What’s the difference between solidarity and intimidation?
Not much if you’re the leader of a Western European state with an uncontrollable migrant crisis on your hands. But if you’re an Eastern European state on the receiving end of system that threatens your vital national interests, it could be the difference between staying and leaving inside the EU.
Two weeks ago, EU leaders held an emergency summit to decide on the fate of 160,000 African, Asian and Middle Eastern migrants languishing in the EU’s frontier states of Italy and Greece.
Ahead of this, the EU’s eastern members made patently clear their objection to the compulsory redistribution of migrants. From the Baltics to the Balkans, people took to the streets in protest at migrant quotas. And governments made clear their opposition in multiple ways, not least when the European Council last debated the issue in June. They wanted to decide, not Brussels, who lives in their countries.
The reasons for this are well documented. The EU’s eastern half is relatively poor and resources are scarce. Some nations are still sharpening their identity after years of foreign subjugation. And lack of contact with non-Europeans has bred associations with crime and terror. The region also feels strongly that the migrant crisis is the problem created by the West, whose policy of giving migrants unconditional sanctuary enticed them to come in the first place.
In the event, however, the easterners’ concerns were ignored. Germany and others threatened them with the financial penalties and the loss of EU funding if they refused to accept migrants. They shamed member states which showed insufficient ‘solidarity’. Governments were urged to do the right thing for Europe, even if this meant violating the expressed will of their electorates.
In the face of this political pressure, the majority of states buckled and endorsed a redistribution scheme. Four states maintained their opposition: the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. However, their combined votes in the European Council were not enough to block the scheme.
The End of Consensus Politics
This is only one event. But it tells a larger story about the nature of the EU in conditions of seeming perpetual crisis which required urgent solutions to deep problems: that the practice of consensual decision-making, a cultural norm in the European Council in previous decades, has broken down in favour of raw power politics. And in a trial of strength, the Eastern Europeans are serial losers.
On Ukraine, their desire to create an integrated buffer against the risk of Russian aggression is being thwarted by Western Europe’s desire to resume trade relations with Russia. The back peddling on commitments to Ukraine at the Riga Summit in April has been followed by the start of a new pipeline which will transport gas straight from Russia to Germany.
On the economy, membership of the euro zone has ensnared Slovenia (and much of the EU’s southern periphery) in a policy of austerity which is profoundly opposed by voters. And now, on migration, an issue which affects the very identity of nations, the interests of the Eastern Europeans have been cast aside.
No Good Options
So where do matters go from here if consensus is now subordinate to power politics?
The EU’s eastern states have a number of options.
One is simply to accept their place in a hierarchical union in which decisions are imposed which seriously compromise the national interest. This may be tough but the smallest states, especially those close to Russia, will probably accept this as the price to pay for living in a dangerous neighbourhood.
A second option is for the East to coalesce into an alliance which forms a blocking minority within the EU institutions. Already, there is some evidence of states coalescing. The region is co-operating heavily in matters of security, since Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, under the auspices of the US. However, such efforts must overcome the power of Western Europe to undermine consensus. The Visegrad Four entered last week’s summit with a unified position, only for Poland to break ranks at the last moment.
A third option is for states simply to assert sovereignty in areas of policy which affect their vital national interests. Hungary has been subtly doing this for several years – any foreigner trying to enter a ‘strategic’ sector such as food production, utilities or banking, all guaranteed freedoms under EU law, will be in for a nasty surprise. A more transparent approach is Slovakia’s pledge to challenge the legality of migration quotas. But attempts at repatriating powers will meet massive resistance from existing members: if every state opted out of the things it disliked, the EU would cease to exist.
The Nuclear Option
Failing these, there is another option which is simply to leave the EU. This may sound far-fetched: despite everything, the EU’s eastern half still gets many benefits from membership, including money, access to the EU’s single market (including its labour market), and seats at the top table. And, except in Slovenia and Croatia, electorates everywhere resoundingly support continued membership of the EU.
However, things can change. It is not so clear any more that the EU is really working in the interests of the East. Opinion polls in the region certainly suggest people are having their doubts. And some groups are becoming overtly hostile. In Slovakia, protestors against migration burnt the EU flag. In the 24 hours after the summit two weeks ago, over 50,000 Czechs signed a petition calling for withdrawal from the EU.
If the EU continues to lurch from crisis to crisis and the powerful states continue to strong-arm the weak with threats of diplomatic isolation, infractions, fines and even sanctions, peoples across Eastern Europe will inevitably start to re-appraise the balance of costs and benefits. Somewhere, an anti-EU party will make it into government.
In this context, it’s worth reflecting on how the last two major supranational entities in Europe, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, both collapsed. In each case, the problem was not that their members wanted this to happen – on the contrary, most feared life outside the union. The problem was that they reached a point of intractable crisis that left no one satisfied but no one could agree how to move forward.
As a result, individual states unilaterally sought their own solutions, a process which could only be contained by the dominant state (Russia and Serbia, respectively) wielding power ever more autocratically. When the second largest states – Ukraine and Croatia – eventually quit, the others were left in a dangerously asymmetrical relationship with the dominant power. In short order, they too declared their independence.
The End of the Affair
Like the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, the EU faces a crisis without an obvious solution. It has taken on responsibility for matters for which there is no European consensus and, in conditions of crisis, can only operate as an authoritarian construct. In recent weeks, member states have started to reassert control over key areas of policy, namely asylum and borders. Meanwhile, opinion polls in Britain are swinging towards Brexit in 2016 or 2017.
All this bodes for a deepening of Europe’s crisis which Germany, as the dominant state with the greatest investment in the EU, will be forced to manage. Historical precedent, and the evidence of recent months, suggests it will resort to intimidation to do so. In this new reality, don’t be surprised if some Eastern Europeans find their solidarity lacking and instead head for the exit.