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 www.strategikos.it