European integration starts abroad

Nº 24 - July 2015
European integration
starts abroad
Giovanni Grevi
Following last week’s European Council and the expiration
of Greece’s bailout, all eyes are now set on the outcome
of the Greek referendum and the future of European
integration. The summit has shown the extent of strain in
Europe’s political fabric. Sharp exchanges among European
Union (EU) leaders on the pressing refugee issue and the
breakdown of negotiations on Greece point to the risk of a
much-diminished Europe at home and abroad. Faced with
the risk of collective failure, a strong collective reaction to
restore political cohesion is urgent. But Europeans should
beware of spinning into another spiral of introspection. The
world is watching and taking notes.
Foreign policy begins at home, American diplomat Richard
Haass reminded us a few years back. In short, domestic
political, economic and social conditions can provide a
sound basis for, or debase, ambitions and initiatives on the
international stage. The economic and political crisis that
has shaken Europe since 2009 has provided ample evidence
of that. However, it has also shown that this is not a one-way
Domestic politics often starts abroad. This trend is
particularly consequential for Europe because, in this case,
internal politics unfold at two levels – national and EU.
And those often appear out of sync. Europe struggles to
weather the impact of external turmoil on national politics
with national publics growing sceptical of the EU, often for
opposite reasons.
European Commission
The financial crisis was the mother of all external shocks
to Europe’s cohesion. It originated in the US before
hitting the rest of the world and the EU, where it exposed
the fragility of the Economic and Monetary Union and
economic divergences among Eurozone countries. The crisis
shockwave required rescuing countries in financial disarray
and strengthening the coordination and monitoring of
national public finances. The consequent fiscal austerity
alongside growing unemployment and difficult reforms at
national level generated much controversy among and within
member states. The rise of parties at the extreme wings of the
political spectrum has considerably shrunk support for both
traditional mainstream parties and for the EU.
The sustained flow of migrants and refugees
towards Europe is also exposing cracks in
Europe’s politics. Already absorbed by the
impact of the economic crisis, Europeans took
a hesitant approach to the Arab uprisings of
2011. Europe did not truly engage North Africa
and the Middle East at a time of critical change.
Four years on, this destabilised region is very
much engaging Europe. Countries like Italy
and Greece called for joining forces and sharing
burdens at European level to deal with the
massive human flows pushing on their borders.
After much quarrelling and many casualties at
sea, member states have made available some
ships and planes for missions directed to both
rescue migrants and disrupt their brutal traffic.
But the bitter and divisive debate within and
among member states on the Commission’s
proposal to distribute among them up to 60,000
asylum-seekers (in a Union of 500,000,000)
shows how deeply external pressures are affecting
the bonds between EU countries.
The standoff between the EU and Russia over
Ukraine seems to tell a different story. EU
members agreed to adopt sanctions towards
Russia following the latter’s annexation of
Crimea and involvement in the conflict in
Eastern Ukraine. This show of common resolve
(including the renewal of the sanctions in June
2015), however, masks significant differences
among member states on how to deal with a
more assertive Russia beyond punitive measures.
Besides, Moscow is nurturing links with those
political forces across Europe that favour closer
ties with Russia, and bash the EU, such as
the National Front in France, the Northern
League in Italy and Syriza in Greece. Moscow’s
soft power towards governments such as those
of Hungary and Greece introduces another
corrosive external variable in European politics.
These three very different cases reveal two
broadly common patterns. First, paradoxically,
the more decisions are taken at EU level, the
more fragmented European politics become. The
measures adopted to respond to the Eurozone
crisis have been far-reaching and unprecedented.
The agreement on sanctions towards Russia was
a foreign policy achievement and Europeans
are at long last taking timid steps to deal with
refugee flows. In some of these cases, however,
FRIDE Commentary Nº 24. July 2015
decisions have amounted to too little, too late.
In others, punctual deals do not necessarily
reflect shared assessments of the underlying
problems and of required solutions.
Second, in recent years external trends and
events have shaped EU politics more than the
EU has been willing or able to shape them.
Foreign policy is inherently reactive, the EU has
not stood still and all actors meet limits to their
power in a polycentric world. However, the
overarching pattern has been one where the EU
and its member states have been consumers of
challenges more than providers of opportunities.
The importance of external factors for domestic
politics is not new. After all, the start of the
European integration process owed much to
the security guarantees of the US during the
Cold War. Besides, interdependence has always
been a two-way street – from the inside-out
and from the outside-in. The problem for
Europe is that the external context is the least
benign since the early 1990s and the dark side
of interdependence is amplifying. Whether
through financial interconnections, new media
channelling propaganda or radicalisation, or
flows of desperate masses escaping conflict and
famine, interdependence reaches deep.
Separate decisions have not produced a strategic
vision to renew the pact among Europeans,
which remains essential. They have also not
adequately coped with broader regional and
global trends that are in turn affecting European
politics. The outcome of the Greek referendum
this weekend will be a defining moment for
Europe. But Europeans cannot afford further
fragmentation and introversion. They must
take responsibility together to provide security,
prosperity and rights beyond their borders,
as a condition for preserving them at home.
Europeans badly need a shared assessment of
their interests and priorities on the international
stage. Amidst political turbulence, the European
Council has tasked EU High Representative
Federica Mogherini to work with member states
on an EU global strategy on foreign and security
policy. The deeper the crisis at home, the more
there is a need for a more effective common
foreign policy and joint action abroad.