Five reasons why Europe is cracking up

Can Europe really break apart? Yes, of course it can, writes José Ignacio Torreblanca. Few times in the past has the European project been so questioned and its disgraces so publicly exposed as now. It’s time to stop looking the other way.

Denmark has reintroduced border controls with the populist excuse of controlling crime. By taking the step, the country that was once a model of democracy, tolerance and social justice has placed itself on the frontlines of a Europe that is increasingly surrendering to fear and xenophobia. Greece, meanwhile, has spent more than a year teetering on a cliff edge and few fellow European governments seem disappointed that it may abandon the euro – some of them are even secretly supporting the markets against Athens. Finland has thrown itself into the arms of xenophobic populism and, following in the footsteps of Slovakia, has refused to finance the bailout of Portugal. With elections around the corner, France and Italy have taken advantage of the Tunisian uprising to restrict the free movement of people within the European Union. And Germany, unhappy at managing the euro crisis amid regional elections, has broken ranks with France and the United Kingdom in the United Nations Security Council, ignoring the Libya crisis and undermining ten years of European security policy.

With the future of the euro in doubt and the Arab world erupting, European leaders are governing on the basis of opinion polls and electoral processes, hanging on to power through any means possible even if that results in undoing the Europe that it took so much time and so many sacrifices to build. Few times in the past has the European project been so questioned and its disgraces so publicly exposed. It would seem that in the Europe of today, having a large xenophobic political party is obligatory. The truth is that Europe is cracking up along four fault lines: its values, the euro, foreign policy and leadership. If there is no radical change, the integration process could collapse, leaving the future of Europe as an economically and politically relevant entity up in the air.

A project without fuel

This crisis is neither brief nor temporary: we are not just going through a bad patch, nor are we victims of groundless pessimism. To see the danger facing the project of European integration we only have to look back one decade. The contrast with the current situation is revealing. After launching the euro on January 1, 1999, the European Union approved the Lisbon Strategy, which promised to make the EU the most dynamic, competitive and sustainable economy in the world. The bloc also committed itself to expanding freedom, security and justice, taking European integration into areas such as policing, justice and immigration, which until then had remained on the sidelines of the construction of Europe. And to crown this process and to give itself a real political union that would allow the bloc to become a relevant global actor in the 21st century world, it launched the process of drafting the European Constitution.

But the EU did not just look inwards, it also looked outwards: it carried out the largest expansion in its history, incorporating ten countries from central and eastern Europe in addition to Cyprus and Malta, and, in a move filled with strategic vision and forward-thinking, it committed itself to opening membership negotiations with Turkey thereby creating a valuable bridge with the Arab and Muslim world. At the same time, the bloc established the pillars of a real foreign and security policy: after years of impotence and humiliations in tiny Bosnia, the French and the British agreed to more closely coordinate on defense. Meanwhile, the European countries united, Germany included, to halt the attempts of Milosevic to ethnically cleanse Kosovo and pledged to launch a rapid reaction force of 60 000 soldiers who could be deployed outside of European territory for crisis containment and peacekeeping missions. Now accustomed to being belittled by the great powers, it is revealing to remember that, back then, with the euro in circulation, expansion under way, a Constitution around the corner and with a foreign and security policy polished by the leadership of Javier Solana, talk of Europe did not provoke weariness or indifference, but rather admiration and even, in Washington, Beijing and Moscow, unconcealed jealousy.

A decade later, this brilliant list of achievements and optimistic promises is more than just being questioned: in the place of the successful and open Europe that we promised ourselves, we encounter a Europe that, despite its enlargement, has shrunk; that, despite the euro, has turned egotistical and unsupportive and which has stopped believing in and practicing its values in order to enclose itself in fear of the outside world and worries about loss of identity. Many regret the enlargements and don’t want to hear talk of any further expansion; they are not interested in fulfilling their promises regarding Turkey’s membership and are not even capable of considering the admission of the Balkan countries. The more than 20 years that have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall is more than enough time for Europe to have completed itself, both inside and out. But the reality is very different: after the expansions, we speak of enlargement fatigue; after the failed constitutional process, we see weariness from political integration; after the euro crisis, we hear of economic and financial exhaustion. After ten years of institutional reforms and institutional introspection, the Lisbon Treaty, which was meant to save Europe from paralysis and drag it into the 21st century, is barely known and its achievements invisible.

Crisis of values and political shortsightedness

The severity of the current European crisis has its origins in the convergence of four centrifugal forces: the rise of xenophobia; the euro crisis; the foreign policy deficit and the lack of leadership. The issues are parallel, but they cross over dangerously under the same common denominator: the absence of a long-term vision. The result is that every difference between members, no matter what shape it takes, becomes a zero-sum game, a ferocious battle where anything goes in order to achieve a victory that can be shown off back home in the national capital, no matter how small and how damaging it may be for the common project.

Almost three years ago the smoke that rose from burning Roma camps in Italy served as a warning for what was to come. Since then, election after election, xenophobic forces have gained ground in new countries (Sweden, Finland, the United Kingdom and Hungary) and have consolidated in places where they already had a significant presence (Italy, France, the Netherlands, Denmark). Like a cancer, they have taken over the political discourse and agenda in all states, toughening border controls, imposing restrictions on immigration, making family reunification more difficult and restricting access to social, health and educational services. Worse still, as in the case of Thilo Sarrazin in Germany, some have crossed the line from xenophobia to throw themselves into a blatantly racist discourse about the inferior intelligence of Muslims, dangerously evoking memories of how the Nazis called Jews, blacks and Slavs untermenschen (inferior human beings). The result is that, today, in the midst of the economic crisis, the values of tolerance and openness that built the most important heritage we have, are in doubt or even in retreat.

This fear of foreigners is surprising, given that Europe’s problems cannot at all be blamed on immigrants. In fact, the opposite is true. In addition to the moral suicide brought about by the predominant attitude toward immigration in almost all of Europe, if there is no change in the demographic trend Europeans are heading for economic suicide because at current birth rates the continent’s working-age population will shrink and face greater social costs to sustain an increasingly old and dependent population. Europe should look at itself in the mirror of the United States, which has been able to integrate immigrants from all over the world, contributing not only to their own wellbeing but to the wellbeing of the country. Instead, however, Europe prefers to create a false problem and, around it, build solutions that will do nothing more than accelerate its decline.

The simplemindedness and stupidity of the racists and xenophobes prevents many people taking them seriously. However, their capacity to influence traditional political parties is considerable and increasing. Every time one of them gets power in a member state, their illegitimising, racist and anti-European agenda collides head on with the European institutions. In order to stop it, the other governments should dare to invoke the treaties and clap sanctions on the xenophobes and authoritarians, just as they want to sanction those countries that fail to comply with the rules on budget deficits. But unfortunately the weak response of European institutions and governments in the face of the expulsion of Romanian Gypsies from France, the excesses regarding freedom of the press in the Hungarian Constitution or the harassment of irregular immigrants in Italy suggests we should expect little from them when it comes to standing up against other governments.

The end of solidarity

It is said that the economic crisis is to blame, but that is not entirely true. The main risk to the European project doesn’t come from the crisis itself: Europe has faced crises before and has emerged strengthened from them. Amid the crisis of the 1980s and under pressure from the technological advances of the United States and Japan, European governments decided to make a qualitative leap in integration. Back then, European leaders clearly foresaw what was at that time called the “cost of the non-Europe,” in other words the wealth and wellbeing that could be created by eliminating the obstacles that slowed economic growth.

Today, with all the serious and hard-to-solve challenges that are facing the European economy (particularly with regard to the ageing population and the loss of competitiveness), there is a broad consensus on how to overcome these problems. The real problem therefore should be sought elsewhere: in the existence of irreconcilable understandings of how we got into the euro crisis and, in consequence, how we should get out of it. For some, led by Germany, we are facing a crisis born of the fiscal irresponsibility of some member states. The solution therefore, the thinking goes, is for those states to simply comply with the austerity measures that were in force and which have now been strengthened. The solution is presented hand-in-hand with moralizing and condescending preaching as if the deficit or surplus of a country reflected the moral superiority or inferiority of a whole group of human beings. Many would like a two-speed Europe, not based on merit, but rather on cultural and religious stereotypes: in first class would be the virtuous savers who practice the Protestant faith; in the second, the profligate Catholics who cannot be trusted and who have to be kept in line, or, if it comes down to it, kicked out into the street.

This version of the crisis, which risks the end of Europe, must be contested. That countries as different as poor Greece or rich Ireland, a first-class champion of corporate power, neo-liberalism and deregulation, find themselves in similar situations force us towards more sophisticated explanations. We are suffering a crisis of growth, a logical phase in the process of constructing a monetary union in which the existence of a single monetary policy, not adequately complemented by fiscal policies and regulation of the financial system, causes imbalances that build up until they cause the problems we currently see. In this situation, and given that the monetary union was designed without taking into account the necessary mechanisms to deal with a crisis like the current one, the logical thing to do would be to discuss how to perfect the union so that it functions in a balanced way and, as seems necessary, improve its governance through the introduction of new instruments and reinforcing the authority of its institutions.

But instead of following the path toward deepening the union, what we are seeing is a winner/loser attitude in which some are using the current situation to impose their economic model on others, as if all countries are in the same condition and can function under the same rules. The consequence of all this is that, in the absence of more ambitious measures, we lock ourselves into a situation of permanent crisis. Meanwhile, the adjustments and cuts associated with the current bail outs will worsen the crises that some countries are suffering rather than help them emerge from them. On this path, deterioration is inevitable, because if growth and jobs do not appear soon, societies will rebel against the adjustments and the excessive debt loads or, alternatively, the markets and creditor governments will work together to quarantine or expel from the euro those countries with solvency issues. If it goes on like this, the European Union will end up being, in the eyes of many Europeans, what the International Monetary Fund was for many Asian and Latin American countries in the 1980s and 1990s: a tool for the imposition of an economic ideology that lacks any legitimacy but which is obeyed because of the lack of any alternative. It could be that it works, but Europe will no longer be a political, economic and social project, but rather a simple regulatory body charged with overseeing macroeconomic stability that suffers from a severe democratic and identity deficit.

Absent from the world

Just as serious as the breakdown of internal agreement is Europe’s inability to speak and act with a single voice in the 21st century world. Despite being the largest economic and trade bloc on the planet, the world’s largest provider of development aid and, even, despite the cutbacks, continuing to possess a considerable military and security apparatus, Europe still exercises its power fragmentally and as a result, as we see every day in relations with the United States, Russia or China or with its actions in its Mediterranean neighbourhood, clearly ineffectively. Obviously, Europe’s strength is not comparable to a great power nor does it want to exercise it as they do. The problem is that Europe is not able to act in a united and decisive way even in its closest geographic areas such as the Mediterranean, where its strength should be overwhelming, while neither is it influential or effective in institutions such as the UN, the G-20 or the IMF where its political and economic power is enormous. In all of these multilateral institutions, there are many European countries, but little Europe, and, what is worse, there are few policies that fit with their interests.

More than a year after the entry into effect of the Lisbon Treaty, which promised us a new and more effective foreign policy, the paralysis of Europe’s foreign affairs is complete. The response to the Arab revolutions was, without doubt, the straw that broke the camel’s back. For decades, in exchange for protecting its interests with regard to immigration, energy and security, Europe has supported the perpetuation in power of a string of authoritarian and corrupt regimes, largely turning a blind eye to the promotion of democratic values and respect for human rights. But when, finally and without any foreign help, the people of the region have taken their destiny in their own hands, the response from Europe has been slow, timid and lazy, with leaders appearing much more interested in protecting their economic interests and controlling immigration flows than supporting democratic change. In this, yet again, shortsightedness is evident, given that if the Arab revolutions succeed, the economic dividend of democratization would be so great that it would overshadow any calculation on the costs of the turbulence.

It is true that Europe has avoided falling into the abyss it would have created had it let Gaddafi invade Benghazi. That would have turned Europe’s clock back to the days of Srebrenica and triggered an irreparable moral and political crisis. But let us not fool ourselves, in the Libya uprising, like in the euro crisis, after avoiding an abyss there is still a lot to be done: in addition to achieving a peace that stops Gaddafi’s regime from remaining in power, Europe should restore credibility in its military capacity, which has been called into question, as well as in its security and foreign policy institutions, which have been battered. The frustration with these new foreign policy institutions, especially the role of the permanent president of the Council, Herman Van Rompuy, the high representative for foreign policy, Catherine Ashton, and the new European External Action Service (EEAS), is so vast that European capitals have started decoupling themselves from these institutions and coordinating and working on their own.

Paradoxically, where we hoped there would be a fusion of European and national interests, of Brussels and national capitals, we now find an increasingly large fracture: on the one hand, a European foreign policy that merely exists on paper and lacks any strength; on the other, a series of policies based, in fits and starts, on the formation of coalitions of volunteers with exclusively national resources. If the Arab Spring had ended quickly and happily, the failures of Europe would have ended up being invisible. But if what lies ahead, as seems to be the case, is a very rocky road toward democracy, replete with partial victories and defeats and a lot of instability and uncertainty, Europe will divide, it will be incapable of exerting any influence and it will become irrelevant abroad. With no role in the Middle East, Turkey humiliated by the roadblocks facing its adhesion and a Mediterranean region left to its own fate, Europe will cease to be a credible political actor in the world.

The rebellion of the elites

For years, the European project has progressed on the basis of the implicit consensus between citizens and elites regarding the benefits of the integration process. This consensus has now been broken on two fronts. On one side, citizens have withdrawn the blank cheque they gave to the European institutions to govern them “for the people but without the people.” With time, the process of integration has touched the most sensitive fibres of national identity, especially with regard to the welfare state and social policy. The economic, liberal and deregulatory bias of European construction has ended up politicizing and idealizing a project that previously was thought best left in the hands of experts and bureaucrats. But what is more surprising is that, alongside this rebellion of the masses, there has also been what we could call “a rebellion of the elites.”

Germany is perhaps the clearest example of this phenomenon. According to opinion polls, 63 per cent of Germans have stopped trusting Europe and 53 per cent see no future for Germany in the bloc. For the elite, things aren’t much different: at a time when exports to China are on the verge of surpassing exports to France, the south of Europe is seen as a hindrance to growth. The memory of the European commitment has disappeared with generational change: only 38 of the 662 current members of parliament held their seats in 1989. Without any doubt we are looking at a new Germany. Given its weight and importance, any change in Germany has a deep impact on European construction. And because the key characteristic of the new Germany is a lack of confidence in the European Union, Germany is exporting distrust rather than trust, as it did in the past. An essential component of the European engine has therefore seized up, without any alternative existing to substitute it. France can survive economically without Germany’s faith, and it could even use the United Kingdom to fill the holes Germany has left in foreign policy, but it is evident that Europe cannot advance without a Germany fully committed to European integration.

In the absence of German leadership or any alternatives, the process of integration becomes frayed. The presidents of the Commission, José Manuel Barroso, and the Council, Herman Van Rompuy, and the high representative for foreign policy, Catherine Ashton, are wandering lost in the European fog, incapable of voicing a simple discourse that would connect them with the pro-Europeans who still believe in the project. Only the European Parliament rises occasionally in moral conscience, building walls against the populist and xenophobic excesses and trying to advance the process of integration. However, only a handful of members of the European Parliament have their own voice and are willing to turn against their own governments and national parties when it is necessary. In Germany, France and Italy, but also in many other places, we find ourselves confronted with a generation of leaders ever more shortsighted and given over to electioneering: among them, none speak to Europe nor for Europe.


With every passing day, the sensation that Europe is fragmenting is more real and more justified. Can Europe break apart? The answer is evident: yes, of course it can. At the end of the day, the European Union is a human construction, not a celestial body. That it is necessary and beneficial justifies its existence, but that will not prevent it from disappearing. Just as a series of favorable circumstances led to the risky launch of this grand project, the unleashing of a series of adverse circumstances could very easily make it disappear, especially if those responsible for defending it shirk their responsibilities. Many committed pro-Europeans are conscious that the danger of Europe unravelling is very real, and they are duly worried about the course of events. However, at the same time, they fear that feeding pessimism with warnings of this nature could only serve to accelerate the collapse. But when, day after day, we see the red lines of decency and the values that Europe embodies being crossed by bigoted politicians who unscrupulously fuel the fears of citizens, it is impossible to continue looking the other way. Seeing the clarity of ideas and the determination with which the anti-Europeans pursue their objectives, it is hard to believe that mere optimism will be sufficient by itself to save Europe from the ghosts of doggedness, egoism and xenophobia that are haunting it at present. Without an equal level of determination and clarity of ideas from the other side, Europe will fail.

Published 12 August 2011
Original in English
First published by El Pais on 15 May 2011; openDemocracy, 3 June 2011

Contributed by openDemocracy © José Ignacio Torreblanca / openDemocracy / Eurozine



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