO. If the EU stops admitting new member states will Europe fall back into a division like that between communist and capitalist, or Orthodox and Catholic? As well as these concerns, there is the question of the way forward for the EU – how should it develop its institutions to be more democratic? How much sovereignty are its members willing to cede, and what can be offered in return?

The rest of the world will learn lessons from how the EU handles this crucial point in its history. This isn’t Eurocentrism but simply a reflection of the fact that the EU is sailing into uncharted waters. How it navigates them will ultimately decide if anybody wants to follow in its wake.

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6 responses to “The future of the EU… and the world

  • suitcaseandumbrella

    Good analysis, it really raises some interesting questions. Im not sure if the ‘European Army’ has survived contact with this crisis also. Unfortunately, the results of this economic instability, could really be political instability and the fringes of europe moving back in to the wilderness.

  • jisantuc

    What’s most frustrating is the idea that the EU isn’t just an experiment in liberal international relations theory; it is THE experiment. Considering this post – http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/ezra-klein/post/just-about-anything-makes-more-sense-than-the-euro-zone/2012/05/02/gIQAUKP3wT_blog.html – it’s not really a fair measure of the validity of the theory.

    Dumber still is that people (Krugman and everyone who worked on his newest international monetary textbook, at least) have known for a while that currency union in the EU was a bad idea. The European countries didn’t trade with each other that much to begin with, and the most important aspect, labor mobility,* couldn’t work because of language barriers and political independence (lag times for workers’ benefits, health care eligibility, etc.).

    All the failure of the experiment would show would be that countries as economically disparate and culturally distinct as the countries that currently comprise the Eurozone should not be in a currency union, but the lesson we ‘learn’ will be much broader than that.

  • World Watcher

    The Soviets were, in a way, an experiment in “post-nation state” identity though…albeit in a different ideological way. Didn’t quite work out, that one…

    • fromthefourthcorner

      True, although as I see it the Soviet Union was really a successor to the Russian Empire so it kinda skipped the whole nation-state bit for the most part, whereas the EU has been built out of functioning modern nation-states and tried to offer something more. You’re right though, the USSR does offer an example of a similar experiment in many ways – an entire system of governing a huge number of people based on theoretical propositions

      • World Watcher

        Empire yes, but a nation-state nonetheless. It had all the characteristics of a modern semi-industrial semi-feudal parliamentary monarchy. Although I would be a bit sceptical to equate the Soviets with the Russian empire as such. From the supranational perspective, I think it was destined to fail from the very beginning. Just like EU. Being a strong Federalist/Realist myself…I am instinctively against any centralisation or efforts as such. It’s very emotional, and the forces of geo-politics and economics are far too strong for that to succeed. Did you read the interview of Lagarde in Guardian, or the David Cameron’s PMQ on prisoner voting rights? I am seriously waiting for this sad experiment to crumble down.

  • The problem with nation-states « fromthefourthcorner

    […] to move past it. In part this post was inspired by a Facebook conversation with a friend about my earlier post which focused on the future of the EU, and this post will further explain some of the positions I […]

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