Europe’s revolutionary experiment in political union is faltering.
In Britain and Poland in the last month, nationalistic parties uneasy with integration into the European Union have scored major advances. The EU constitution, rejected last year by France and the Netherlands, is dead in the water. Economic nationalism and protectionism are surging. The French, Italian, Spanish and Polish governments recently have taken steps to protect national industries from foreign takeover.
On a continent that dreamed of eliminating national borders, hostility toward immigrants—especially those from Muslim countries—is causing national boundaries to spring back to life.
In short, political life across Europe is being renationalized, plunging the enterprise of European integration into its most serious crisis since World War II.
Europeans would not be the only losers if the EU continues to stumble. Americans might have to confront the return of national jealousies to Europe, as well as an EU that is too weak to provide the United States the economic and strategic partner it needs.
Four main forces are undermining the EU’s foundations.
First, Europe’s paternalistic welfare states are struggling to survive the dual forces of European integration and globalization. Citizens are fighting back, insisting that the state reassert its sovereignty to block unwelcome change. When they voted down the EU constitution last May, many French citizens blamed the “ultra-liberal” EU for their economic woes. This spring, rioters took to France’s streets to block labor reforms. Italians grumble that adopting the euro has depressed their economy.
Especially in France, Germany and Italy, governments are caught in the middle, squeezed from above by the pressures of competitive markets and from below by an electorate clinging to the comforts of the past and fearful of the future. The result is political stalemate and economic stagnation, which only intensify the public’s discontent and its skepticism of the benefits of European integration.
Second, a combination of the EU’s enlargement and the influx of Muslim immigrants has diluted traditional European identities and created new social cleavages. The EU now has 25 member-states at very different levels of development. Fifteen million Muslims reside within the EU, and Turkey, with 70 million Muslims, is knocking on the door. Too many of Europe’s Muslims are achingly alienated, inviting radicalism. Unaccustomed to a multiethnic society and fearful of an Islamist threat from within, the EU’s majority populations are retreating behind the illusory comfort of national boundaries and ethnic concepts of nationhood.
Third, European politics is growing increasingly populist. Voters see both European and national institutions as elitist and detached. In France, the far-right National Front is enjoying unprecedented popularity; in a recent survey, one-third called the anti-immigrant party in tune with “the concerns of the French people.” Polish voters recently elected a president, Lech Kaczynski, who insists that “what interests the Poles is the future of Poland and not that of the EU.”
Finally, Europe is lacking the strong leadership needed to breathe new life into the union. Governments in London, Paris, Berlin and Rome are fragile and preoccupied by their divided and angry electorates. Generational change is exacerbating matters. For Europeans who lived through World War II and its bitter aftermath, the EU is a sacred antidote to Europe’s bloody past. But this generation is passing, and younger Europeans have no past from which they seek escape—and no passion for political union.
At least for now, the EU is merely adrift, not yet about to unravel. Its demise is hardly inevitable; over the last six decades, Europe has weathered many periods of self-doubt and stasis. But only bold and urgent steps can put the EU back on track. European leaders will have to give up the pretense of business as usual and acknowledge the gravity of the current political crisis. They should scrap the belabored EU constitution in favor of a leaner document with a few key provisions—appointment of an EU president and foreign minister and reform of decision-making. Only a more capable union can make the EU more relevant to its citizens.
Europeans must face the reality that they have reached a watershed moment. Unless they urgently revive the project of political and economic union, one of the greatest accomplishments of the 20 th century will be at risk.