The massive refugee crisis that engulfs southeastern Europe produces a troublesome question: Can the European Union survive this new threat to its political cohesion?
The invasion of Europe by nearly a million refugees, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan, threatens to overwhelm the capabilities of governments and the tolerance of Europeans to absorb an unending stream of migrants crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey and proceeding northward into Central Europe, Some Europeans protest the "welcome mat" set out by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, arguing that the refugees are Muslims and don't share European values.
Having barely weathered a Greek political and financial crisis earlier this year, the European Union (EU) is sharply divided on how to allocate the distribution of refugees among its 27 members. Although Germany agreed to resettle half a million each year, others, notably Hungary, Romania, and Czech Republic accepted only small numbers. Poland rejected the plan, and Britain and France put tight limits on their accommodation of refugees.
Created in 1993 out of the successful European Economic Community (EEC) , the EU's architects sought to add a political component to the economic success of forty years, a notable example being the 1992 abolition of border checkpoints across member states. This greatly facilitated travel within Europe. But, was political union a bridge too far?.
Forging political union proved difficult because some states, notably Britain and Scandinavian members, resisted infringement on their independence (sovereignty) imposed by the European Commission's bureaucracy in Brussels. Additionally, its unity was complicated by introduction of a common currency (euro) in 1999. Although most EU members, with 337 million people, adopted the euro, Britain, Poland, and other eastern Europe countries remained outside the eurozone.
Flaws in the common currency arrangement became apparent after European and American financial systems took a hit during a deep recession triggered by the September 2008 crisis. Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Italy came under severe financial strains because the EU lacked authority to impose budget controls on member states. Greece was a prime example of massive overspending that produced financial collapse. Athens is now under tight budgetary controls imposed by the EU as the price its government accepted in order to stay in the EU.
The foundation of the EU is now under challenge from the British government whose prime minister, David Cameron, is pledged to hold a referendum in two years on whether Britain will remain a member. Cameron says the EU must agree to decentralize its power and give member states more authority at the expanse of that now exercised by Brussels. Britain wants a federated EU instead of the centralized organization favored by France. Some EU members favor Britain's view, but Germany is the key to whether the EU's constitution will be amended to provide for a more federated Europe.
These fissures in the EU's structure underscore the challenge that NATO :faces in the east: How to counter Moscow's intimidation of eastern Europe's member states, and non-member Ukraine. The alliance agreed this year to station a battalion of troops in each Baltic country and to bolster Poland's defenses. But Germany opposes a larger NATO buildup in eastern Europe. It argues that diplomacy and economic pressure have a better chance to restrain Vladimir Putin's ambitions than does a military response. Berlin thinks Putin's armed intervention in Syria's civil war makes him less prone to probe more deeply in eastern Europe.
In my view, despite the current dangers to its unity, the EU will survive but in a modified form. Germany, its largest and most influential member, has a federal constitution, and Berlin will eventually persuade France and others that the price of keeping Britain and others in the union is devolution of some powers to member states. This change would dilute the Gaulist dream of United Europe as a world power comparable to America's global role.
The new Europe would see Germany, France, and Britain continuing to be major regional powers, while Washington, Moscow, and other governments would deal with them directly, not with a European leader selected by EU members. As a result, Charles de Gaulle's memory will fade as devolution of the EU's powers unfolds.
File last modified on Tuesday, 10-NOV-2015 9:54 AM EST