The European Union as we understand it today was birthed in 1992 with the enacting of the Treaty of Maastricht. Of course, the EU existed in some form going back to the 1950’s with the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). However, as time progressed, the intellectuals who supported the ECSC envisioned a much wider union not unlike the transcontinental political system that unified the fifty states of America into a single political entity. Thus, the so-called “Eurocrats” supported a United States of Europe concept. Whereas the ECSC was a pretty straightforward free trade alignment, the budding EU would be a customs union predicated on economic, political, and social alignment.
Of course, these stirrings for a United States of Europe can be traced back to the heady days of the Cold War. After having been decimated by two world wars, the Europeans were depleted and looking for a new way forward. Torn between the totalitarianism of Communism and the hope of capitalism, the Europeans built a network based on mutual understanding and shared interests. Though the Western European states were protected by the U.S. due to their enmeshment in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the big question that hovered over every Western European leaders’ head was, “Would the United States trade Washington, D.C. or New York for Paris or Brussels?”
Due to this, the Europeans sought a third way between an over reliance on the United States to defend them from the Soviet Union and from becoming simple wards of the Communist bloc. These were the foundations of the EU. When the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed, the chances of a united Europe increased tenfold. This explains why 1992, the year after Communism died in Europe, was the year of the Treaty of Maastricht.
The reasoning behind the initial unity of Europe was simple. It was twofold: economic opportunity coupled with mutual security would ensure Europe’s independence and prevent another world war from breaking out. As we learned throughout the 20th century: Communism (and Fascism, for that matter) marches on empty stomachs. The European experiment was an attempt to keep all stomachs full. The United States, for its part, encouraged European unification.
Yet, the European Union’s promise always exceeded its actual return. While the EU did ultimately build a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) that outstripped most other nations in the world, its unity and political independence was illusory. Yes, the EU broke down national barriers within what’s known as the Schengen Zone. In no way, however, was the EU a free trade agreement. Indeed, it was a customs union with an extremely high external tariff that kept most non-European goods out due to excessive regulation and the high cost of protectionism (so, when Europeans lament the rise of Donald Trump in the U.S. due to his proposed “border tax,” I cannot help but roll my eyes, considering the EU’s entire economy is predicated on high tariffs!).
The EU did not have a common defense policy. Its members still relied on NATO (though virtually all of the European members of the EU woefully underfunded the alliance for years). Part of the attraction of the EU for many of those Eurocrats was that it would deny the United States an increased role in Europe. To be fair, this prospect heartened most American leaders who believed that while the U.S. should maintain a presence in Europe, there was little need for it to perform the outsized role that it had performed during the Cold War. Yet, the EU could never move beyond the theorizing stage of formulating a common defense force. While it is true that the EU has what’s known as “Battle Groups” (specifically, the Nordic and Viségrad Battle Groups), these units are small and under-resourced.
Meanwhile, the political unification of the EU is sketchy. Of course, a supranational governing body exists in Brussels, the capital of the European Union. It passes laws and creates regulations that all other EU members opt to follow. However, that is mostly in the economic realm. The issue of national sovereignty was never resolved. Whereas the United States is a federalist government, the federal union of Europe never came to pass. In 2005, the EU had a chance to vote on the crafting of a constitution and one of its founding members, the recalcitrant France, led the effort to undermine the vote. With the lack of a constitution unifying the individual members of the EU, little headway can be made in fulfilling the Eurocrats’ original goal of creating a “United States of Europe.” The nationalist impulse was too strong, even in Europe, where many assumed nationalism had died in the killing fields of the Second World War. And, while the Treaty of Lisbon signed in 2007 sought to do through treaty what referendum votes in 2005 was unable to do, the Lisbon agreement lacks democratic legitimacy in the eyes of many European opponents to the EU.
The one area of unity was in economics. Unfortunately, even that area has taken a hit. Even before the Great Recession of 2008, the EU was suffering economically. Eurostat, the official polling agency for the EU, estimates that unemployment for the entire EU never dropped below 10% (any economist will tell you that a good economy consists of 5% or less unemployment). By the time that the Great Recession and its subsequent period of stagnant economic recovery began, these negative downward trends were exacerbated. Debt crises, burdensome regulations, oversized national governments, deficit spending, low fertility levels among the native-born population, these factors have all played in the EU economy’s stagnation.
There’s something more also: the EU prided itself on its open borders policy between the EU members. However, no Eurocrat imagined how these policies (which were enacted to make trade easier between EU members) would undermine the already tenuous socio-political unity of the EU. With the refugee crisis emanating from places like Syria, South Sudan, and Yemen (to name just a few countries), scores of people from very different cultures are flooding into Europe. Once these refugees reach European shores in countries like Greece, Turkey, or Italy, they have little difficulty moving between EU members. Once they arrive in the EU, the individual European governments give these refugees generous welfare benefits, thereby further undermining the economic prosperity of Europe. Indeed, there is little doubt that the reduction in economic prosperity, lack of political unity with Brussels, and the negative effects of massive immigration into Europe prompted the Brexit vote in June of 2016.
Meanwhile, neighboring Russia has been on the war path since 2008. Incensed by the expansion of NATO as well as pro-EU sentiments among many countries that once were a part of the Soviet Union (such as Ukraine), President Vladimir Putin has lashed out against Eastern European countries. Historical rivals of Russia in Europe, such as Sweden and Finland, have intensified their own military capabilities, so as to better defend against the Russian bear. Eastern Europe, led by countries such as Poland, are worried that they are going to be next on the Russian hit-list.
Unfortunately, many of the EU’s original founding Western European countries, such as Germany and France, have very productive economic ties with Russia. Indeed, EU-Russian trade accounts for 50% of all EU trade. In fact, as I have noted elsewhere, EU-Russian trade averaged €300 billion a year. That is, until the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent sanctions imposed upon Russia by both the EU and the United States. Since then, EU-Russian trade has been halved and the EU’s economic decline has been exacerbated.
These trends have intensified the ongoing decline of the European Union and fostered the nationalist movements sweeping across the continent. The precarious balance of the EU has been ruined by bad political, economic, and social policies. With the loss of the United Kingdom, the untangling of interests between Western and Eastern European states vis-a-vis Russia, and the destabilizing effects of mass immigration into Europe coupled with low fertility rates, the concept of a united Europe is becoming absurd. While the EU will continue to limp on in some form or another, there is little doubt, at this point, that the EU we all knew is gone. Germany and France are going their own ways. Southern Europe is being left in a morass of debt and economic decline. Meanwhile, Eastern Europe is being left to fend for themselves as Russia turns its ire upon them.
Therefore, America must craft an entirely new policy for dealing with Europe. The days of dealing directly with Brussels, or knowing that the capitals of the European states were in general agreement are over. What’s more, the economic efficacy of NATO is being called into question, the longer that most European states refuse to invest the baseline 2% GDP into the alliance. It cannot be an American show. Europe must make the effort to shore up NATO’s capabilities, if they truly feel threatened by the Russians and value the alliance.
The U.S. needs to start looking at regional battle groups (such as the aforementioned Viségrad and Nordic Battle Groups). It must shore those forces up, since those states are most affected by the recent spate of Russian aggression. Meanwhile, American policymakers need to become accustomed to greater bilateral ties with European states. America must even be willing to play individual European Union members off of each other, as a means of ensuring better deals for itself.
There is little doubt, however, that the EU’s days are numbered and America desperately needs to radically rethink its relationship with the European Union.