Lately, the European Union (EU) stumbles from crisis to crisis. After a long hot spring dominated by the financial crisis in Greece, we now see the collapse of the system based on the Schengen Treaty, which secures the free movement of people within most countries of the EU. The upheaval is the result of the huge numbers of refugees entering the EU, mostly from Syria, Eritrea and Sudan. It is expected that Germany alone will offer asylum to approximately 1 million people this year. With no end of the refugee wave in sight more and more countries are either closing their borders, building fences, or reintroducing border patrols. The situation in Hungary seems worst, especially in the temporary refugee camps. This weekend we saw footage of guards throwing food into the hungry crowds, just like zoo keepers do when feeding the wild beasts. An absurd lack of civilization.
Both crises have at least two factors in common, namely issues of sovereignty and property rights. Sovereignty is claimed back by European politicians, who previously made arrangements at the European level, yet are now confronted by their electorates who want to end the infringements of their property rights. In the case of Greece it was about (mostly) Northern European leaders who were pressed by public opinion to stop paying for the support of what was seen as an almost bankrupt country. Certainly in Germany and The Netherlands it was seen that Greece made a mess of things which itself needed to sort out (this was the dominant perception, I underline that I do not say this is also the right presentation of all relevant facts). In the current refugee crisis public opinion also welcomes large numbers of people who –again as it is widely perceived- are seen a poor sods fleeing from a terrible war. Yet at the same time the people understand that the refugees, no matter how well educated some of them are, also need to receive all kinds of welfare arrangements and will go through an often hard process of integration into society. This against the background of more than a decade of heated debate about immigration and integration in most (Western) EU countries.
In both questions the politicians eventually tend to back out, by reclaiming national sovereignty. Not directly, as this would be embarrassing. So Greece got its third support package, and in the refugees crisis it is underlined that ‘temporary border patrols’ and even ‘border closings’ are still within the letter of the Schengen Treaty. There is also talk of centralizing the intake of refugees at the European level, instead of the current principle of ‘first country of entry is the country where asylum should be requested. This may well be a good idea given the fact that refugees will arrive (as the US experience also makes clear). Yet it is hard to predict how the negotiations will end, because there are large objections against the European Commission spreading refugees among the EU member states at its own peril.
The bigger picture however could well reveal that both events mark the end of the movement towards ‘ever closing union’, the old purpose mentioned in the Treaty Of Rome (1957), the most important founding treaty of European integration. That is significant, because if I am right in my assessment it means we are experiencing a real turning point. There are a number of contributing factors, most of which have been identified before, but that does not make them less significant, such as a lack of European identity among the European people, and the desire to accept only a minimum amount of European policy, due to the much stronger desire to make national decisions, which are easier to correct by the electorates. This, by the way, is fully in line with classical liberal thinkers such as Hayek, Hume or Smith.
Does this mean the EU is about to collapse? Hardly likely. The economic basis is still strong and while large the current problems can be paid for and sorted out eventually. Yet if integration stops here it will also mean that the EU will never get a serious common foreign policy or a common defense policy either, both of which have been tried –and failed- over the past decades. So the EU will then only be a ‘super free trade zone’, with a common trade policy, and strong legal apparatus also spreading out over many non-economic issues. This raises many more issues, but that goes beyond the purpose of this contribution. For one thing: these are once again exciting times in Europe!