The European Union’s Identity Crisis
Being used to complete political apathy in my native Alabama, it was a welcome relief to be surrounded by hundreds of people consumed with world politics.
One conversation between two German women and two British men in particular stood out — being, as it grew quite heated at one point. It wasn’t clear that the men even supported Brexit, but they made a valiant attempt to explain — if not defend their country’s economic reasoning behind the leave vote. The Germans however, were having none of it. To the women, the UK was a traitor and any British citizen who did not unequivocally denounce the leave movement was guilty of betrayal by complicity.
“I’m glad you happen to know so much about our country and what’s best for us,” one of the British men said, ending his side of the conversation exasperated.
“You don’t understand!” One of the Germans nearly screamed at him – they had long passed the point of making a scene in their half of the bus. “We’re trying to create a United States of Europe!”
It’s one isolated conversation. But it represents a broader mentality among many Europe’s leaders and elites that gives pause to citizens who still value their own nations’ histories and sovereignty.
The EU is currently facing an identity crisis. There are many member states that see the Union as little more than a trade confederation, others – particularly the poorer members – see it as a means to benefit at the expense of the richer, Western members through infrastructure aid and remittances from their own migrants.
For the elites though, the EU has become their nation – their Vaterland. Like that German lady on the bus, they see national sovereignty and separatism as akin to ethno-fascism, yet are as quick to defend their “United States of Europe” as real ethno-fascists would their homogenous nation states. In his State of the Union Speech on September 13, EU Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker grew emotional as he described his love for his continent.
I have always fought for Europe. At times, I have suffered with and because of Europe and even despaired for it. Through thick and thin, I have never lost my love of Europe. But there is rarely love without pain. Love for Europe because Europe and the European Union have achieved something unique in this fraying world: peace within and outside of Europe. Prosperity for many if not yet for all.
The European Union is also facing a sovereignty crisis as it tries to navigate the exit of the UK in a way that will keep its current member states from following the Brits’ lead.
But Brexit does something for anti-EU nationalists on the continent that no GDP disparity can mitigate – it sets a precedence for defiance. For Brussels, that defiance is dangerous. When the UK’s exit negotiator, David Davis arrived in Brussels, chairman of the Liberal Democrats in the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt told him "Welcome to Hell".
With the electoral defeats of Euro skeptics in Austria, the Netherlands, and France, EU Commission Juncker and the Commission’s exit negotiator, Michel Barnier have felt they are now in a much stronger negotiating position with the UK. Barnier, an anti-Anglophile whose appointment one English journalist called “a declaration of war, is demanding the British pay an exit settlement of $117 billion.
The Commission seems determined to make an example of the British, lest any of their minions get any ideas of looking themselves for the exit sign. Barnier recently stated as much at a conference in Italy, saying:
I have a state of mind - not aggressive... but I'm not naïve. We intend to teach people… what leaving the single market means," he told the Ambrosetti forum.
But, EU elites are having trouble keeping even their own ducks in a row.
A recent TNS Infratest Politikforschung poll showed 42 percent of Germans favoring a referendum on their country’s membership in the EU, and 62 percent agreed with the statement that the union "is not moving in the right direction".
Another challenge facing the European nanny state is conservative Eastern Europe countries, who have staunchly resisted taking in any more Middle Eastern refugees. In 2015, the EU set a quota on member states to resettle the migrants, who have so far numbered around 1.5 million. The European Court of Justice ruled on September 12 that recalcitrant member states must abide by the quota. Hungary’s president Victor Orban sees the quota as a gross infringement on national sovereignty and insists that his country will not abide by the ruling.
His defiance prompted German Chancellor Angela Merkel to comment on September 13, “It’s unacceptable that a government says a ruling of the European Court of Justice does not interest them.”
The last time the EU took legal action to try to make Orban take in more refugees, he sent them a bill of $400 million euros ($476 million) to cover half of Hungary’s border fence to keep migrants out. Orban’s chief of staff, Janos Lazar said the EU should pay up because the wall protects “all the citizens of Europe from the flood of illegal migrants.”
The EU means different things to different member states, but it appears from the actions of many in Brussels that they would love to nationalize the EU.
The EU doesn't have a military enforcement mechanism to ensure compliance - no doubt a strong motivator to many Brits to get out before that day ever came.
The common European market is still a powerful incentive for countries to remain and bow the knee to Brussels, particularly those with weak economies like Croatia, Romania, and Bulgaria. But, Brexit shows the smaller EU nations that withdrawal is possible. The Asian markets, Russia, and now the UK offer potential alternatives to the artificial free trade of the European bloc should Brussels keep acting like it’s Europe’s Washington D.C.