EU reaching the breaking point?

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Since 1958 the European Union (EU) has been on a 58-year run of uninterrupted expansion.

Conceived as a simple common trade market that would help preserve peace between European countries who had fought three wars in under 70 years, the EU has evolved into a monolithic institution of ever-increasing centralization of powers, structures and authority well beyond its original concept. But today, the EU’s plan for an “ever closer union” seems to be in tatters. Stress and disagreement along three “pressure points” – economic stagnation, uncontrolled migration and an emerging revolt against EU centralization – are the principal sources of growing discontent and distrust within the EU, and they collectively threaten to dissolve the idealistic dream of a united Europe.

Unresolved economic meltdown

European countries have still not recovered from the economic crisis of 2008, with the lack of economic growth, unemployment and debt straining the logic of the EU currency – the euro.

The creation of the euro in 1999 had seemed a major step in uniting Europe, but in the past eight years, the notion of vastly different economies sharing a common currency appears to be more of a hindrance than a benefit.  Greece, saddled by unsustainable debts, lies on the brink of an exit from the euro and requires an unending number of financial bailouts from the wealthier countries of Europe.

Social Studies Teacher Duncan Pringle sees no economic rationale for keeping Greece in the euro. “The reality of Greece is that the only thing holding it inside the euro is political will,” he said. “The conditions under which money has been loaned to them is completely unsustainable, they can’t possibly meet payments, and so their situation rationally, as an economist, is completely untenable.”

Yet the economic perils of Europe go well beyond Greece. Most of the major economies in the eurozone are also burdened with high debt, unemployment and stagnant growth, and EU governments are reluctant to face the facts of Greece for fear of a domino effect on other EU countries in similarly precarious situations.

Pringle explains, “There are no mechanisms for countries leaving the euro, they don’t exist,” he said. “It’s a failure – it’s a huge failure. If Greece were to fall, could that lead us down a road that leads to the collapse of the European project? Yes, it could. Will that happen? I don’t think so.”

Social Studies Teacher Mark Mazzenga points to another issue: Low birth rates in the EU. “I think actually there are more pressing concerns for these EU countries, like ageing population. You look at Germany, look at Italy, a huge chunk of their population are of the 75+ of their demographic, which is going to cause a lot of issues that are not so easily solved,” he said. “That’s why you see countries like Denmark who are advocating for couples to go on lovers retreats to get their birth rates up. Those issues are not as easily answered.”

Mazzenga is referring to the debilitating social effects of stagnant economies in Europe. As Europeans see fewer economic opportunities, young couples resist marriage and many are pushed abroad in search of a better life. This “brain drain” of European youth only exacerbates the demographic unbalance with more negative consequences.

Influx of refugees

In the past year Europe took in just over 1.2 million refugees and migrants, mainly from the Middle East and North Africa. The unprecedented wave of migrants has generated cracks in another great achievement of the EU: Its cherished no border policy – the Schengen Agreement. But this 20 year agreement permitting free travel within Europe’s borders is now under severe strain as various EU nations have suspended it due to the daunting prospect of handling what they view as an unmanageable influx of immigrants.

The migration crisis has led to anger and resentment as fingers are pointed at whom to blame. Many blame Germany, who under chancellor Angela Merkel took in over 800,000 refugees last year, even though doing so suspended EU rules. As a result, pressure has been placed on neighboring countries to also accept high numbers of refugees, but most are reluctant to do so, especially after two of the attackers in the November Paris attacks posed as Syrian refugees to make their way through Europe.

The situation is worsening day by day since many Eastern European nations have either severely increased border controls to limit the number of refugees entering or have abandoned the Schengen Agreement entirely by closing their borders, drawing criticism from Germany as Merkel blames EU countries for not doing their part to help. Hungary, Austria and Slovenia have already closed their borders while Sweden, Denmark and even Germany itself are moving toward similar measures.

Social Studies Teacher Todd Pavel believes that the wealthier and more stable countries in the EU have a moral obligation to take in refugees. “On a fundamental humanitarian level, those of us who are in the more economically developed countries have a responsibility to help those who struggle coming from lesser economically developed countries or from places of conflict and persecution,” he said. “It’s part of [wealthier countries] responsibility in an increasingly interdependent world to provide opportunities for some of these immigrants, who are not fleeing because they want to come to the U.K., but because they can’t live in their countries because of persecution and war.”

But tensions were raised even in Germany when a mob of mainly Arabic and North African migrants went on a rampage on New Year’s Eve in Cologne. Over 800 complaints were registered, ranging from theft to rape, sparking anti-Islam protests and calling for more debate over how the refugee crisis should be handled.

Nevertheless, Mazzenga remains optimistic that the immigration crisis will only strengthen the EU, bringing countries closer together to solve this problem. “The current immigration or refugee crisis is having a tremendous psychological and cultural impact on the EU. But on the political side of things, I really do believe that the response will only serve to strengthen the EU,” he said. “Conversations are already happening, as to how the EU, as an entity, as a union, can begin to create policies and programs to resolve or begin to answer some of the questions that the crisis is bringing up.”

Rebellion against centralization

A3major concern for several EU countries, in particular the U.K., is the increasingly centralized powers of the EU that overrule the decisions of local governments. Today’s EU laws and regulations preside over an increasing range of areas through Brussels-based organizations often led by unelected officials. This has led many to claim that the EU is undermining democracy and shifting too far from its original concept of a free market.

Mazzenga believes that this power struggle between a centralized government and the individual governments of EU nations is just another example that points to Europe becoming more unified. “I do think [Europe] is closer to becoming a fully integrated nation than ever before,” he said. “What we’re seeing is the struggles of a new nation being born, and with any new nation there are going to be those stumbling blocks and there are going to be fumbles and mistakes.”

But this debate has hit breaking point in the U.K., where under pressure from anti-EU sentiment, Prime Minister David Cameron has demanded the EU change a number of rules and conditions insofar as the U.K. is concerned. Most notably, Cameron would like more control in domestic matters regarding immigration, economic freedom and Britain’s own justice system.

Leo Artus (’17), a British citizen, believes that although reforms could take place to strengthen Britain’s influence in the EU, there is no need to make a hasty decision. “The European Union parliament is not an accurate representation of the demographic of the U.K.,” he said. “But leaving would have major consequences. We’re not headed for disaster as it stands and we have time to recover from the economic problems of 2008.”

Similarly, Sophie Clark, a British citizen, (’16) sees no reason to currently leave the EU. “It’s great that British people have the freedom to travel and work in any European country and vice versa,” she said. “We would lose a lot of good trade opportunities and a lot of influence in Europe.”

Clark’s opinion was echoed in a Standard poll that showed 81 percent of 143 High School students believe that the U.K. should remain in the EU. 

But opinion polls in the U.K. itself are far more divided, with support for the U.K. leaving the EU being around 40 percent, according to an Ipsos poll from late October. Cameron has set 2017 to be the deadline for a national referendum that will leave the matter to British voters.

From a purely economic perspective, Pringle sees Britain as more wealthy and capable as part of the EU. But he notes that there are political grey areas that undermine the credibility and strength of the bloc, complicating the “in or out” debate. “There are huge political arguments… the lack of accountability, the questions of democracy and how democratic the EU institution really is,” he said. “At the heart, [the EU is] supposed to be a truly democratic organization, but the turnout for EU elections is abysmal, so how much accountability is there for all that money that flows from Westminster to the EU?”

Ultimately, the vision of a unified and borderless Europe has been embraced by some, while rejected by others who claim it as the unwarranted centralization of powers whose reach has become too expansive.

Mazzenga, while understanding the fright that comes with the birth of a new nation, remains firm in his belief that a unified Europe is for the better. “I do understand when Italy talks about Italy for Italians, or when Hungarians are worried about having their culture marginalized, but I don’t think we’re going to lose goulash and pasta bolognese and our traditions and languages,” he said. “We’re talking about political and economic integration and a world that is becoming more globalized and more fluid. It’s not the loss of culture, it’s the gaining of new perspectives.”