Is the European Union on its way out?
S&P's credit downgrades of France and Austria, the Greek debt crisis, Italy and Spain’s poor economies, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent EU veto, and whispers of the return of national currencies have some EU critics predicting its collapse “any day now."
But European leaders will not allow the institution to fall apart. That’s because the EU has become much more than just an economic entity whose aim is to increase the prosperity of its members through free trade. It is an entity that keeps Europe relevant and maintains the international status of former great powers.
The Europeans did not have to have to broaden the European Community (EC) in 1993 from a mostly economic framework into a socio-political construct. European governments could have continued under the Single European Act and introduced a single currency without creating a “European identity," integrating judicial frameworks, and aligning external policies. Through the Maastricht Treaty and subsequent amendments/treaties/5-year action plans, the EU ballooned in two different dimensions: institutional and physical. Each of these dimensions gave member states distinct advantages that would be impossible through normal diplomacy. As such, members like France and Germany will vigorously defend the EU.
Institutionally, the EU structure gives states three options with regards to policy. Firstly, members sometimes may not be able to pass a particular policy due to internal debate/unpopularity. However, because the EC can adopt policies that members must adhere to, a member state can choose to “escalate” an issue in order for it to come back down with an “EU mandate." By laundering policies like this, a state can wash its hands of the unpopular implications associated. The ability to shift accountability or bypass legislature can be invaluable given the specific circumstances.
Secondly, states can also “Europeanize” domestic issues they may not want to deal with. By having the EU address the problem, the member can skip out on the political costs and does not have to commit its own resources exclusively. Such a situation arose in 2011 with the migration crisis on the Italian island of Lampedusa. Italy declared it an emergency and requested assistance for dealing with the 27,000 new migrants. The EU responded with sending its border agency FRONTEX to assist.
Thirdly, because of how the enlargement process works, applicants must unconditionally meet all requirements set forth by the EU. This is a priceless tool. It’s like the French drafting the Treaty of Versailles and the Weimar Republic begging to sign it. One has to keep in mind the new members are “frontier” countries and the EU has shown a vested interest in running its borders a certain way.
Physically, through the implementation of the Area of Freedom Security and Justice (AFSJ), the EU manifests a new state and border above its sovereign members. Through AFSJ, internal and external dimensions to security and prosperity are indistinguishable. Human/drug/arms trafficking and illegal migration are big concerns for states like France, Germany, and Italy. These are issues that originate well past their respective borders. To deal with issues like these, states would have to spend countless amounts of energy and resources getting all the right bilateral treaties, ensuring compliance, giving diplomatic tradeoffs, etc.
As a result of the EU and the AFSJ, France can act upon any threat to its security not just in France, but also on the border of Poland/Ukraine or Spain/North Africa. The policy range of each EU member is physically enlarged to encompass the entire EU. Obviously this benefits former great powers like the UK, France, and Germany immensely. They may have strong economies, but they are also physically small, have lost massive influence through the loss of colonies, and are geographically isolated from non-European states. In light of these factors, and in face of new powers such as Russia and China, the European powers are becoming less and less relevant as “global players.” To take a realist perspective, there is only so much power/influence. As the power/influence of one state goes up, another’s goes down. The EU helps keep the old powers relevant by pooling the power and influence of all the members. Now France can protect its borders from as far away as Greece.
A prudent student of international relations knows that size does matter and that bigger is better. The Europeans, perhaps better than anyone else, know the strategic importance of keeping one's domain as encompassing as possible. The EU is not just a free trade tool, it’s the only thing keeping the continent an autonomous regional and global power.
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