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EU's unending struggles

European Union has never been a coherent enough polity to deal with its problems immediately and directly

Business Standard Editorial Comment  |  New Delhi 

Last week, the leaders of the European Union (EU) met in Brussels for a two-day summit where outward bonhomie masked considerable internal tension. Unlike in previous meetings, southern European debt did not dominate the discussions. The meeting was, after all, held in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris in November, one of the largest such attacks on a European city. But, even aside from terrorism and financial crisis, the list of issues that must concern European leaders is long. Russian President Vladimir Putin's expansionism in Europe's south-eastern fringes; the fast-approaching referendum in Britain on whether it should exit the Union; the millions of refugees fleeing conflict zones in West Asia and North Africa; and what Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has called a tide of populism among the continent's voters, who are increasingly flocking to xenophobic hyper-nationalist parties. And, of course, the very idea of the euro - though no longer under threat - continues to be questioned. Some countries are close to discovering that a majority wants to leave the euro - a survey in Finland, which has suffered three successive years of economic contraction, showed 44 per cent of Finns thought the country would do better outside the euro.

The European Union has never been a coherent enough polity to deal with these problems immediately and directly. Instead, it has traditionally chosen a series of short-term solutions - what British historian, Timothy Garton Ash, quoting the German newspaper Der Spiegel, calls "the philosophy of muddling through". Thus the troubles with Greece's finances were never solved solidly and at one go, but instead addressed through a sequence of actions, each of which was incomplete in itself. The troubles it faces today are no less pressing. For one, the flood of refugees from West Asia needs to be dealt with. Germany, under Chancellor Angela Merkel, has taken the moral high ground; France, although still reeling from the Paris attacks which many link to the refugee crisis, has also said it will take its share of refugees. But other countries baulk. Greece and Italy, in particular, are the first ports of call for refugees in the EU, and can correctly demand assistance. Barely two of 11 proposed reception centres for migrants have been created so far, and only 200 refugees have been relocated. One of the unmitigated European success stories, therefore, the Schengen visa and Customs union, is now under threat, thanks to renewed concern about the social and security-related consequences of the refugee influx. Several countries have temporarily reinstated partial border inspections, something permitted under the Schengen Border Code.

It is far from certain what Europe's path from here is. Certainly, much depends on the outcome of the British referendum. Even if "Brexit" does not happen, however, it is likely that change will come to the European Union. And the concern, given the nationalistic mood prevailing in many countries, will surely be that the grand European experiment could fail. Certainly, further integration seems the last thing on anyone's mind. But hasty judgment is dangerous. One of the things the EU's leaders agreed on in Brussels was for a deadline on which to agree how to upgrade and properly arm its hitherto small unified border control force, with the "right to intervene" in countries that appeared "overwhelmed". This does not sound like less Europe, but more.

First Published: Tue, December 22 2015. 21:31 IST