On June 23rd Britain goes to the polls to make a decision that could last a generation or more: Should we be inside or outside the European Union?
Created in the ashes of the Second World War, the EU and its predecessor, the European Community grew from six countries agreeing to pool coal and steel resources and has turned into a supranational governing organisation with 28 member states, a shared currency and shared laws.
The EU is perhaps the purest expression of liberal optimism, with its implicit aim to unite a war-torn continent, to a point where war between members becomes unthinkable. It is both an economic and political project, best summed up with those now notorious words “ever closer union”. Personally, I’m a huge Euro-enthusiast, and will be putting my cross in the “Remain” box on referendum day - because I’m a utopian, and think that working together would be ultimately better for everyone.
Unfortunately though, this utopia is a laudable dream, everything in Europe isn’t quite so perfect - and there are a number of problems that threaten to tear the whole European project apart. So whether Britain votes to leave or remain I can’t help but wonder… is the EU doomed?
In 1995, the EU achieved one of its crowning achievements: So integrated were the members that it was decided that border controls were no longer needed. The continent would no longer be divided up by passport controls - people living in Europe would be completely free to travel wherever they wish, with no hassle. (Britain, of course, opted out.)
The recent attacks in Paris and Brussels, and the continued background noise of the refugee crisis have obviously strained these harmonious relations. Both crises have caused some countries to enforce border controls for the first time since the agreement was signed.
On terrorism, the thinking is logical if flawed: If there are border controls, then it makes it harder for terrorists to escape, or even get into different countries in the first place (though people who make this argument don’t seem to address the fact that many terrorists are ‘home grown’ - 5 of the 7 Paris attackers were French - and at least two of the Brussels suspects are Belgian). If Europe becomes more paranoid about terrorism, it could end up dismantling Schengen, and one of the EU’s biggest achievements - bringing the whole political project into question.
The refugee crisis has strained this even further, and has fed hysteria over migration in a number of countries. The problem with Schengen, and Europe’s commitment to common visas and freedom of movement means that that once someone has arrived in Europe, they are free to go wherever they wish. For example, refugees arriving in poor Southern Italy would have no physical barriers preventing them from travelling to work in much wealthier Germany. (Again, this is slightly different for Britain given that we have opted out of Schengen and we restrict migration on non-EU immigrants).
Whatever side of the immigration debate you are on, you have to admit there are positive and negative sides to it - and the impact hits groups of people different ways. To grossly oversimplify, for people who are wealthy and skilled it is great, as it enriches our culture and our society. For people who are unskilled, it suppresses wages as there are now more people competing for the same jobs. (Even if you’re as enthusiastically pro-Europe and pro-immigration as I am, you have to admit this is a challenge.)
The problem for the EU is that the refugee crisis has exacerbated this, with unexpectedly large numbers of people arriving all in one go, to a point where some countries have found it hard to manage. According to the United Nations, in 2015 over one million people arrived in Europe seeking refuge. As we’ve seen, rather than EU nations act in the spirit of brotherhood and empathy towards our fellow humans, the reaction has instead been to close borders and erect new fences to keep out the undesirables…. Which undermines the European ideal. If openness brings too many perceived problems, then countries will be more likely to retreat and close themselves off again.
Lack of Assimilation and Inequality
The migrant crisis speaks to a broader challenge the EU is facing: 28 countries have agreed to work together, but they haven’t assimilated into one nation. British and French people don’t feel “European” in the same way that both New Yorkers and Texans feel “American” - and this lack of a common identity can undermine the concept of Europe working together and the EU as an institution. Questioning why Brussels is allowed to pass laws that affect Britain is commonplace - but no one in Montana complains that Congressmen from California and Florida get to pass laws that affect them.
This lack of assimilation is reflected in attitudes to inequality. It is generally accepted inside a country that the rich parts are obliged to bail out the poorer - Londoners don’t tend to complain when Newcastle gets stuff that has been paid for by London’s taxes, for instance.
But on a European level, there is much more scepticism when it comes to the rich countries paying for poorer. You only have to think back to the crisis last year when Germany reluctantly bailed out Greece - much to the chagrin of many Germans. In Britain, every time Nigel Farage opens his mouth he’s complaining about how much money we’re sending to Europe.
Vulnerability to Populist Movements
The bailout of Greece and the reaction to the Eurozone crisis more generally appears to have reignited Euroscepticism on the political left, which appears to have died some time in the mid-1980s. In the past couple of decades, this is a pastime that has traditionally been left to right-wingers like UKIP - but the outrage over the handling of the Greek crisis has led to the EU no longer being seen as a benevolent agent of lefty outcomes, but as a part of an evil neoliberal plot. Even doyen of the lefty commentariat Owen Jones has flirted with the idea of leaving the EU. And Britain isn’t the only EU country with a left that is thinking this way.
The Greek crisis and resurgence of left-wing Eurocepticism speaks to a larger challenge to the EU: The death of technocracy. Bizarrely, the EU is criticised by both right and left on the political spectrum: The left hate it for promoting free trade and for helping capitalism (hence all of the nonsense conspiracy theories about how the EU will force the NHS to be privatised), and the right hate it for promoting immigration and Europe-wide standards and regulations (hence all of the conspiracies about straight bananas). This leaves it few passionate defenders, as chances are if you’re a huge fan of some of the stuff the EU does, you hate the other.
The EU has managed to survive until now because it has existed in an era where - broadly speaking - mainstream politics has been fairly consensus driven: Where on social matters, the political centre-left had won the arguments, and on economics the centre-right had. Hence why in British politics the last two governments have been Tony Blair’s “New” Labour helping businesses, and David Cameron’s coalition introducing gay marriage. The EU has managed to fit into this mix with relative ease - essentially playing the role of technocrats, carefully adjusting things within a predefined consensus.
Political currents are changing though as populist movements across Europe are challenging this status quo on both right and left. In Britain, on the right we’ve had UKIP, in France the far-right Front National has had disturbing successes - not to mention the fact that the Hungarian Prime Minister models himself on Vladimir Putin. On the left, meanwhile, in Britain we’ve seen Corbynism take off, Greece elected the far-left Syriza government (hence the crisis), Spain has had Podemos come out of nowhere to be the third largest party, and so on.
Getting 28 people to agree - let alone countries - is hard to do at the best of times, so with this return to a more ideological form of politics, forging the sort of consensus needed for Brussels to govern effectively is going to be challenging.
And this brings us to perhaps the biggest challenge to the EU - and one of the many contradictions at the heart of the European project. While the EU is a club for democracies - and being a liberal democracy is a prerequisite of joining the club, at its heart the European Parliament has what has been called a “democratic deficit”. In other words, the view that the EU lacks democratic legitimacy to make decisions.
Perhaps the biggest source of problems is the European Commission, the body which proposes legislation put before the European Parliament. The commission can propose laws which can have a huge impact over Europe’s 500m people, yet the commissioners themselves are not directly elected - they’re appointed every five years by the EU member governments. So their appointment in relation to the average European citizen is very indirect at best.
One obvious solution to this would be to change the rules so that the Commission is directly elected - or to have a directly elected “President of Europe” who everyone votes for. Then whatever they did, they would have the direct mandate of millions of voters. But what’s particularly annoying is that this is very unlikely to happen any time soon, because of politics: While some countries (like France or Germany) might not mind a direct election like this, it would likely horrify Britain and a number of other countries as it would be another step towards “Ever Closer Union” - it’d be basically admitting that Europe is increasingly like one big country rather than 28 individual states.
So for the foreseeable future, the democratic deficit remains - as do the questions hanging over the EU’s head about whether it is a legitimate body in the eyes of Europeans to make the rules and govern the continent.
Function Begets Function
Ultimately the tensions that could doom the EU are all about integration: That there’s either too much, or not enough of it. And the EU as it currently stands is the result of decades of weird compromises over what it is the EU should do, and how it should do it.
Academics who study Europe have termed the gradual expansion of the EU’s powers as “neofunctionalism”, which is a fancy way of describing the spillover effect: That once one power is transferred to Europe, it makes logical sense that more are. For example, if everyone agrees there should be a free trade area, then it makes sense to have common health and safety standards, and common environmental regulations.. And if you have all of these things, then surely Europe needs a shared Parliament to oversee everything? And what about a shared currency? And do we really need border controls? And before you know it, you’ve got a United States of Europe.
This same snowball could also work in reverse if we start handing powers back to the individual nation states: If each member can control its own immigration policy, then shouldn’t it be able to restrict the movement of goods and services too? Before you know it, the EU has been downsized out of existence.
Though until now the story of the EU has been one of growth, expansion and increasing power and influence given the profound challenges outlined above, it is easy to imagine Europe shifting into reverse gear. And before we know it, the EU will have been doomed to history after all.
But I sure do hope not.