A colleague of mine recently asked me to speculate about the various paths the European Union might follow over the next decade and which one(s) I think are more-or-less likely. I think this makes for a good post topic, especially in light of the very troubling developments in the Catalonian/Spanish conflict over the past week.
First, however, I wanted to remind my readers that I already wrote about the European Union prospects 12 years ago, in the last chapter of War and Peace and War. At the end of this post I include the complete fragment dealing with the EU for your info. As you will see, I argue that we can think of the EU as an empire, of a new kind, but still an empire. This means that I can use the insights from my and my colleagues analysis of historical empires to make inferences about the EU. The key question I asked then, but didn’t answer was this: is the core ethnie of the EU, the Germans, willing to sacrifice for the sake of the unified Europe?
I believe that this question has been answered by the Greek crisis, and the answer is, “not any more”. I’ve written in several recent posts about the disintegrative trend that has set in Europe. Parochial interests and narrowing identities, whether they are national or subnational (as in Catalonia’s case), have come to the fore, while the common European interest and identity are losing ground. And that sets the background for my attempt to imagine possible futures for the EU.
Scenario 1. The disintegrative trends that I and others have written about are just a “blip”, a temporary set-back that will be soon overcome. The grand project of European integration will soon recover and by 2027 everybody will look back and have fun at the expense of “doomsayers”. I think that this trajectory is extremely unlikely. First, because of the shift in the social mood of the Germans, to which I referred above. Second, because all across Europe the well-being of large segments of the population is declining. To give just two examples, think of the extraordinary high unemployment rates for the young workers in countries like Spain, and of declining real wages of UK workers over the past decade.
Scenario 2. The EU continues to muddle through. Neither integrative, nor disintegrative trend dominates over the next decade, and in 2027 we are pretty much where we are now. In my opinion, this inertial scenario is more likely than the optimistic Scenario 1, but still not too likely. An equilibrium is a dynamic process, it can maintain itself only when two opposite forces cancel each other out. I don’t see any compelling signs of an integrative force that would cancel the disintegrative forces. Empirically, history doesn’t stand still. So things will either improve, or get worse. For reasons that I stated in this and other posts, my money is on the disintegrative trend prevailing (although personally I wish it was otherwise).
Incidentally, the governing elites of the EU behave as though they all believe in Scenario 1 (or, at worst, Scenario 2).
Scenario 3. The next 10 years will see an increasingly fragmented European landscape. The EU will not be formally abolished, but it will increasingly lose its capacity to influence constituent countries. Led by Hungary and Poland, other small and medium-sized countries will increasingly set their national policies without much regard for Brussels. This fragmentation will be accomplished largely in a nonviolent way. Perhaps not in ten years, as it may take longer, but eventually the EU will look much like the Holy Roman Empire. This “HRE” scenario is probably the most likely, at least in my opinion.
Central Europe in 1618. Source
Scenario 4. Like in the previous scenarios, the disintegrative trend will dominate, but dissolution of the EU will not be peaceful. I think (I hope) that the violent disintegration scenario is much less likely than the Scenario 3. And I know that almost nobody believes that a violent break-up is possible. Very few people remain who fought in World War II. And this is the danger. The government of Mariano Rajoy apparently can’t imagine that one result of their push to suppress the Catalonian independence movement could be a bloody civil war.
Unfortunately, there is no law of history that prohibits an armed conflict within Europe that could carry away thousands of lives. Our parents and grandparents fought in World War II. We are not better than them. The reasons there was no major war between core European states since 1945 is not because we are better than the previous generations, but because Europe had an integrative institutional framework. If that framework goes, all kinds of nasty outcomes become possible.
Let me close this post by stressing that I am projecting forward for only ten years. If I was asked, where will Europe be in 40 years, then I would speculate that there is a good chance that the disintegrative trend will, by then, be reversed. But that speculation is for another post.
An excerpt from the last chapter of War and Peace and War, published in 2005.
On March 25, 1957, in a spectacular Renaissance palazzo in Rome six European nations—France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg signed the treaty establishing the European Economic Community, the precursor of the European Union. A glance at maps of Europe in 1957 and 800 shows that the combined territory of the six founding members traces almost precisely the empire of Charlemagne. The symbolism is heavy. It was in Rome, on Christmas day of A.D. 800 that the pope crowned Charlemagne as emperor. Is the European Union a new kind of empire?
In terms of its size, multiethnic population, and complex power structure the E.U. fits my definition. Furthermore, during the half century of its existence the E.U. has been aggressively expanding, adding most recently six central European and two Mediterranean countries during the writing of this book. The core state of the E.U., Germany, meanwhile gobbled up former East Germany in 1990. However, all expansion to date was accomplished entirely by peaceful and consensual means. Historical empires don’t always need to conquer new territories. I have pointed out above that there were voluntary admissions to the Roman and Russian empires. Many medieval European states grew by dynastic unions. Still, the entirely peaceful expansion of the E.U. is unprecedented in world history—ultimately, all historical empires had to counter external or internal threats with force. Member states have used armed force, as the United Kingdom in its 1982 war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, but the European Union as a whole has not done it—so far? The Europeans are moving in the direction of creating a unified military force, but we will have to wait and see whether the E.U. will prove capable of using the force when threatened. More importantly, how strong is the European asabiya? Will it motivate people to sacrifice their comforts, treasure, or blood for the sake of the unified Europe? So far, the main financial burden of empire has been born largely by the Germans. It is customary for core nations of empires to bear the main brunt of its costs, but how long will the Germans consent to this state of affairs? Will the years of slow economic growth and high unemployment, which as of the time of this writing show no signs of ending—will such economic hardship eventually sap the willingness of the Germans to sacrifice for the sake of the dream of a powerful united Europe?