Do you think the European Union will continue to hold together? I’ve been reading about it recently and here’s what I’ve come up with.
European politics are complex, but as I understand them, there is one simple feature that applies over a long period of time. Europe is made up of many political units that are pulled together into unity sometimes and caste apart into disunity at other times. For the moment we are in a period of unity, but how long will it last?
Some historians say the beginning of European politics occurred in the year 800 AD when Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor. He had unified the Frankish and Teutonic tribes of eastern, central and western Europe into one political unit. After Charlemagne’s death his empire was divided into three kingdoms by his sons. From that point on there have been herculean struggles to reunify Western Europe and it never completely happened until November first, 1993 when the EU was formed.
States Versus Federation
Western Europe seen in a global perspective looks similar to the United States, China and India – at least in one sense. All four are federations of smaller states. That may be all they hold in common, but in a global economy being a unified collection of states allows the EU to compete as the world’s largest economy. That is significant.
The US was formed as a federation of states from its inception and through the first two hundred years of it’s existence it tacked on new territories and brought them into the union as newly formed states. Europe doesn’t have the advantage of starting from scratch. Maybe in 800 A.D., when Charlemagne pulled his Holy Roman Empire together he was performing an operation that had some similarity to the US federation. He used a combination of conquest and negotiated power politics to accomplish his political union just as the United States did. But the EU began by combining already long established states.
There were limits to how much the EU could force the various states as the EU formed. It was a negotiated assembly that was built on the remains of the previous European trade zone called the Common Market. The thing is, the rules of the EU were established to work with the states that joined. They weren’t imposed on those who conquered. The rules, especially the money system rules, were not devised to over ride the economies of each member country. Even after the Euro zone was established, the rules remained structured in such a way that each member country had its own economic system.
The problem that arises from this type of federation building is that each member country’s economy remains their own problem while the federated Euro currency system remains the responsibility of the EU federation: conflicts arise.
A Cross Roads
Europe has another difference from the US federation. The United States are located on a continent surrounded on two sides by oceans – Western Europe isn’t. Western Europe is surrounded by water on three sides, but two of the bodies of water are seas. The Mediterranean Sea and the Baltic Sea are not so large that they isolate Western Europe from other countries. In fact it’s quite the opposite; both the Mediterranean and the Baltic are conduits that carry trade and people towards the EU. Mediterranean trade, in previous millenniums fostered a competing culture in Islam and Islam has remained a political force challenging the EU’s ability to maintain its unity.
For decades now Muslims have migrated to Western Europe looking for work and the means to start a new way of life. That new way of life, however, retains quite a bit of Islamic culture and this is a challenge for the EU. The individual member states have varying policies towards Islamic migrants. Some have begun to set quotas, Austria is proposing financial limitations on the construction of mosques and prohibitions on the language of Islamic texts used in Austria.
The stress of culture conflicts tends to work against broader Western European unity. Each country has its own relationship with Muslims and handles the administration of immigrant registration and services differently. In the end these forces are a challenge to the politics of each country and can easily lead EU member countries in different political directions.
The combination of economic strains and political differences are both working on the quality of European unity. Some thinkers feel these forces are likely to change the nature of the federation and improve the structure in the long run. Other observers see the possibility of an EU breakup. What seems certain is that the current circumstances have put the EU in a defensive position. Prior to the 2008 global economic downturn, the EU was still perceived to be gaining strength internally as well as in the global community. Now with the new strains and conflicts that is clearly no longer true.