The European Union, as it stands in July of 2016, resembles a boxer entering the final round of a long, arduous championship fight. He is tired, unsteady, and has endured flurries of vicious blows to the body and head. He is still standing, yet it is unclear how much more punishment he will be able to endure. Brexit was a haymaker but will turn out to be the knockout blow? If the EU is going to emerge victorious it needs to make some late round adjustments or perhaps even adopt a new overall strategy.
Across Europe right now supporters of the European project are wondering if the EU will adapt to the emerging geopolitical realities on the continent and beyond. The question is not whether the EU can adapt. It is entirely capable of doing so. However, the political will to make the needed changes does not exist at the present time. A divide concerning the appropriate response to the British vote is widening across Europe. The Euro-Federalists and progressives, championed by Jean-Paul Juncker, the President of the European Commission, support using the Brexit negotiations as an instrument to solidify European integration while its opponents prefer to repatriate more power to national capitals and adopt a practical and realistic approach to Britain as it prepares to leave the EU.
Brexit, more than any other crisis, has shaken the EU to its core and spurred concerns about the future of the supranational body. Juncker and other supporters of a more federal Europe are deeply worried that Brexit could halt or reverse EU integration. The economic, political and social integration of European states is the raison d’être of the European Union, in their view. A stronger push for a deeper assimilation now will reduce the likelihood of future exits from the EU. The ties that bind Europe together are stronger than those that would tear them apart.
Opponents to Juncker’s ideas of deeper integration cite Brexit as a prime example of integration gone bad. Britons were not opposed to the concept of the European Union per se. The majority of Britons voted to leave the EU in large part because they viewed integration as eroding their national sovereignty. In short, Britons want control of their borders, immigration and economic policies and such to rest with London and not Brussels.
The issues at the heart of the Brexit argument are fueling a wave of populist movements and Euroskeptic sentiment across the continent. We’ve discussed it on this blog quite often. A European government is perfect in theory. In reality, on the other hand, it has been a decrepit instrument. The lack of effective EU leadership has weakened Europe while simultaneously undermining the body’s institutions and mandates. Public confidence in the EU has fallen drastically in the largest European nations. Tension has always existed between those who want a more integrated union and those who want safeguards in place to protect national sovereignty, however, now that the deficiencies of the EU have been laid bare and a sovereign nation has opted to leave, the stakes have become far greater.
Europe cannot travel down two roads simultaneously. Even though many EU officials and politicians prefer the integration pathway, it is becoming clear that a sizeable fraction of Europe’s citizens are leaning towards a road where the EU has the role of an intergovernmental agency that does not encroach on national sovereignty. Regrettably, the two positions are so divergent there is little chance of a compromise. Europe’s continuing crisis of representation is only one factor preventing collective action by the European Union. High unemployment, sluggish economic growth, uneven development, and welfare-state retrenchment all hold varying degrees of responsibility for the situation the EU is in at present.
The writing is on the wall. Unless the EU can maneuver the dangerous waters it is currently in, the results will not be favorable for the prospects of a united continent. Until EU leadership acknowledges the problems facing it and comes up with solid, realistic solutions there is no reason to believe that the EU’s standing will improve at any point in the foreseeable future.