Richard Smith argues in favour
Taking a leaf out of the Boris Johnson book of ‘flirt with both sides, then decide’, this piece began life as the musings of a Remainer. Yet turning my blind eye back towards the European Union’s (now widely acknowledged) shortcomings has elucidated the fragility of its very political and economic lifeblood.
My defence of the EU has always started with the success of its underlying peace project. But a holistic view of human welfare under the EU (or indeed lack thereof) must be taken; one that includes social division, civil unrest, and cyclical spikes in unemployment and poverty. To consider Greece seems fitting. The mandatory programme of austerity inflicted in 2011 had pronounced human repercussions: a 40% drop in family incomes, with youth unemployment at 60%. Even in 2017, the poverty rate for minors still stood at 45%, according to UNICEF.
The EU’s puppeteering of this crisis illustrates an ethos of self-preservation at all costs. Greece was initially denied a bailout, and disallowed either interest rate relief or to default on its huge debt. Only when it became clear that the German banking system was at risk did the EU and International Monetary Fund come to Greece’s rescue. For this purpose alone was the European Commission disposed to violate the Maastricht Treaty’s sacrosanct ‘no bailout’ clause.
‘Remain and reform’ is the riposte, I hear. ‘Reform’, as attempted by Tsipras in Greece, by Monti in Italy, by Hollande in France. Concurrent with all of these efforts, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) was negotiated, seeming to satirically epitomise everything distasteful about the European Union. The treaty allowed multinationals to sue elected governments should policies be introduced that allegedly hurt their profits. It was negotiated in secret. Einstein famously defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result – this rings true when trying to change the spots on the European leopard.
Admittedly, to decry the EU and to predict its downfall are two very different things indeed. It must be first accepted that any successful anti-EU movement will emerge from the bottom up; corporate influence in TTIP evidences an uncomfortably harmonious relationship between the EU and big business. Yet, an increasing inability to nationally scrutinise the imposition of free market dogma seems to have precipitated a continent-wide decline in trust in the EU, even in traditionally pro-European countries such as Germany. Indeed, the Fiscal Stability Treaty prohibits expansionary fiscal policy, requiring eurozone budgets be ratified by the unelected European Commission.
Paradoxically, Brexit will only bolster the EU. In a calculated move, we have been offered a deal so undesirable as to deter anti-EU movements in other countries. Such punitive disposition echoes the EU’s rejection of Alexis Tsipras’ anti-austerity propositions for Greece, on the grounds that they ‘would embolden other such movements across Europe’. We’re the fall guy, and will suffer for our disloyalty.
Does this relationship sound healthy to you? It didn’t to more Europeans than ever in May’s European elections. The centre’s 40-year stranglehold on the European Parliament was released, with the likes of Salvini’s League in Italy being returned in unprecedented numbers. The EU now have a new premiership tasked with learning the lessons from this election. Charles Michel, Ursula von der Leyen and Christine Lagarde constitutes a devoutly federalist cast, with Ursula von der Leyen publicly calling for a European army. Incoming ECB President Lagarde, in her former capacity managing director of the IMF, said the Greeks had "had a nice time" but now "it is payback time." Is it such sweeping vitriol which will stem the populist surge? It must be asked whether these are savvy selections in the circumstances.
The importance of these figures in influencing the fate of the Union is not to be understated; Lagarde’s remark that she was "not in the negotiation or renegotiation mood at all" (regarding Greece) encapsulates the colossal individual power at the zenith of Brussels bureaucracy. But the likes of Lagarde need to open their eyes; the blind are no longer leading the blind, but the angry and neglected. The EU’s mass exposé is underway; now the rose-tinted glasses have been removed, I’m finding it difficult to put them back on.
Teresa Turkheimer argues against
After wavering across the political centre for over half a century, ideological polarisation has hit countries across Europe, bringing with it protests against international organisations and their purposes. Within the EU, populists have challenged the critical elements of cooperation and unity on which it was created. Two issues – the migration crisis and austerity policies implemented after the 2008 economic crisis – knocked the stability amongst member states, giving rise to anti-EU sentiment. However, as dramatic and thrilling as this may resonate both in the angry far-right and the worried liberal media, it may all just be a slight exaggeration.
The recent European elections prove that while anti-EU sentiment has increased, it has not surpassed pro-EU feelings. Even though a new anti-EU group has been formed – titled ‘Identity and Democracy’ with the support of France’s National Rally and Italy’s far-right coalition – centrist groups such as the European People’s Party and the Socialists and Democrats still hold the majority of seats in the European Parliament. Furthermore, the nominees chosen to replace the EU’s top jobs all uphold strong pro-EU sentiment and their politics tend to lie within the centre-right and left. These European leaders will be able to guide the EU to a future where it will still exist undivided.
Where does Brexit fit in? Since 2016, Britain has failed to leave the EU. A deal has not yet been successfully ratified and the prospect of a ‘No-deal’ Brexit is intensifying. The EU holds its position firmly, refusing to give leeway. In fact, the only side that seems to be dissolving, ironically, is the UK. This chaotic process has slowly broken the country, making it unappealing for other anti-EU parties to take a similar course. Marine le Pen, amongst others, now believes more strongly in the process of negotiation within the organisation in order to regain the sovereignty they believe was lost at the hands of the EU. What’s more, the populist parties across Europe are unable to work together to create a “collective nationalist sentiment” (i.e. an oxymoron) against the EU because their own national interest puts them at odds with each other.
When analysing the impact of populism within the EU, one must not forget that within this interconnected and globalised world, politics is also interdependent. It is important to take into account outside influences, specifically that of US President, Donald Trump. Recent polls have indicated that Trump’s popularity is declining and this is supported by the recent loss of his majority in the House of Representatives. His decreasing popularity is not a good sign for anti-EU politicians. The chummy friendship that blossomed in the last few years between him and his anti-EU friends has acted as a catalyst for the European far-right populist parties in obtaining power. But if the popularity, stability and legitimacy of the superpower’s leader begin to falter, the domino effect starts to take place.
There is, however, one singular threat the EU must tackle if they are to survive. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has meddled with the EU’s member states’ democracies in an attempt to divide a once harmonious alliance. Their involvement within elections and campaign funding, and their flourishing partnerships with populist parties, act as a platform for these parties to increase their power both in Europe and worldwide. The Cold War has not ended, but has found itself a new life on the web. If this influence is not contained, Russia could continue to infiltrate divisive attitudes amongst Europeans, thus increasing the ideological polarisation to dangerous levels.
Like any democratic institution, the EU has to adapt to changing scenarios: and with rising anti-EU and populist sentiment, the call for more member states’ sovereignty will be addressed and negotiated. But by no means is this rise a threat to its existence. The two major challenges have slowly been addressed, and most importantly, there is now an understanding that single countries cannot tackle the big issues of contemporary politics by themselves. The future will be about evolution – tackling the resurgence of Russia’s political might – and not devolution. It is the principles of cooperation and unity, that the EU prides itself on, that will help in this era of division and turmoil.
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