German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks at the German Christian Democrat Party convention in Leipzig, Germany, Nov. 14, 2011. She said the European Union must be strengthened to overcome the bloc's debt crisis.
"A Rethink for Europe"
Op-Ed, Boston Globe
November 17, 2011
Author: Juliette Kayyem, Lecturer in Public Policy
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
By reducing its ambitions, EU may save itself — but lose a key role
ET TU, Sarkozy? In the midst of the near financial ruin in Greece and Italy, French President Nicolas Sarkozy wondered last week whether the whole idea of one Europe needed a rethink. What he had in mind, first and foremost, was the euro, and whether any country should still be admitted into the euro zone. But there has long been more to the European Union than currency; it was never only about the money.
From its beginnings in the late 1950s, the EU has been a powerful promoter of stability and democracy in the region and the world. America has no monopoly on that effort. But now, as the EU turns inward in a bid to save the economies of its original members, its influence will weaken — like the euro itself.
Initially, with Europe exhausted by two world wars, fascism, totalitarianism, and the threat of communism, the EU helped to keep the peace. While combining the coal and steel communities in Germany and France served economic interests, the treaty that brought them together was always about more than dollars and cents. After all, no war could be fought, and no army could be armed, without independent access to mines and steel. Continental Europe tied its own hands to avoid slaughter in the future.
The EU played the same role even after the memory of World War II began to fade. When Spain, Portugal, and Greece moved from dictatorships to democracies, the EU helped ease those transitions by bringing each one into its fold. Once the Soviet Union fell, the EU opened its doors yet again. In 2004 alone, Hungary, Estonia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Poland, Malta, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, and Romania all joined the party. Following in that same democratizing tradition, the EU embarked on an ambitious European Neighborhood Policy in response to the Arab Spring, to promote "deep and sustainable democracy" in North Africa and the Middle East.
The European Union was, in other words, both carrot and stick. It had a disciplining effect on member nations. And it used membership or economic support as a magnet to lure nonmember nations toward the ideals of liberal democracy its original members embraced.
Nowhere was this more obvious than in Turkey, where the siren call of EU membership was especially powerful. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's economic and political transformations in 2004 were mostly intended as a dress rehearsal for EU membership.
But the EU's openness clearly had limits; it kept moving the goal posts for its newest applicant and ultimately rejected Turkey's advances. In response to the financial crisis, the EU's leaders are talking about a more exclusive formation, ending the political dream of stability through expansion. There is no longer any mention of new members, especially ones that are less European than the original founders; if Turkey finds companionship, it will be with less democratic neighbors.
The new austerity in Europe also means emerging Arab democracies will get little from the EU. Worse, the EU's well-known elitism is galvanizing the rise of new populist parties. Anti-globalization, anti-immigrant, and anti-elite, they are also anti-EU. The Netherlands' Freedom Party, France’s National Front, the True Finns, and the Danish People’s Party combine racism and nationalism in a perfect antidote to Europeanism.
Still, the EU is unlikely to disintegrate. The continent has, after all, been relatively peaceful since World War II. The EU may become smaller and more rigidly structured, as Sarkozy envisions. And by doing so it may save itself.
But a certain idea of the EU will be gone. The latest sovereign-debt ratings and the details of the latest austerity package matter, but they only capture part of the drama in Europe. Even if the EU survives this fiscal crisis, it will be some time until it has the bandwidth or credibility to play the galvanizing role for the many countries now transitioning to democracy.
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