EU Tumbles as Tensions Rise, Russo-Ukraine Peace Talks Optimism Fades
The European Union is on shaky ground as a result of a combination of factors, including Britain’s decision to leave the European bloc and an increasingly nationalist and xenophobic political climate in some member states.
One of the most worrisome developments for the EU in recent months has been the increasingly tense relationship between Russia and some of the bloc’s member states, including the Baltic states. The ongoing conflicts in eastern Ukraine and Syria have exposed rifts between the EU and its eastern neighbors. Both the EU and Russia have military forces stationed in the Baltic states and have criticized NATO’s presence there. The situation has gotten so tense that the Russian military tapped its nuclear arsenal as a threat in April if the alliance attempted to invade.
The crisis that has enveloped the EU since the summer of 2011, when the debt crisis in Greece threatened the single currency, has revealed deep rifts within the bloc. Some member states, such as Germany and France, wanted strong action from the EU to deal with the crisis. Others, including the Baltic states and the Netherlands, were reluctant to risk economic catastrophe by intervening.
The financial crisis has also highlighted the limits of the EU’s institutional setup. The eurozone’s architecture, with its dependence on financial support from the International Monetary Fund and other external actors, revealed serious flaws in the EU’s approach to managing economic and financial crises.
Anti-EU Parties Make Gains
The financial crisis has led some to conclude that the EU is working, and that its only problem is that it is not working fast enough. But the crisis has also exposed deep-seated problems with the EU’s approach and legitimacy. As the EU has pushed forward with reforms, many citizens and political leaders have viewed these as an unduly burdensome coercion of the national governments.
By 2015, a record number of citizens across the EU had lost confidence in their leaders, the EU itself, and the single currency. Support for the EU began to fall in France and Italy in the 2000s, but the financial crisis proved to be the catalyst for widespread disillusionment with the EU.
In May, the National Front, along with its anti-immigrant, anti-EU party allies, made major gains in local elections in France. The party’s leader, Marine Le Pen, who has called for France to exit the EU and the eurozone, was emphatic about the reasons for her party’s success: “Above all, it’s the people who have lost all hope in the EU, and who see outside it only the return of Fortress Europe.”
Britain’s Vote to Leave the EU
Britain’s decision in June to leave the EU, or Brexit, has also upended the bloc. While most observers expected the country to leave eventually, the speed and manner in which the decision was made has thrown the EU’s institutions into disarray. Britain’s democratic decision to withdraw from the EU has exposed deep fissures in the bloc and has led many to question the wisdom of the EU’s approach to Brexit.
The decision has had an immediate and dramatic impact on the British economy, which is currently in the midst of a crisis of its own. The British currency, the pound, has plummeted in value, and other financial markets are adjusting slowly to the new reality.
While various EU institutions scramble to respond, Britain has begun the process of withdrawing from the EU. This includes the negotiations between the United Kingdom and the EU, and the terms on which Britain will depart.
Brexit: A Shock to the System
Britain’s decision to leave has sent shockwaves through EU and international politics. European leaders have said they will not renegotiate the terms of Britain’s departure, but will attempt to negotiate a “soft” or “fairer” exit for the country.
The immediate concern is with the British economy. While it accounts for only 5% of the EU’s gross domestic product, the financial markets had relied on London as a safe haven for investments. Britain is the largest financial services center in Europe, and the departure of its biggest investor and financial services hub poses a significant challenge to other EU member states.
There are also concerns about the long-term effects of a British exit on the EU’s cohesion and viability. Britain has been an active and passionate promoter of European unity, and many fear that its departure will cause significant rifts within the bloc.
The Rise of Populist Parties
The rise of anti-EU parties, and the populists’ success in Britain’s EU referendum, has led many to question the relevance of the EU itself. The populists have made the argument that the EU is a flawed institution, whose members have been taken advantage of by Brussels bureaucrats, and that it should be replaced with a “stronger” EU.
Both the National Front and the UK Independence Party, which led the charge for Britain to leave the EU, have used similar rhetoric. While some of the populists’ agendas may be limited to the need for “more Europe,” others have called for a “better” or “real” Europe that would take into consideration the national peculiarities of its member states.
Ukraine Crisis: From Ceasefire to Retreat
The most serious challenge to the EU in recent months has been the conflict in eastern Ukraine. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and fomented a separatist rebellion in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk. The EU, along with the United States and NATO, imposed sanctions on Russia for annexing Crimea and for its support for the separatists.
The sanctions, along with Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea, have dealt a serious blow to the EU’s already tenuous credibility on the world stage. Russia has denied allegations that it is supporting the separatists, but has also made it clear that it expects the sanctions to be lifted once its concerns about the conflict in eastern Ukraine are addressed.
By February of this year, the Minsk agreements, which were supposed to implement a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, had all but collapsed. Fighting between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian separatists continued, with both sides reporting breaches of the ceasefire almost daily.
Syrian Civil War: A Destabilizing Force
The combination of the war in Ukraine, Russian military unease with NATO activity near its borders, and the fallout from the British vote to leave the EU has led some experts to conclude that the EU is “on the verge of collapse.” The EU has managed to survive many crises over the decades, but observers worry that the bloc may not be able to withstand this latest onslaught.
The nature of the EU’s crisis has been highlighted by the war in Syria. The civil war in Syria and the growing conflict with Russia have placed the EU in an impossible and self-destructive position. The EU has been at the forefront of efforts to impose a sanctions regime on Syria, and has even militarily intervened in the conflict on the side of certain rebel groups. But this has brought the bloc into direct confrontation with Russia, which has supplied weapons to the Assad regime.
The EU is currently experiencing one of its most challenging periods in its history. The British decision to leave the EU and the bloc’s handling of the situation has cast a shadow over the European experiment. The EU is facing several crises at once, from migration to the economic and financial, and from the geopolitical to the cultural.
It is not out of the question that the EU will collapse under the weight of its crises. But it is important to look at the bloc’s history to appreciate just how important it has been to global and European affairs, and to see if the EU can survive and thrive in the years to come.