Goodbye Juncker!

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As Britain frets over its exit from the European Union and all the benefits it offers us, the following thought occurs to me: is Britain just a rat abandoning a sinking ship in the shape of the EU? Yes, I admit, this thought is far-fetched; nonetheless, the way in which Communism in Eastern Europe capitulated in the late 1980s and early 1990s was equally inconceivable until it happened. Undeniably the situations of the EU bloc and the bloc that was Eastern Europe are very different but, interestingly, there are some surprising similarities.

When the European Union was founded, its primary aim was to make ‘war unthinkable and materially impossible’. However, although noble in its aims, it did not necessarily think through the mechanisms for achieving them. Notably, the USSR and Britain were not in the original European Coal and Steel Community meaning two of the main participants in the last two world wars were not in this organisation to create peace. Therefore, even though this new organisation was ideologically respectable, it was pragmatically flawed. This statement could certainly be applied to the original template that Communism in Eastern Europe was supposed to be built on, Marxism: whilst impressive in striving for equality, its ideas for reaching this state were far from convincing.

However, even though the EU began with dubious foundations, as was the case with Eastern Europe, it is not possible to predict the failing of the EU from this alone, especially considering these foundations have been much strengthened since their genesis in 1951. Nevertheless, the question remains: have the reforms to the EU’s structure been rapid enough to convince current members that it is a worthwhile influence – something that the USSR was not able to do, making its ending as a global hegemon inevitable.

Given surrounding context, the answer to the above would be an unequivocal no. The EU’s four biggest economies are all experiencing a rising Eurosceptic right wing: Germany’s far-right AfD party are the third largest party in the country; UKIP’s pressure helped push Britain to Brexit; France’s second most popular candidate in the 2017 Presidential election was Le Pen, a staunch Eurosceptic; whilst Conte and Salvini’s government is currently at an impasse with the EU over the Italian budget. Consequently, it is impossible to deny that there is significant discontent across EU countries.

Of course, it is also impossible to say that disillusionment is at the same levels as it was across Eastern Europe throughout Communist rule. After all, the heights of the Prague Spring of 1968 or Lech Walesa’s Solidarity are far from being reached. Nevertheless, protest across the EU block is still rife, whether that be the ‘gilets jaunes’ in France or those campaigning against the hugely controversial figure of Viktor Orbán in Hungary.

Interestingly, Macron, against whom the current protests in France are aimed, came in with lofty ideas to revolutionise the EU to the extent where the euro had a budget and the EU an army, changes perhaps facilitated by a Europe wide ‘En Marche’. However, given some of his original stardom and bravado has now worn off, Macron must now contend with pressing domestic matters before making any meaningful reforms in wider Europe. Further, given the Germans do not seem to be pushing to relinquish their dominant position in Europe and Britain abandoning the EU altogether, the EU seems to be lacking a spark and is at risk of stagnating.

What is worse, however, is the idea that the EU might even be regressing. Currently, Orban is flouting democratic norms in his creation of an ‘illiberal democracy’. Yes, the EU has been trying to do something about it. However, its efforts have been ineffectual, allowing Hungary to make a mockery of Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty which requires ‘all EU countries respect the values of the EU’. In the 1980s, Gorbachev rolled out his policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), two steps which helped to form a snowball effect that wiped out Communism in Eastern Europe almost entirely by the end of 1990. Therefore, do not underestimate the significance that giving a light hand to Hungary might have.

From events in Hungary, it is also possible to observe that the tactics, or lack of, being used by the EU. Currently, the EU seems to lack a coherent policy when it comes to dealing with crises, instead firefighting each event as it occurs. This trend can be seen throughout the EU’s past, such as when the EU enforced migrant quotas on member countries in 2015 or the recent controversy regarding Italy’s budget, a situation that is about to become much more complex given France is now also going to breach the 3% deficit threshold.

The USSR took a similar approach to the EU in solving problems as they came, as proven by rash actions, such as in the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. Throughout Communist reign, it seemed maintaining Communist influence was more important than allowing countries following their doctrine to see the benefits of their system through enduring and consistent policy. As a result, the eventual implosion of the system in Eastern Europe was sudden and dramatic, exacerbated through years of enforcing central doctrine backed up by the threat of force. There are certain similarities in the way the EU papers over issues of concern at a national level or enforces it through central diktat (such as with the Italian budget) and the worry must be that the national tension this causes will also burst out in a sudden and dramatic way.

Yes, I know, the merest suggestion of a collapse of the EU might seem stupid, yet I believe that it is pertinent to remember that when such a dramatic event occurs, it usually involves a sudden and unforeseeable change in trajectory. Notably, in East Germany, the wall suddenly changed from a seemingly immovable object to a piece of history following a completely unpredictable mistake by Günter Schabowski as he answered a reporter’s question. Who knows where the world would be now had it not been for that one simple error? This idea can be widely applied – the Arab Spring is still fresh in the memory.

As a result, it is impossible to disregard anything as a possibility regarding the EU’s future. Is a collapse unlikely? Absolutely. Is it out of the question? Not at all.