The EU is in a state of constant crisis. It has been since the global financial meltdown of 2008 and has only aggregated more crises since then. The financial one was accompanied by the Euro crisis, the debt crisis, and finally the refugee crisis. A lot of this lies beyond the EU’s control. Europe cannot eliminate its debt or bring peace to the Middle East overnight. However, whilst attempting to solve its manifold crises – something the EU has proven quite bad at – it has forgotten what it’s really good at: bringing societies and people together, maintaining peace and dialogue, fighting for democracy and human rights and expanding these beyond its borders.
The main problem, it seems, is that political leaders in the EU are scared to act European. Parties on the right, claiming to represent the silent majority of the “normal” people, have successfully taken over the agenda. Instead of focusing on what the EU is good at, leaders all over the continent increasingly copy their demands. They talk about a “smaller” but “deeper” European Union, while reintroducing border checks, bringing back the Dublin migration system and building fences all around.
Two developments in particular illustrate the grave mistakes EU leaders have committed in recent years – two fatal sins against the European idea.
Sin #1: Ending EU enlargement
Enlargement has been the EU’s number one success story. When in 2004, eight former members of the Eastern bloc were triumphantly received in the EU family, this was rightly considered a milestone. Just 15 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the EU helped expand democracy, human rights and the rule of law eastwards, thereby re-uniting the continent. Since then, albeit slowing down, another three Eastern European states have joined the Union. This phase of enlargement showed the EU at its best: as a guarantor of peace, growing prosperity, democracy and freedom, expanding these notions beyond the old members’ borders. What happened since is nothing short of a betrayal of these achievements.
Today, there are still four serious candidates in the Western Balkans and even more prospective members waiting to join the EU but none is likely to become a member in the next ten years. In many cases, of course, reforms in the respective countries simply aren’t sufficient. But there is also an audible weariness to enlargement within the EU. Just why? There is no indication that anyone lost from accepting Eastern European countries into the club. On the contrary, it arguably made the whole continent safer, wealthier and more convenient to live in and travel through (also have a look at this article why enlargement still matters).
The simple answer is that leaders in the EU are scared. They are scared of a loud minority demanding an end to enlargement, like they demand an end to open borders, free movement and everything else that makes the EU what it is. It is right-wing populists spreading lies about enlargement, making it responsible for problems it has nothing to do with. Instead of facing these myths however, leaders in Brussels and the member states give in to populist demands and thereby surrender a huge success story. No wonder the EU is perceived as a losing team by more and more people around the continent.
Sin #2: Closing down borders
The dying Schengen area is a second field where the EU – or rather its member states – betrayed European ideals and stopped acting European altogether. A year and a half ago, Germany reintroduced border checks along its border to Austria, which have just been extended until the summer. Other countries followed suit so that today, Schengen is pretty much dead in large parts of Europe. It has been like that for so long that borders feel normal again – trust me, I’m crossing the Austro-German border quite regularly. A historic achievement of European unity was destroyed in a matter of months by nothing but political helplessness and lack of conviction!
The fact that the Dublin system is now to be reinstalled only exacerbates the situation. This system, by which the first EU-state a migrant sets foot in (i.e. almost exclusively Greece and Italy) is responsible for processing the asylum claim, is what made the refugee crisis spin out of control in the first place! It provides no solution for the EU’s challenges, while showing no sign of European solidarity whatsoever – a combination of factors guiding way too many EU policies these days.
Do what you’re good at – act European!
Over the last couple of years the EU impressively demonstrated what it isn’t good at. Dealing with Greek debt, the Euro and the refugee influx has taken up a large part of the EU’s energy but produced little to no outcome. Certainly no successes at least. In the process, the EU stopped doing what it is actually good at though: expanding its understanding of human rights, democracy and freedom, accepting new members into the club and breaking down borders – both physical and mental – between them.
Fears of the populist far-right, claiming to represent the silent majority, prevent the EU from focusing on its strengths and finally succeeding again. But that would be the only solution to the populist threat. A successful European Union will always find the support of its citizens! We don’t need the EU to close our borders. National governments do that just fine. So let’s focus on what the EU is good at and for god’s sake: act European!