When Great Britain formally departs the European Union on Jan. 1, 2021, the EU will be losing not only its most vibrant financial clearinghouse but also its most formidable military establishment. However, rather than serving as a caution to the remaining 27 EU members, this event is looking more like a prelude to further disunity.
The most striking example of these growing centrifugal forces within the EU was the startling recent speech by Portugal’s Prime Minister Antonio Costa, in which he bluntly declared that the EU would be better off if certain other nations left the group as well.
Speaking as current president of the European Union Council, Costa stated that the EU must decide whether it is a “union of values or … primarily an economic instrument to generate economic value.” In advocating for a union of values, he effectively was turning the original purpose of the EU upside down. When the EU was founded in1958 as the “Common Market” under the guidance of France’s Charles de Gaulle and Germany’s Konrad Adenauer, it was explicitly as an economic instrument and specifically disavowed any intent to undermine national sovereignty.
In promoting a redesigned EU identity, Costa has left little doubt which nations the EU could well do without. Under the euphemism “illiberal East,” he is targeting Poland and Hungary — both long decried for their authoritarian tendencies. Switching gears, he then takes aim at the so-called “Frugal Four” (Sweden, Denmark, Austria and the Netherlands), whose sin against “European values” is their long resistance to making the EU into a piggy bank for the financial basket cases of the South (Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal).
In pointing the finger at this second category of undesirables, Costa reveals that his proposal — idealistic rhetoric notwithstanding — is merely a revisiting of the fundamental tension that has haunted the EU ever since the 1992 Maastricht Treaty made the “bridge too far” commitment to “ever closer union.”
The long-running stalemate between the wealthy and generally well-governed nations of the North and the poor and more erratically governed nations of the South was finally broken by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the attendant lockdowns that brought devastation to the entire EU. Under the hammer of this crisis, the EU cobbled together a massive “bailout” program, which, in broad outline, favors the harder hit nations of the South. However, the program is tightly hedged by conditions governing who gets how much money and for what projects. Haggling over these conditions — Hungary and Poland already have threatened to veto the entire package — could derail the whole program. This squabbling underlines the fatal flaw of the Maastricht Treaty, which requires unanimous consent for any significant initiative.
As Walter Russell Mead suggests in a recent Wall St. Journal column, “Germany Won’t Take Portugal’s EU Split,” Costa’s initiative is probably going nowhere simply because Germany’s Angela Merkel won’t support it, even though France’s Emmanuel MacronEmmanuel Jean-Michel MacronEuropean (Dis)Union: The gathering storm French anti-religious extremism bill would ban ‘virginity certificates,’ limit home schooling Trust, not escalation, should be the United States’ cyberspace policy MORE might. With Great Britain gone and Merkel soon to follow, Macron aims to fill the resulting power vacuum, but his description of NATO as “brain dead” and his ill-received call for a new European army means his quest is facing a certain dead end.
Internal strife aside, the EU faces looming challenges beyond its borders. These range from civil war in Libya to the unpredictable behavior of the two authoritarians on the EU’s doorstep — Russia’s Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinDefending our democracy through the presidential transition European (Dis)Union: The gathering storm Moscow begins distributing vaccines in ‘large-scale’ COVID-19 immunization effort MORE and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan — who possess the continent’s largest military establishments and a demonstrated willingness to use them whenever they perceive opportunity and/or weakness.
Yet another dark cloud on the horizon was reported by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who sees a clear and present danger in a China “that doesn’t share our values, or respect human rights, and tries to intimidate other countries.”
Finally, few European leaders foresee the new Biden administration riding to the rescue of the Old World. Widely noted has been Biden’s incoming national security team, who are largely the same people who authored Obama’s “Pivot to Asia,” which marked the true beginning of America’s turning away from Europe as the priority it had been since the end of World War II.
Fixing the past is never easy — sometimes impossible — but if there is a better path for the EU, it involves a return to the wiser vision of De Gaulle and Adenauer and a retreat from the ill-starred overreach of Maastricht.
William Moloney, Ph.D., is a Fellow in Conservative Thought at Colorado Christian University’s Centennial Institute, who studied at Oxford and the University of London. He is a former Colorado Commissioner of Education.