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.