Europe’s disunity and lack of confidence threaten the continent’s future

Petty quarrels between the leaders of EU political institutions have led critics to say that those at the top of the Brussels food chain prioritize their own careers and their personal power over the lives of European citizens.

First of all: the Union itself is not threatened with extinction. The EU has remarkable endurance and the self-interest of its member states means there is no real chance it will collapse anytime soon.

What is in question, however, is the long-term purpose and legitimacy of the Union.

Last week, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen written to the President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, refusing to act on a resolution which had been adopted by a huge majority in the only publicly elected legislative body of the EU.
Parliament believes that two Member States, Hungary and Poland, have violated the rule of law of the EU and that as such central funding should be halted. The offenses on which this is based range from violation of independence of justice to discriminate against LGBT communities – the two attacks on the fundamental cornerstones of EU membership.

Parliament says the Commission must now apply a regulation that was agreed last year as the EU negotiated its long-term budget alongside Covid stimulus funds. At the time, the regulation – which ties EU money to respect for the rule of law – was a priority. The tools available to the EU to sanction Member States have proved insufficient.

However, when the pressures came and the two delinquent nations threatened to exercise their veto rights, the regulation was watered down to such an extent that it would require rock-solid proof that EU funds were being used. to violate the rule of law, rather than a broader interpretation of violations occurring in general.

“It is fair to say that after the adoption of the regulation, the parties most keen to take action against Hungary and Poland hoped that the Commission would take the political decision to adopt a broad interpretation,” said Ronan McCrea , professor of European law at University College London. . “This could be the first sign that he will take a more cautious approach.”

In the letter, von der Leyen said Sassoli’s letter was not “sufficiently clear and specific” about the exact violations committed, relying on the narrow nature of the “complex assessments” required to enact the settlement.

Parliamentarians who have spent the past few years highlighting the abuses spit blood over what they see as von der Leyen’s complicity in the violations.

“It is literally enshrined in the Treaties that the Commission is accountable to Parliament,” said Sophie in ‘t Veld, a liberal Dutch MEP.

Protesters fly a giant Polish national flag and shout slogans during a protest against judicial reform pushed by the right-wing government but criticized by the EU as a threat to judicial independence on July 24, 2018, in front of the building of the Senate in the capital Warsaw.

She and many of her European colleagues and officials believe that von der Leyen, rather than acting as the guardian of the EU treaties, is acting in the interest of the governments of the EU countries that make up the Council of Europe. the EU has 27 members. The more support von der Leyen can get from member states, the more power she has to ignore Parliament’s calls and work exclusively on her own agenda.

“She is in office because Parliament gave up electing her own candidate and endorsed the candidate of the Member States. She owes them to a certain extent,” Veld adds.

Daniel Freund, a German Green MEP, says it is always “difficult for the committee to go against a member state because it will always need its support across the board”. He adds that this could be particularly difficult for von der Leyen because she was elected with a majority that included Hungary and Poland’s political leaders – votes she has voluntarily lobbied for.

Politics in Brussels is nothing new, and ardent Europhiles are fed up with narrow interests at headquarters eclipsing the real issues facing the Union.

“So many people working at EU level are obsessed with arguments about how the EU works and who should have what power rather than striving to prepare the Union for the 21st century,” said Neale Richmond, an Irish lawmaker who was previously appointed. represent Ireland in Brussels.

The President's Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry, the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and the Vice-President of the European Commission in charge of the European Green Agreement Frans Timmermans leave a meeting in Brussels on 9 March 2021.

“For years we have been debating the future of Europe and its position on the world stage. We all want a strong, open Europe, united in promoting liberal values ​​and a world leader on issues like change climate and geopolitics. But that will not happen if these small inter-institutional quarrels continue to hamper everything, “he adds.

If the EU is to be the best it can be, its stakeholders must at the very least believe that all parties are acting in good faith. This became more and more difficult as the rule of law feud grew.

“We have seen Hungary on several occasions block resolutions in the Council on things like human rights in Hong Kong or when fighting broke out in Israel earlier this year, presumably to push member states to agitation against his own violations in the eyes, ”said Freund. Disunity and inaction on issues like these, of course, runs counter to the EU’s goal of being a global promoter of democratic values.

And when stakeholders distrust each other, it can have tangible consequences.

“Previously, when the issue of refugees fleeing war zones arose, the 27 member states were more comfortable with autocrats and paid them to house the refugees than reaching a reasonable deal between them,” he said. declared Veld.

The lack of unity and the painful process with which each decision is made means that the EU’s woes are often dealt with on a case-by-case basis, despite the fact that its crises tend to overlap.

Take the issue of Afghan refugees. The EU said last week it would help those fleeing the Taliban by helping regional partners welcome refugees. He is also determined to oppose the repeat of the migrant crisis of 2015, when millions of people traveled to Europe to escape the brutal civil war in Syria.

A group of Syrian migrants march towards the border with Hungary, near the village of Martonos, in northern Serbia, near Kanjiza, on June 25, 2015.

In 2016, the EU gave Turkey – a regional partner – money to welcome Syrian refugees. Turkey was then able to arm these refugees when it became politically convenient to do so. Why? Because member states were reluctant to welcome large numbers of migrants to their countries and in some cases took extreme measures to prevent them from entering.

This migrant crisis played a big role in the development of populist and Eurosceptic sentiment across the continent, as well as the victory of the pro-Brexit campaign in the UK in 2016.

Clearly, none of this has been good for the EU, and it is far from implausible that the current short-sightedness over Afghanistan will see this repeat itself.

This may seem like a dramatic overreaction to a dispute between the European Parliament and the Commission over whether to act on a resolution. But, as Freund points out, the rule of law debate really does address the core principles of how the EU will deal with the challenges rushing to all corners of the planet: as a united group with a purpose common or as a set of more isolationist nation-states. .

“The way the feud over Hungary and Poland has played out puts the whole of the EU in question. If the Member States do not respect the treaties, if the Commission and the Council do not punish the violators, then what rest of the EU, ”he asks.

These are questions that bloc leaders will need to answer in the coming year, as Europe rebuilds itself after the pandemic, elections in its two largest countries – France and Germany – and attempts to navigate the geopolitical minefield that the past 18 months have left the world in.

If the EU is serious about its ambitions to be a great power on the world stage and – in light of what has happened over the past fortnight – to intervene where America could have done before , she needs all members to be on the same page and play by the same rules.

The reality of this latter dilemma, however, is that keeping all 27 Member States happy at the same time is an almost impossible balancing act. The more these divisions exist, the greater the gaps in trust between stakeholders. And at some point, that distance might become too great for anyone to cross.

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