Is the European Union On The Edge Of A Civil War? – Analysis


The last decade has been a difficult one for the European Union. In the wake of the 2009 debt crisis, much debate has arisen around its nature, its powers, its governance and its policies. The situation got only worse when the migrant inflow boomed in 2015, triggering a EU-level crisis. In this strained socio-economic context, diverging views on the EU as a polity have emerged at the political level both inside the single member states and inside the organization’s institutions.

Recently, two events have revived once more the debate. The first is the re-election of Viktor Orbán, a prominent conservative and Eurosceptic politician, as Prime Minister of Hungary. The second is the statement by France’s President Emmanuel Macron that the EU is facing a “civil war” on its fundamental values resulting from different opinions between its Western and Central-Eastern members.

This affirmation seems exaggerated, at least at a first glance. But in such a turbulent political context, it raises a legitimate question: is the EU on the edge of a civil war?

To answer this question, the first thing to do is determining in which conditions a civil war does start. Essentially, this happens when two or more socio-political groups belonging to the same political entity disagree on the existing and/or future institutional order; and, being unable or unwilling to peacefully find a compromise through the existing institutional mechanisms, opt for armed conflict to impose their view and determine who will (re)shape the existing order by the use of coercion. Usually, a civil war opposes one group fighting to preserve the standing institutional framework (along with the prerogatives it enjoys thanks to it) and another group who wants to dismantle it (and set up a new order more favorable to its interests).

That said, history is full of examples of civil wars; from those which paved the way to the end of the Roman Republic centuries ago to the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen. But one is particularly significant due to its similarities with the situation the EU is facing today: the American Civil War.

The US Civil War, also known as War of Secession, was an armed conflict that split the United States between 1861 and 1865. The contenders where two: one was the Union (the North), formed by states that remained loyal to the government of the United States; and the other was the Confederacy (the South), made up of states which seceded from the US and form a separate political entity known as the Confederate States of America (CSA). Usually, this war is portrayed as a fight over the issue of slavery, with the Union supporting its abolishment and the Confederacy favorable to its preservation. But even though slavery was indeed a central issue in sparking the conflict, the situation was far more complex than a clear-cut black-vs-white clash between conservative and progressist ideals. As a matter of fact, there were also major political, juridical-institutional and economic factors linked to the debate over slavery and human rights.

To understand this, it is necessary to perform a rapid historical overview on the prelude to the conflict. After being recognized as a sovereign polity by the Paris Treaty that officially ended the War of Independence in 1783, the United States began developing and expanding to the West. Rapidly, new states were founded and admitted to the Union. But the economic outlook of the member states started diverging: those located in the North embraced industrialization, whereas the states in the South remained essentially agricultural. There, rich landlords owned vast plantations, and exploited a large workforce of black slaves to work them. With time, this North-South gap became more and more marked, and it ultimately assumed a political dimension as well.

As a matter of fact, the Northern states needed cheap manpower to sustain their rapid industrialization. The mass of black slaves living in the South was the ideal solution, but it was impossible to hire them since they were a private property of the Southern landowners. Consequently, the North states started calling for slavery to be abolished, provoking the firm opposition of the Southerners who needed slaves to cultivate the plantations that were the base of their local economy.

Besides, the two sides also diverged over trade policies: the North wanted protectionist measures to shelter its developing industry, while the South supported free trade as a mean to continue exporting its agricultural products abroad. This led to an intense constitutional debate over slavery, and ultimately over the power of the federal government to introduce and enforce legislation on the matter all over the US territory.

Again, the opinion diverged between the North and the South: essentially, the former claimed the central government had this authority, whereas the latter considered this as a violation of the constitutional limitations on the powers of the federal institutions. So, the debate took a dimension that went beyond the issue of slavery and focused on the nature of the US as a polity. The Union favored a strong central government having large powers, while the Confederates defended the rights and prerogatives of the single member states. The combination of all these factors finally led them to secede from the US in 1861 and form an alternative polity, the Confederate States of America (CSA). The name itself is significant, as it reveals the different way these states interpreted the Constitution and conceived America as a political entity: they wanted a Confederation, so a polity granting more powers to the member states; in contrast to a Federation where the central authorities have larger constitutional competences.

Now, there are striking similarities between the situation of the US before the Civil War and that of the EU today. The latter has also expanded during the previous decades by admitting new member states, with the most important “enlargement wave” taking place in 2004 with Central and Eastern European countries; and the most recent new member being Croatia, which joined the organization in 2013. Again, similarly to America at the eve of the Civil War, the EU is also facing an intense debate over human rights that has greater economic, political and “constitutional” implications (there is not a proper EU Constitution, but the general sense of the term is still applicable to the Treaties at the base of the EU). In this context, two camps are identifiable, the complexity of reality notwithstanding.

As I argued in another article, one is formed by the original (or at least more ancient) members of the EU, concentrated in Western Europe; while the other includes the more recent ones, located in the Central-Eastern part of the continent and whose core is made of the four countries forming the Visegrád Group (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia; known also as V4).

The starting point to understand the divergence between these two “factions” is the migration crisis. As a matter of fact, the former group is demanding the Central-Eastern partners to accept a larger share of migrants. But the Visegrád states oppose these requests. As in the 1850s America, the issue is not merely humanitarian, since there are economic and political reasons behind the respective positions. Countries like Italy, Greece and others (including France and Germany to some degree) worry that the migrant flow will put their socio-economic order under stress and that it may hamper the sluggish recovery from the recent debt crisis.

In contrast, the V4 and other states oppose such policies of migrant redistribution because they may slow down their ongoing economic development. But the divergence is also a matter of past experiences. Western countries have a long tradition of immigration from abroad (often as a consequences of their colonial past) and their societies are more used to the presence of foreigners; thus explaining their softer stance on immigration. This is not the case of Central-Eastern European states, that therefore prefer stricter measures in regard to immigration.

Finally, similarly to America before the civil war, the current debate in the EU also has a prominent institutional dimension. This can be explained from a historical perspective. Countries from the Western part of the continent took their current form as a result of a centralization process, which makes them more willing to accept devolving parts of their sovereignty to a supranational entity like the EU. That is why (in spite of mounting Eurosceptic forces) they remain favorable to further European integration; especially in the case of France, that appears willing to become the driver of deeper integration through devolving more powers to supranational institutions and by crating a true fiscal union (even though this met resistance from Germany).

On the contrary, the Visegrád states and those aligned with them oppose strengthening the powers of the EU institutions and want to preserve their fundamental sovereign rights. The reason lies in their past: these countries arose after the collapse of larger multinational polities affected by severe institutional deficiencies, and also had a long history of foreign domination and meddling which ended only in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union. As a result, they see the EU as another cumbersome supranational entity that will put them in a subordinate position and are therefore unwilling to devolve more powers to it.

This underlying contrast over the powers of European institutions is the most important aspect in the current debate, because it will have direct repercussion over the future of the EU. Now, the problem is that, while opinions are discordant among the member states; the complex institutional mechanisms of the EU do not facilitate the search for a compromise. Introducing deep changes (both in the sense of increased integration and of more protection of the states’ sovereignty) requires a revision of the Treaties that form the bloc’s “constitution”; but this demands in turn a long and multi-stage procedure where reaching a consensus is hard and where a single “wrong” step can block the entire process (think of the French and Dutch referenda that sunk the proposed Constitutional Treaty in 2005). Considering that the divergences are growing, finding a common agreement over the EU, its powers and its values may be impossible; and this could lead to an institutional stalemate.

And what then? Will the EU plunge into civil war as the US did in the past?

Not necessarily. Modern-day European states and their societies are strongly averse to war, which is already a huge safeguard against extreme solutions. And if it is true that European powers have been fighting themselves for centuries, it is also true that the EU was established after the trauma of WWII also as a mean to put a definitive end to that continuous bloodshed. Moreover, in spite of its slowness and difficulties, the EU proved capable to adapt and preserve itself during the past. In more cynic terms, since the EU is not a state, even if one or more of its members decided to unilaterally “secede”, it would not have its own military means to enforce its rule and re-bring them in as the Union eventually did with the Confederates in 1865. Finally, this scenario is unlikely for the simple fact that the Treaty on the European Union (Art. 50) contains provisions allowing a member state to withdraw; as the United Kingdom decided to do after the 2016 vote on Brexit.

But it is exactly a mass Brexit-like scenario what can raise concerns over the long-term tenure of the EU. A full-scale civil war seems unlikely (unless the international situation becomes so severely deteriorated in economic and political terms to bring states to the point of using war to secure their interests); but if the existing divergences continue to mount and no solution is reached, then it is still possible that some member states (most likely the V4 ones) will decide to leave the EU. The consequences are difficult to predict, ranging from an easier path to greater integration between the remaining like-minded members to a dissolution of the organization. In any case, the EU would be weakened at the international level, possibly leaving room for alternative blocs. All this would bring uncertainty in political and economic terms, and (especially if the EU were dismantled), it would certainly be a turning point in European History, as the Civil War was in America’s.

*Alessandro Gagaridis is an independent International Relations analyst and owner of the website

3 thoughts on “Is the European Union On The Edge Of A Civil War? – Analysis

  • June 4, 2018 at 7:24 pm

    Greetings Ron,
    First of all, thank you for you compliments. I am really glad you appreciated the article and that you are sharing your opinions with me. It is always good to have a feedback.
    For the rest, I see your point that the next conflict will also have a major ideological dimension and will not simply be nation-based. If I did not explore it here, is basically because it was not the main point I wanted to highlight: what interested me was to make a provocative historical and institutional comparison enabling to examine the EU’s current situation; moreover (in spite of my “completism syndrome”) I could not raise all the points of the issue, otherwise I would have had to write an essay.
    But still, I agree with you in the tensions between pro-integration/globalization/multiculturalism forces and those who oppose this. This will surely be a major driver in the 21st century politics in Europe and elsewhere. Maybe I did not stress that aspect as others, but I never said that the conflict will be strictly among states either. I focused on them because they are the main actors in the EU politics, but societies also play a fundamental role and it is absolutely reasonable to expect that an hypothetic conflict will provoke deeper divides, with elements of (what was) the same society fighting against others. After all, this was the case of the US Civil War, as well as with the English one (another very fascinating topic for a comparison, as it was a struggle with political, institutional, religious and national implications) and in many other intra-state conflicts. Similarly, there will also be a huge discourse-linked dimension as each side will try to present the other negatively: this is typical of every war (and to some extent we are already seeing it in Europe, with politicians and media labelling those who oppose further integration as “nationalists” etc.)
    So, I think your observations are compatible with my article; and maybe I will also explore these aspects in the future.
    Have a nice day, and check my website for more material from me!

  • June 14, 2018 at 3:38 am

    Alessandro, I salute you, well-written article. Ron’s reply and your response to it added depth, appreciated. Please allow me to share my two cents. Imho more pressing challenges are facing EU that are unrelated to civil war characteristics. First one: negative public opinion towards EU and general disdain of it’s working. When looking at the negative public opinion toward EU in The Netherlands for example, most people only have limited view to EU and its achievements. Yes, money is lost in translation into 10+ languages and in commuting to Straatsburg. Yes, EU should refrain from making rules about the maximum Watts my vacuum cleaner is allowed to have. But ultimately, the goal of EU (predecessors) has been achieved until this very day. A territorial war in Europe in which France and Germany would face eachother again on the battlefield has been avoided. Second challenge: nations (threatening) to leave EU. In the ‘glory days’ of the Cold War, Western European nations and USA promised Eastern European countries assistance if they would leave Mother Russian sphere of influence. But after the in retrospect unavoidable implosion of Communism and the Red Army threat, Western European nations and USA were not ready to step up and share wealth with Eastern European ‘comrades’. Petty 19th century like barriers were raised to prevent having to keep their promiss. But Eastern European nations were jumping through all hoops in order to be allowed to join. And maybe cheated the rules, which I don’t really mind from a personal point of view since the rules were unfair to start with anyway. I think EU as an entity can survive nations leaving, though leaving of Founding Father nations (Italy for example) would scar the image of EU forever. If GB wishes to chicken out, be my guest I say. Feel free to bring economic disaster to your inhabitants, but don’t come crying to EU afterwards. EU will forgive all its rebelling children but conditions to re-join will be harsh. Economic strong countries like The Netherlands, Germany and even rural France that fails to embrace English to facilitate communication, will not suffer from other members leaving. But a great opportunity to gain international power and potentially world domination by 26 nations speaking with one voice is lost when national interest comes first. It takes guts and a firm spine to transcend national interest .. in order to serve national interest. The bright future of EU: on of the spheres in which EU still has growing potential is international justice. When working together, international criminal elements can be crushed or at least minimalised. Another sphere is an European joint army. It’s possible, I am certain of it. Already The Netherlands and Germany are practicing drills together using German tanks. (The Netherlands sold most of it’s own tanks to finance leftish hobbies in the past decades.) Traditional armies are less and less necessary on the European continent anyway, since the next big war will be a digital one involving EMP weapons to effectively shut down entire countries.

    • July 6, 2018 at 9:48 pm

      Greetings Paul,

      I largely agree with the points you make.
      As I wrote, I also consider it unlikely that a full-fledged “civil war” will bring the EU to an end. But as you note, the EU is facing considerable challenges that puts its survival in peril: (energy) relations with Russia, immigration from extra-EU countries, (the lack of) common economic policies, etc. In the background, there is always the chronic disagreement among its member states, derived from the continued pursuit of national interest in its traditional / strict sense instead of accepting stronger common institution for the common good. Practically every state is responsible for that to same degree. And while some praise the “multi-speed” Europe, I think that in the long term it will cause problems, as a group cannot maintain its cohesion if its members march at a different pace…

      So, I think that such challenges can bring, if not a “civil war”, at least a dissolution of the EU. Yes, the Union can survive some members leaving (but somehow it will suffer, in my opinion) and showing its capability to adapt and manage the withdrawal can also be a sign of institutional strength (we may now discuss on whether the Brexit is being properly handled or not in this sense). But what if other members decide to leave? Great Britain was not a founding state and always had a complicated relationship with the EU (and I also believe it will repent for leaving), but what if France or especially Italy decided to leave?

      The basic problem in this sense (as you also pointed out) is that public support for the EU among Europeans is declining more and more, and this comes together with a widespread ignorance of what the EU is and does, in a context of a heavily-politicized (and therefore subjective) public debate that creates wrong perceptions of the Union. If this trend continues, and I am afraid it will considering the current context and the foreseeable future, then the unity of the bloc will be threatened, since popular opposition to the EU will be the driver to the exit of member states, no matter if leaving is actually convenient or not.

      And I fully share your opinion that “It takes guts and a firm spine to transcend national interest .. in order to serve national interest”. This quote should be marked with fire at the entrance of the EU institutions buildings. But again, it seems that Europeans do not (want to) understand this. True, there is still lot of margin for improvement and for creating deeper integration, which as you noted would turn the EU in a major world power: first, creating a full EU-level common economic policy (encompassing a single “federal” EU budget, a central fiscal policy etc.); but also justice, intelligence-gathering, foreign policy, and possibly defence (this is the only point where I do not agree with you: creating a common army would be useful, but it is very challenging for economic, technical and political reasons and the current context does not make it easier). But once more, the EU citizens and by consequence the member states are unwilling to go in that direction. On the contrary, they seem to oppose it more and more; and this makes me doubt of the long-term tenure of the EU. Time will tell what will happen, but I am not optimistic on this.


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