The future of the EU – a risky path

There were the usual pundits and gurus telling us that if Brexit were happening other EU-countries would follow to leave and the EU would come to its more or less deserved end. While this may be overdone and wishful thinking of those who are keen to see the European Union fail, it would be naive to deny the risks the EU is now facing.

One of the risks has for some time been the exit of a major member state and net contributor to EU funds. The vote for Brexit showed that this risk has become real. Both, the UK as well as the rest of the EU are in disarray, Cameron gambled, Boris Johnson played a black humour comedy and went off stage and nobody finds anything to laugh except Nigel Farage. All of this happens, while the EU is still suffering from the Euro-crisis and is challenged by the migration crisis, while our neighbourhood in Ucraine or the Middle East is burning.

The negotiations about the exit of the UK will be bumpy and may end up in bitterness even if all sides try to be friendly to each other. Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is unclear and open for different interpretations. That opens ways for juridical tricks which would poison the climate of the negotiations. Mutual blame games are a further big risk. It will be very important that there is good will on all sides and that the interpretation of Article 50 is made in a form that gives priority to its only goal: a smooth transition to full non-membership.

But the negotiation about Brexit is not the only risk.

It is quite advisable to have a look to other existential risks for the European Union:

In my view the greatest risk is a further erosion of legitimacy of the EU in the member states. This legitimacy has for a long time been very high because of the economic success of the European Project. People look for success and for protection. If the EU is no longer seen as an element of success, if people believe that their economic future is bleak, there will be a loss of legitimacy. If the view prevails, that the EU does not help to protect the security of the people and even risks their security, the loss of confidence will be even bigger than in case of economic failures.

To produce success the first priority must be to fight youth unemployment much more vigoriously with less words and more deeds. The second is jobs-jobs-jobs, but not just precarious jobs. This is not easy because the international division of labour has changed and competitivity of Europe has suffered by the failure of most member states to be at the forefront of technological progress. And it needs much more thoughts about adaptation to the brave new world of robots before us.
The functioning of our complex economy is not well understood, not by the people and even not by many politicians. That also contributes to fatal errors and temptations for populist parties.

Now we hear a lot of politicians ask for „an end of austerity“. What they mean is to embark on unsound financial policies typical for Latin American countries in the fifties and sixties of the last century. It would be a good idea to study the history of the decline of Argentina by populist and unsound economic policies between 1930 and 1983 (and beyond). It is only a so-called „Keynesianism“, that looks only to the stimulus side of Keynes‘ theory but not at the necessity of saving in good times. And those who think that structural reforms can be avoided by printing money should also study the Argentina of the seventies which ended up in a big mess destroying democracy for many years.

At the same time, the word „reform“ has been much abused to redistribute in favour of the richest. Obscene salaries of very few managers – not even most of them – while social benefits are cut, destroy the belief in any social justice. But all social measures are worthless if not based on sound finance and a functioning economy. What has not been earned cannot be distributed.

The people must feel that they are in control of their future. The big migration crisis (when migration from Africa and the Middle East will increase to much higher numbers than we already observe) may still be before us, but the helpless reactions of the EU not being able to protect its borders already cost the union much legitimacy. Many people do no longer trust that governments, police and the judicial system are protecting them from the risks they fear.

People fear insecurity – and even if this may not be rational, even if it is enhanced by propaganda, it is a real political factor disrupting society. This perception of insecurity from unwanted change, from crime, from terrorism, from threats to what people feel important for their identity, all of this prepared a climate, where extremists find a benign environment in the middle of society. And it is this benign environment which makes extremism most dangerous.

The main direction of extremism in case of fear of security or identity goes to the far right, making a periphery phenomenon move to the mainstream. The main direction of extremism in case of fear of economic security goes to the extremes on the right and the left. Both extremisms are dangers that could blow up the European Project.

A risk closely linked to the crisis of identity and security are authoritarian and nationalist tendencies in EU member states. For me the greatest risk for the EU definitely breaking up is not an economic failure, but a democratic failure: it was a great mistake that the Copenhaguen criteria are only obligatory for entering the union but not for staying in it.  This must be changed urgently. If the EU cannot deal with challenges of democracy in Hungary and possibly Poland (and other countries), if it continues to negotiate access with an authoritarian regime in Turkey, then it will loose the support of the liberal mainstream that is the most important source of support for the EU.

Some people believe that more „direct democracy“, that is more referenda, could help to bridge the „democratic deficit“. This is not true. Referenda – that is democracy without safeguards – are the predilect instrument of demagogues and dictators, they are a sign of a crisis of the parliamentary system, they are the playground for the „terribles simplificateurs“.

If an undemocratic block would stabilize inside the EU, making the rather weak safeguards of the treaties useless, because one authoritarian can veto any measures against another authoritarian regime, I would even prefer to dissolve the EU and start out with a new project with far stronger conditions for membership.

In some member states there are parties openly fighting against the EU – if such a party wins elections, an exit of that member state from the EU would be no surprise at all – and the people must know this, before they give their protest vote to parties like Front National or FPÖ or the Wilders party. By the way the same is true if they elect populist parties of the left that make the economic project of the EU impossible because they are unable to deal with budgets and finance. The risk is real that to show their protest against suffering from the crisis people elect parties that will make them suffer much more.

Kassandra was under the bad spell that she could make true prophecies but had no means to stop them becoming the reality. In politics there is no determinism. None of the risks is inevitable, all of them can be prevented. But it is important to see the risks and not close the eyes because they are painful. Politics means to acknowledge the risks but to work hard to make them not happen. So please do not see my lines here as a prophecy: it is a call to see the risks and avoid them.