Europe in Crisis: Shaping a Way Ahead
Europe was originally built around the notion of it being a “peace project” as a way of guaranteeing that if European countries were members of an evolving European Union another World War on European soil would be avoided.
Within the last decade, as a number of crises have risen, Europe has dealt with the new narrative of it being a “power project” where Brussels and the key European states have sought to operate as a single entity and build a common domestic and foreign policy that somehow represents all 28 Member States.
As a “peace project” Europe was “above all a ‘moral act’” while acting as a “power project” it is a “political act” which requires the European states to redefine “self-interest, political will and decisiveness.”1
This shift from being a peace project to a power project has been driven by five key crises that together and individually challenge the stability of the European Union as a whole: the Eurozone crisis, the Ukraine crisis, the immigration crisis, Brexit and the transatlantic relationship taking a turn under Trump’s administration.
This article provides a brief overview of the five crises and argues that the immigration challenge has posed the most significant challenge to the EU as it touches on every single one of the crises.
The immigration crisis in Europe has led to member states having to deal with existential national issues in a supranational framework, something that has proved incredibly hard to do.
The article also argues that out of these five crises, the transatlantic relationship is the one that has posed the least visible threat to European cohesion, although it has generated much press in discussing the “Trump” effect.
The United States has been known to throw many a curve-ball to the relationship and while this time it might be a bit more dramatic and filled with a tweet inhabited environment, the security challenges that unite Europe and the United States attenuate the political drama that is currently ensuing.
How then might Europe respond to these crises and re-set a way ahead for the European project?
Overview on Key Crises
The Eurozone Crisis placed a big question mark on how Europe deals with political crises as it had to go beyond the existing rules and regulations that had led the European project to success up until that point.
With “no instruments for jointly tackling a crisis in the currency Union,” Europe had to deal with the severe economic spillover effect that happened among the various member states as it was adapting to the unfolding situation.2
With Greek debt exceeding $400 billion, member states argued over to what extent and howEurope as a whole should take the burden of such a massive financial responsibility.
This created a significant questioning of the viability of the Euro and enhanced conflict among member states- images of the hard-working German ant and the lazy Greek grasshopper filled political cartoons.
After many meetings and negotiations, the 28-29 June 2012 summit proposed and implemented a viable solution to the issue at hand. The proposal pushed for European Central Bank supervision and financial support from rescue funds for the countries with ailing banks as well as implementing a revision of budgetary rules to ensure this kind of emergency would not happen to this extent again.
The next major crisis that faced Europe was the Ukraine crisis.
When then-president of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych was given a choice by the Russians of pursuing an association agreement with the European Union or receiving a substantial amount of money from the Kremlin, Yanukovych chose to suspend talks with Brussels.
This sparked a massive wave of protests within Ukraine, splitting East-West Ukraine into pro-EU and pro-Russia camps.
Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014 as a response to what it deemed to be a major European overstep and war in the Donbas region since has seen 13,000 people dead and as many as 30,000 people wounded.3
The EU has attempted to negotiate with the Kremlin, getting a wake-up call in the process of what EU enlargement means to some that might not view the European Union as an innocent “peace project.” Minsk I and II were diplomatic agreements attempting to mitigate the crisis that is still very much present but has been put on the back-burner, even though Russia poses a real threat to the democratic backbone that aspires to hold Europe together.
Ukraine was only the beginning, and will not be the end, of a new phase of Kremlin meddling in EU politics.
Europe was also faced with a new kind of crisis when Article 50 was invoked for the first time, triggering the United Kingdom in leaving the European Union.
“Brexit” has led to ongoing negotiations between Brussels and the UK Parliament in order to reach a deal over the terms of seceding. While the effects of Brexit itself will be felt in terms of security and economically, the previous intent of other countries leaving the EU (i.e. “Frexit”, “Grexit”, etc.) has simmered down due to just how complicated the entirety of the process has been for the UK.
The Major Impact of the Migration Crises
The migration crises, due to its multiple trigger points, should not be considered as only one crisis but as many that intertwine and currently impedes European progress to move forward.
The major influx of new migrants from the War Torn Middle East and North Africa originating in 2014, has generated a major blow to the evolutionary process of evolving European integration.
This is an issue that places into question the borders as well as the security and the composition of Europe as a whole.
With member states significantly differing on what it means to take responsibility for the influx of migrants that are fleeing war torn countries and are seeking asylum in Europe, migration is a problem that will affect the politics as well as the demographic and composition of Europe for the period ahead.
In 2015 alone, “one and a quarter million refugees applied for asylum in the Union… twice as many as the year before.”4
The sheer number of immigrants that flooded European shores overwhelmed European policy makers in Brussels. And the gap between what nations wished to do versus how Brussels sought to manage the overall process is a wide one. Brussels was blind to the “gap between what was administratively possible and what was… politically required.”5
In response to the political lag in Brussels, two of the central tenets of the European Union have been highly criticized and deemed necessary to reform: Schengen and the Dublin Regulation.
Schengen, or the ability to travel freely within the 26 states that participate, is symbolic to a common and united Europe and yet with the issues of border security and lack of migration control it has come to be increasingly scrutinized.
A key focus is of ongoing efforts is focused upon: “it would benefit from being updated” and that many have “lost track of how its borderless area should work” from a security perspective.6
Another aspect that many have requested, especially those in the Southern states, is to update or replace the Dublin Regulation which establishes that whatever EU state an asylum seeker enters first, that state is responsible for its asylum application. “The current Dublin asylum Regulation has failed us—it induced a race to the bottom; whereby European states compete to become the least attractive for migrants” which has created an absolutely divisive political atmosphere.7
Migration also poses an identity threat to the European Union, “asking distinct nations to give up part of their identity for a larger, common European identity could have worked if a European identity had been established during the advent of Union itself” but what it means to be European does not have one single answer across the 28 (soon to be 27) member states.8
The November 2004 European Council agreement on “common basic principles” provided an array of integration policies offered for facilitating the process of migrants setting in Europe. One of these policies is written as to what is expect on behalf of migrants: “‘Integration implies respect for the basic values of the European Union.’
What are these values?
The joint stock of all liberal democracies… all of these are political values, not substantive ethical values.”9
This disagreement on what it means to be European has led to a wider ‘identity crisis’ that is being felt across Europe and reflected within society and the politics that people are turning to.
Migration is an issue that is multifaceted: it is on a human level, an economic level, a political and a security level.
In politics, Brexit is a prime example as to how the migration crisis has helped shape the political narrative. The inability to shape a European consensus on how to deal with refugees contributed to what had more conservative voters eager to vote “YES” to leave the EU.
This is also part of a larger wave in surge of right-wing parties and voters, “the League in Italy, the Alternative fur Deutschland in Germany, the Rassemblement National in France and now Vox in Spain.”
With regards to the economy, the migration crisis places further financial burden on economies that were weakened by the Eurozone crisis.
Greece for example, the main victim (and some argue, perpetrator) of the Eurozone crisis, took the majority (alongside Italy) of the arriving migrants but over the past five years, agreements for distributing migrants have been worked within the European Union
Due to the Dublin Regulation, asylum seekers must apply for asylum in Greece if that is their country of origin- a country that does not have the economic backbone to support this increase in population.
This crisis also affects the Russia threat because it plays into a further disintegrated and chaotic Europe that the Kremlin takes advantage of.
Meddling in European elections and pushing support for the right-wing candidates, Russia is very aware of the migration threat that is pressuring European unity and collaborative capabilities.
Indeed, Russia’s own engagement in Syria has not played a positive role upon reducing the threat but has accelerated it.
The Transatlantic Challenge: Moving Beyond The Tweeting President
Inspire of all of the dramatic emphasis by Europeans on the Trump Presidency, the Transatlantic crisis is one that has so far less affected EU politics as a whole (except maybe in terms of the reaction regarding rhetoric) compared to the Euro, Ukrainian, or migration crises.
With the election of Donald Trump in 2016, Europe has repeatedly had to deal with criticism of how it operates from the U.S. administration.
With the decision to back out of diplomatic accords such as with the Paris Climate Agreement, the United States has been somewhat of a rocky partner to deal with the last three years.
Yet, it is important to put Trump into the larger perspective- he will only be in office for a total duration of four (potentially eight) years and has proven to still work well within the NATO framework which proves he is committed to fighting the security threats that face both the EU and the United States.
He is not the first president to call out the fact that members of NATO are not reaching their 2% spending, and, he won’t be the last. If one is to look at the sheer amount and overall size and range of NATO exercises the US has engaged in as well as the investment that the United STaets continues to make in European defense, the transatlantic relationship is stronger in actions than it is in words.
Over the long term, the United States should remain a strong ally to Europe as they do share common economic strategically and diplomatically interests.
Shaping a Way Ahead
Crises do not need simply be viewed negatively.
They can provide openings to reframe issues and to redo relationships.
Notably, the migration crisis can offer to the European Union and to reshape how states work with one another.
The EU has been dealing with enlargement fatigue which has further added to the complex issue of migration.
It must prove to the current member states that the EU is committed to a strong partnership with its members.
The EU is also dealing with renewed tension between smaller and bigger member states.
Spain and Greece would like to call for a revisiting of the Dublin Regulation while other countries might not be as keen to this notion- France, for example, just set a quota on the number of migrants it will accept.
These frustrations further prove that the EU is dealing with a crisis that is more than just another crisis but a renewed questioning of what the EU wants to be in today’s day and age.
This might be the exact kind of rethinking that the European Union needs.
Middelaar argues that the EU is undergoing a transition of “rules based” to “events based” politics as it catches up to the reality of what it is to combine 28 different member states and their own domestic policies.
Many are quick to blame Brussels on their domestic situation and some argue that this is an easy scapegoat to turn to, yet Brussels has increasingly shown that is it encroaching itself on national policies within their member states.
If this trend continues to occur, it must build the necessary tools to be more responsive and clearer in the intentions it sets out to accomplish in order to build a more integrated Europe.
Currently, the European Union is forcing an integration that cannot happen due to the range of policy differences among the member states.
It must build a common asylum seeker solution, a renewed Dublin regulation, be less bureaucratic in nature and provide a clear message as to what the European Union means in terms of identity in order for progress to be made in solving this very imminent threat that affects Europe as a whole.
And what will be the European identity if not bureaucratically defined by Brussels?
It may well be that there are a multiplicity of answers to this question underlying a common alliance, and working out ways for the member states to work with one another rather than simply expect a bureaucratically negotiated solution to provide an answer might well be the way ahead.
The featured graphic is credited to the following source:
- Luuk van Middelaar, Alarums & Excursions: Improvising Politics on the European Stage (Newcastle upon Tyne, Agenda Publishing, 2019), 3.
- Luuk van Middelaar, Alarums & Excursions,, 22.
- Christopher Miller, “Death Toll Up To 13,000 In Ukraine Conflict, Says UN Rights Office.” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Feb. 26, 2019, www.rferl.org/a/death-toll-up-to-13-000-in-ukraine-conflict-says-un-rights-office/29791647.html.
- Luuk van Middelaar, Alarums & Excursions,, 91.
- Luuk van Middelaar, Alarums & Excursions,, 92.
- Raoul Ueberecken, “Schengen Reloaded.” Centre for European Reform, November 11, 2019, www.cer.eu/publications/archive/policy-brief/2019/schengen-reloaded.
- “How to Solve Europe’s Migration Crisis,” Politico, February 8, 2016, www.politico.eu/article/solve-migration-crisis-europe-schengen/
- Alessandra Bocchi, “Why Is the European Union Failing?” Human Events, May 3, 2019, https://humanevents.com/2019/05/02/why-is-the-european-union-failing/?fbclid=IwAR22XHeJYKraU891YK-Y-3LMKvINEzpdJoVpXXKZS9bWcjsv7tdlXldrzJM
- Christian Joppke, “Beyond National Models: Civic Integration Policies for Immigrants in Western Europe.” West European Politics, January 3, 2007.