The European Parliament Elections last year showed the stark reality of politics in Europe – that the EU is more divided than ever. However, you wouldn’t think that was the case if you spoke to people in Brussels. The mantra of pro-Europeans is very much one of “business as usual” – and this will ultimately be to their detriment.
These divisions run deep on all levels and axes of European politics today. The division between East and West (No Eastern European has been given a top job in the European Parliament or Commission this time round), the division between Eurozone and non-eurozone, between left and right, and the division between pro-integration and scepticism.
The last European Elections returned the strongest showing in history for many far right and populist political parties. Matteo Salvini took a third of seats in Italy and Marine le Pen took a quarter of the vote share in France. Meanwhile traditional conservative and centre-right parties suffered.
2020 poses several great existential problems for the European Union – and the underlying disunity between Member States and within the various political factions in the European Parliament mean that adequate solutions are unlikely to be found.
The greatest of these changes that will shape the direction of Europe is of course the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union on the 31st of January. Not only will it mean that one of Europe’s big three nations will be ending its membership of the Union, but it will also mean a shift in the power dynamics at play in Brussels.
The United Kingdom was long seen as the “voice of reason” in the European Council, standing up against Germany and France over unpopular opinions, there now stands a power vacuum. The Visegrad 4 countries (Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Czech Republic) have made some power plays inside and outside of the Council chamber in a bid to fill that void. Austria has also made moves to step into that role, under the conservative leadership of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz – who sees himself as a natural bridge between East and West. However, the reality is that none of these actors currently have the political gravitas to pull off the role that the UK once played.
With no country in the Council fully able to play the role of convenient opponent to pro-integration policies there is a risk that group think will intensify when it comes to decisions on the future direction of the EU. In the past, the UK was able to act as cover for smaller nations like Denmark, the Netherlands, the Baltics States and Eastern Europe when it came to opposing policies such as the French push for an EU defence capability or German proposals for EU wide financial services policy that would choke the banking system.
The other “business as usual” event on the minds of the Brussels elite is the so called “Conference on the Future of Europe”. However, unlike most public consultations, the conclusions have already been decided before anyone outside of the EU institutions has had a chance to voice an opinion. The great debate is to be chaired by former Belgian Prime Minister and arch-federalist Guy Verhofstadt. Furthermore, the “working group” in the European Parliament connected to this project also shows the EU’s bias towards Western Europe as all but one member of the committee is from Western Europe and four of the members are German.
The European Union continues to be both blind and deaf to the concerns of those outside of the Brussels bubble. Whilst not all that the EU does is bad, programmes such as Erasmus+ and Horizon Europe are more successful and popular than ever before, the growing disconnect between the EU leadership and EU citizens can only lead to further growth of populism and isolationism.
Brexit should have been an opportunity for the EU to take stock and ask searching questions such as “why has a member state chosen to leave?” and “what more could have been done to prevent it?”. Instead, they have decided to speed ahead with plans that the British have long rejected. The EU is acting in an increasingly insular way – at a time when the world needs liberal democracies to stand together in trans-Atlantic unity against the combined threats of China, Russia and Iran.
The next few years will be difficult for the European Union, and there is little evidence that this will change soon.