By Harsh V. Pant
Western Europe was supposed to have transcended history. A region where nations were happy to surrender their sovereignty to supranational authority in Brussels and the leadership was busy fixing the problems in other parts of the world. Liberal democracy was supposedly at its most perfect and free market capitalism was the guiding mantra of an elite which had no time for superficialities like nationalism. Berating other nations for showcasing their primal instincts and insisting that they follow a rigorous regime on human rights and environmental standards was the favourite pastime of the leadership. Ensconced in the American security umbrella, Western Europe was vocal about the need for reducing defence expenditure. National security was deemed was all about human security as physical borders hardly mattered in the age of the Schengen visa regime.
Today’s crisis in Europe is a reminder that international politics remains a Hobbesian world which even Western Europe has found difficult to overcome. The region is in turmoil the like of which the world has not seen since the end of the Second World War.
Britain is struggling to define its role in Europe with Brexit hardly a done deal. British Prime Minister Theresa May is moving from one crisis to the next with an agility that should prompt respect even among her detractors. She won a vote of confidence in her leadership of the Conservative Party this week but more than a third of her own MPs voted against her, severely weakening her position. To save her leadership, in a last-minute pitch to her MPs before the vote Ms May promised to stand down as leader before the next scheduled election in 2022. But Ms May still faces a battle to get her Brexit deal through the UK parliament, with all opposition parties and dozens of her own MPs against it. Many Brexiteers object to the insurance policy aimed at preventing a hard border on the island of Ireland, known as the backstop, which would be difficult for the UK to unilaterally exit.
France is reeling from four weekends of violent protests against fuel tax rises, living costs and other issues. The so called yellow-vest movement, the name adopted after a social-media campaign urging people to take to the streets wearing the high-visibility yellow jackets that must be carried in every vehicle in France. The movement’s core aim, to highlight the economic frustration and political distrust of poorer working families, has widespread support. And under pressure, France’s President Emmanuel Macron was forced to promise a minimum wage rise and tax concessions in response to weeks of violent protests.
Macron was once the leader who was supposed to succeed the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, as the voice of the European Union.
But Macron’s credibility is shrinking fast in France and Ms Merkel has announced her retirement. Her likely successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, is an unknown figure outside Germany and her ability to tackle difficult pan European problems is not quite clear.
Populism is tearing apart the traditional understanding between Brussels and European states, as exemplified by the ongoing tussle between Italy and the EU. Italy’s governing populist parties have vowed to push ahead with campaign promises, including a minimum income for the unemployed. With this, Italy has put itself on a collision course with the EU, taking the eurozone into uncharted waters. In an unprecedented move with regard to an EU member state, the European Commission has asked Italy to revise its budget.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has proposed to cut the deficit target to 2.04 per cent of output for next year in a significant concession to the European Commission, but it is still not enough to satisfy Brussels.
Far right political parties are gaining strength with mainstream political parties unable to manage the growing popular anger over issues of migration, Islam and identity. The attacks on democratic institutions in Poland and Hungary have also put EU’s democratic foundations at serious risk. Despite their differing priorities, Poland and Hungary have built an “illiberal” alliance to defend the few positions on European integration they share, and to resist what they perceive as EU’s and member states’ illegitimate interference in their internal affairs. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Poland’s de facto leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, would like the EU to be only a community of sovereign states that share a common market, a position they share with Britain.
The European dream is facing a crisis which the present European leadership is unable to articulate, leave alone tackle, effectively. This is also happening at a time when the US under the Donald Trump administration is re-evaluating the basic tenets of the Trans-Atlantic partnership. And the geopolitical and geoeconomic challenge from Russia and China is rising by the day. Not surprisingly, sovereignty is back in business and the facade of Brussels is slipping.
This article originally appeared in Business Standard.
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