Europe Through the Looking Glass: Could the Debt Crisis Negate Decades of Integration?

By Panos Stasinopoulos 

Those of us engaged in research in the field of European studies are, it is safe to say, “Europhiles”. In many cases this is owing to a story we have relating to the EU, or an 8-year-old’s memory of the signing of the Maastricht Treaty and the birth of EU citizenship. There are many other reasons, historical and cultural, of course, but these are not a panacea; what we perceive as Eurosceptism is now growing. This is apparent not only in the UK, a traditionally distant bedfellow of the European experiment, but in other, more pro-EU member states. 

Greece now tends to see the EU as one of the reasons behind its debt crisis, forgetting its ancient heritage of “know thyself”, Germany refuses to act decisively towards a more structured Euro owing to the political costs in regional elections, while France is preoccupied with keeping its sovereignty intact. The fact that Portugal decided it needed a bail-out on the day the member states were convening to discuss the fate of the eurozone did not help, proving once again that timing is not on the EU’s side.

The EU started as a relatively small and trade-focused club of states in the aftermath of the Second World War. It is sometimes hard to remember, especially for the younger generations, that the rationale behind the then European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was to ensure the peaceful continuation of a continent which had been devastated by wars and fragmentation for the better part of its long history. In 2011 most of us have no direct recollection of the War. This is largely true for the politicians who currently govern the EU; conversely, 20 years ago, when the common market was within its final stages of implementation, the architects of these integration endeavours were politicians who had personal memories of the War and the efforts to reconstruct Europe and, therefore, had a different attitude towards the goals and aims of the then European Economic Community (EEC).

This detachment from the Union’s true raison d’être and vision, and the growing scepticism against its perceived elitism, have resulted in a new era of fragmentation. Instead of deeper integration, many states are engaged in a race to the bottom by focusing on purely national priorities. Moreover, with the debt crisis in many eurozone states, the common currency has been under fire from the conservative and liberal press alike in the UK. Most articles would have you believe that we are living the dying days of the Euro. Comments by readers of the UK newspapers suggest that there is little sympathy for the EU, let alone optimism for its future. Evidently, the aforementioned fragmentation manifests itself in many ways: the member states in need of a bailout believe the rest of Europe is against them and the states that will need to contribute to the bailout see no reason to do so; never has solidarity seemed such a foreign concept. Furthermore, the EU has failed to reach a common agreement regarding the events in the Middle East. The UK and France, in collaboration with the US, have been prominent in recent military action against Gaddafi, whereas other EU countries assisted but without a coordinated pan-European policy. This has effectively bypassed the authority of the constitutionally established role of the Higher Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, currently held by Catherine Ashton.    

In this context, it is noteworthy that a different view was recently voiced by another EU member state which, in the aftermath of its accession in 2004, was considered to be closer to the US than its EU neighbours. The Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, in an April 2011 interview with The Guardian, stated his opinion that the EU has been taking the wrong direction in many areas (Poland is due to preside over the Council of the European Union from 1 July).Tusk identified these areas as enlargement, foreign policy and economy. He strongly advocated further enlargement to the East (including Turkey), which, he thought, is being hampered by a focus on Southern Europe. It is not possible to know whether this support for further Eastern enlargement was a reflection of his support for the European experiment as a whole or of Polish foreign policy. At this stage in the EU’s integration, however, further enlargement would likely prove too cumbersome; the Union has grown considerably in size since 2004 and, given the negotiation difficulties it faced when it comprised 15 member states, the current configuration should remain until more pressing problems are addressed.

Such problems include the current state of foreign policy and of the eurozone economies. The Polish PM said that the current reaction to the Libyan crisis has been an indication of “European hypocrisy”, while, as stated above, it demonstrates that integrated EU foreign policy is a concept that has many teething problems, an apt indication of the state of EU integration in areas outside trade and free movement. With regard to the situation in the eurozone, Tusk pointed out that this crisis was  not a result of EU spending on coherent  policies but on inadequate financial decisions in major financial centres in Europe and the US. Although this is a fact with which most would agree, solidarity for the common good of the Union was the first element of good practice to be abandoned in light of badly performing national economies, rising unemployment and shifts in international competition.

Indeed, most meetings to resolve the eurozone’s problems have been fruitless, owing to a lack of determination and narrow political ideas that are constrained by national policies and priorities. Although this introspection is expected in times of great financial crises, in the context of the EU it shows more about the fragile state of EU integration, which seems to be working well when circumstances are good, but not during tough times. However, with the necessary steps towards a stronger (and more stable) monetary union and the reinstatement of the EU’s traditional values and aim of an ever closer union for its peoples a new era of successful integration might be close.         


Panos Stasinopoulos is currently reading for his PhD at King’s College London School of Law. His research focuses on European integration in the context of EU social rights. Panos has worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Athens whereas his work on human trafficking and EU fundamental freedoms has been published by the EU and in academic journals.           


30 April 2011