Attack on Europe


Recently a close friend with a family history in the Foreign Service asked me whether I thought the European Union would survive. “Tig” (his nickname) grew up in various European capitals – Amsterdam, Geneva, Madrid – and is uncommonly well-versed on the topic (he routinely reads three newspapers, for example).  I, in turn, have taught and written about the EU, so his choice of interlocutor was not entirely random.

Had he asked the same question a day or two after the horrific Paris attacks, it would not have surprised me, but surprise it did come the week before.  Europe’s legitimate dilemma over the immigration problem (crisis?) and the cracks it has again exposed in the European Project is what prompted Tig to question whether the Schengen agreement establishing Europe’s visa-free travel zone now encompassing 22 states would survive.  Given the key role borders play in the legal of concept of sovereignty, if was fair to ask whether the EU itself would survive (which he did).

I told my friend I was pretty certain the EU would muddle through, but Schengen was looking wobbly.  Then came the horrific Friday the 13th in Paris.  Now I’m not so sure.

A central government isn’t free to control traffic across the borders that define its territory, is it sovereign? Does it matter what its own people think?  What they want?

This is the question many French, Belgian, and Dutch people, among others, are asking. It’s the question French writer Michel Houellebecq raised in a commentary he penned a few days after the massacre in Paris (“How France’s Leaders Failed Its People,” NY Times, November 19, 2015).  It’s the question a Geert Wilders, a member of the Dutch Parliament, raised in a commentary that appeared in the same newspaper on the same day (“Let the Dutch Vote on Immigration Policy,” NY Times, November 19, 2015).  Meanwhile, Brussels, the fulcrum of the EU’s sprawling bureaucracy, is under a security lockdown that has brought life in the city to a standstill and, in a move arguably more significant for its political symbolism than its practical effect, Belgium has reimposed passport control at its borders.

Looming over all the soul-searching that will take place in the national capitals of Europe in the months to come is British Prime Minister David Cameron’s promise to hold a referendum to decide whether the U.K. will stay in the EU or head for the exit.

From its inception, Europe’s bold experiment in supranational institution-building has faced severe challenges, major obstacles, and periodic crises, but through it all the leaders of Europe’s core countries – especially Germany and France – have continued to move the Continent in stages toward the original functionalist ideal of an ever closer union.  The problem is that as the number of member–states grew (from six to twenty-eight) and became more functionally (politically, legally, and administratively) intermeshed (“integrated”) the huddled masses (“nations”) of Europe have not grown closer to each other.

So much for an “ever closer union”.  Now more than ever, this disjunction has serious consequences for the sustainability of a borderless Europe with a single economy. Here is how Michel Houellebecq frames the problem,

For 10 (20? 30?) years, our successive governments have pathetically, systematically, deplorably failed in their essential mission: to protect the population under their responsibility.

There’s little reason to doubt that many French voters agree with this assessment, especially considering that the extreme right-wing National Front (FN) is now either the first or second most popular political party in France and that FN leader Marine Le Pen is “set to top the first round of France’s 2017 presidential elections.” 

Houellebecq alludes to opinion polls that demonstrate “the French population has always maintained its trust in and solidarity with its police officers and its armed forces. That it has largely been repelled by the sermonizing airs of the so-called moral left (moral?) concerning how migrants and refugees are to be treated. “

Contrast this call for reliance on France’s national security forces with Article 2, §5 of the Lisbon Treaty (the new Europe’s charter):  “In its relations with the wider world, the Union shall uphold and promote its values and interests and contribute to the protection of its citizens.”

But the challenge to a unified Europe is even deeper and wider.  France’s highly centralized system that puts Paris in the driver’s seat is coming under attack from a new crop of populists.   Indeed, Michel Houellebecq advocates by-passing the elected government altogether:

One could cite many more examples of the gap, now an abyss, between the population and those supposed to represent it. The discredit that applies to all political parties today isn’t just huge; it is legitimate. And it seems to me, it really seems to me, that the only solution still available to us now is to move gently toward the only form of real democracy: I mean, direct democracy.

The conspirators who planned and executed the Paris attacks have succeeded in destroying freedom of movement in Europe at least for the time being.  Whether the Schengen Agreement that created open borders in Europe for the first time since in modern history will survive is in grave doubt.  If Schengen becomes a casualty of terrorism, if the immigration pressures ISIS and other jihadist groups have created in the Middle East, if the British public decides to the dissolve UK’s ties to Brussels, if the French people elect an anti-Brussels rightwing government, how will the European Union itself cope the political repercussions. Will the EU survive intact?  Disband? Retrogress into a free trade association or customs unions like the old Common Market?

If the populist trend in Europe continues to gather steam and the people take back the power to decide, the European Union will almost certainly be the loser.  The idea of direct democracy – rule by referendum – is appealing to a European public fed up with what many see as systematic and ever-expanding bureaucratic interference from Brussels.  Appealing, but myopic.

If Europe regresses back to a time when nationalism trumped all other values including peace, freedom, and prosperity, Europeans will surely pay a heavy price.  Part of that price will be to invite more terrorism by handing the jihadists a victory that even the most militant among them could not have imagined.         

*Thomas Magstadt is the author of The European Union on the World Stage and four other books.




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