The Survival of the European Union

I have long been a confirmed Euro-skeptic.  No, I am not an expert on the European Union, but I have frequently stumbled across the EU while studying various issues, such as Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, the dynamics of Eastern Europe in the 1990s and early 2000s, and so on.  Each time I ran across the EU in my work, I could not help but scoff at the idea of a single foreign policy.  I would admit that the EU could coordinate and act as one on economic policy, but when it came to security issues, I would just snark at the thought of the EU as a unitary actor.  Of course, now, with the deep financial crisis, even the EU’s ability to act coherently on economic issues is in doubt.  Let me revisit the past efforts at a single European effort and then suggest what really matters.  Hint: distinct interests and domestic politics.

When Yugoslavia began to fall apart, the European Community/Union saw this as a chance to demonstrate the ability to be a key actor in international relations.  Attempts to forestall or to end the violence failed.  Germany proved that post-unification and post-Cold War meant that it would assert its preferences, such as early recognition of Croatia and Slovenia.  Sure, the EU developed a process to evaluate which former chunks of Yugoslavia were most suited for recognition, Slovenia and Macedonia, but Germany and Greece had other criteria.  Ironic that the first big Euro-effort failed when these two countries cooperated to upset the process; ironic, too, now that the end of the Euro may be shaped by conflicts between the two. 

The EU was able to manage the process of enlargement with relatively little conflict among the existing membership.  All of the applicants from Europe got in despite having to do onerous paperwork and performing at least lip service to eligibility criteria.  But, as we have been reminded with the Greece crisis, those criteria did not really matter.  The conditions that were supposed to be necessary for membership only served as additional pages of paperwork.  After all, if good neighborly relations and good treatment of minorities were necessary conditions for getting into the EU in the 2000s, it is pretty hard to explain Cyprus’ entry.  But Greece cared a great deal about Cyprus, so nobody else go in the way.  That is cooperation, but it is not really a coherent policy since espoused standards were largely ignored.

Divisions over the invasion of Iraq in 2003 between “old” and “new” Europe with the UK and Spain on the side of new Europe (Rumsfeld never made any sense, really) made a European position impossible.  Disputes over the conflict made a great deal of sense since, well, it was a pretty bad idea executed as ineptly as possible.  However, the relatively risk-free and inexpensive Libyan operation of this past year also showed deep divides, Germany opting entirely out of the effort. 

The point here is that countries have national interests that regularly trump supra-national interests.  This should not be all that surprising, but we got sucked into making the mistake of thinking of the EU as a single actor.  If it were so, maximizing its interests, would Greece ever have been admitted into the Euro zone? 

Instead, despite the hoopla of supra-nationalism, we must remember that all politics is local because people vote on the issues that affect them most.  This is an iron law of politics, and it's just as relevant when it comes to the European Union.  People seem shocked that Europe is not getting its act together.  The problem is that Europe as a single political entity does not exist.  Sure, there are elections for the European parliament, but the key decisions are still made by those with subnational electoral districts and constituencies.  British leaders have to play to British audiences, French leaders have to appeal to the French, German politicians have to gain the support of Germans in Germany, and so on.  This is obvious, of course, but it's also often overlooked.  The interests of countries matter far more than the interests of the European Union, and since the costs and benefits of the various efforts to save the Euro vary significantly by country, cooperation will be very hard indeed.

To be fair, institutions do have value. So when they are at risk, some countries with deep investments in them, will willingly shoulder the burdens they entail.  The US got involved in Bosnia precisely because NATO allies were at risk (I just interviewed a Canadian general who had been one of fifty-five or so Canadians held hostage by the Bosnian Serbs in 1994).  The Alliance was able to hold it together in June 1999 because the stakes included not just the survival of Kosovo, but the survival of NATO itself as well.  So it is possible that EU members may change their policies and bear some costs precisely because the organization, and the common currency, is at risk.

Still, failure is an option.  The pain of the current economic crisis is heavily localised, and that may require leaders to sacrifice loftier political ambitions.  As a cynical political scientist who starts with the assumption that politicians want to get into and keep their positions, I am just a bit skeptical.  But I have been wrong before.  For the sake of my investments and for the sake of this thing we call Europe, I hope I am wrong.

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Stephen M. Saideman is Canada Research Chair of International Security and Ethnic Conflict at McGill University and author of The Ties That Divide: Ethnic Politics, Foreign Policy and International Conflict (2001); and For Kin or Country: Xenophobia, Nationalism and War (2008 with R. William Ayres). He writes Xenophile, CI's monthly analysis of nationalism and the use of force.