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The European dilemma

Martin Winter
August 28, 2015

After years of crisis, the EU is well aware of the flaws in the eurozone and European foreign policy. But it’s lacking the strength to fix them, writes guest contributor Martin Winter.

Deutschland EZB Euro Logo in Frankfurt
Image: Getty Images/AFP/D. Roland

The European Union has six difficult years behind it. But the coming years won't be any easier. The crisis doesn't mean the end of the idea of a peaceful European partnership, but it has certainly dispelled more than one European illusion.

The years of the financial and debt crises were both instructive and very bitter. Instructive, because they revealed the flaws in the political construction that, after the end of the Cold War, led the EU down the exuberant path of believing it was destined to be the new world power. Bitter, because they brought with them the realization that the member states lack the strength to fix these flaws.

Neither of the two big plans - meant to strengthen the EU to the outside and bind it closer together on the inside - had the desired effect. Just the opposite. The euro has brought not more political integration, but instead growing disintegration. Trust and solidarity have given way to distrust and old stereotypes. And the common foreign and security policy is still just a shadow of what the visionaries had hoped for.

Instead of being surrounded by friends and partners, the EU once again finds itself - as Britain's The Economist wrote - in a ring of fire. Europe and Russia are again arming themselves against each other. There's war in Ukraine. Unrest rules the Caucasus. The wars in Syria and Iraq are threatening to drive the entire Middle East into the ground. The Arab Spring has devolved into an Autumn of Violence. Islamic State is expanding and becoming a potent threat to Europe.

Shattered illusion

Europe has become a patient in need of intensive care. The euro is limping along from one emergency operation to the next. When things get dicey on the foreign policy front, it's the big member states that again have to intervene. And they mostly act according to German, French or British interests. The EU is still digesting the political and financial consequences of its eastern and southern expansion. And the current refugee crisis has shown that every EU state is looking out for No.1. The illusion born in the 1990s - that a common currency would automatically bring with it a political union - has shattered.

The crisis did not just expose the EU's construction flaws, it also revealed how they might be fixed. But this is where Europe's dilemma begins. No member state is prepared to relinquish national sovereignty over economic, social, and security issues to a European central government in order to save the grand idea of the EU. The bloc has come a very long way since the first step toward its creation was taken in 1951. But the people are still not prepared to replace the current union of sovereign nations with a European federation.

Overly ambitious goals

The inability of politics and people to do what's necessary to save the EU does not come down to any individual failure of any one national leader. Rather, it is the result of the hubris of the early 1990s.

After the triumph in the Cold War over the Eastern bloc, European politics got too big an opinion of itself. It really believed it could create a world power overnight out of a sedate EU that was focused on its inner well-being. A power not just based on a common currency, foreign and security policy, intent on ever closer relations, but one that at the same time aims to significantly expand its territory.

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Martin Winter

Such a policy underestimated the objective problems of a common currency and common foreign policy just as much as the resistance among Europeans against a Europe that wants to take the place of their respective nation states. Polls and elections show that Europeans like their union. It's comfortable, convenient, and has advantages. But they do not want to give it more power over their daily lives.

If leaders can draw the right conclusions from the crisis, this dilemma doesn't have to spell the end of the European Union. The answer is to reduce the overload. Since the introduction of the euro cannot be undone, the focus now has to be on bringing it under control so that it no longer presents an existential risk. At the same time, the EU needs to be more realistic on other issues such as foreign or enlargement policy. Given the crisis, the aim now should be to secure the bare bones of the European Union so that future generations have a solid basis on which to build.

Martin Winter worked as an EU correspondent in Brussels from 1999 to 2013, reporting for the Frankfurter Rundschau and the Süddeutsche Zeitung. His book "Das Ende einer Illusion" (The End of an Illusion) was published this year.

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