Pulling the EU out of its existential crisis

Pulling the EU out of its existential crisis

Sebahat Demirci
The EU is largely viewed as a success story on the path of European integration and as a cornerstone of European stability and prosperity. Today, however, the reputation of the EU is not as it used to be. The idea of an “EU dream” has been gradually replaced by “the crisis of the EU” in the face of rising challenges – most notably the economic crisis, irregular migration, the rise of extremist movements and recently, Brexit.

The factors derived from the economic crisis of 2008-2009, such as increasing poverty, unemployment and imposed austerity have played a crucial part in the rise of extremism in Europe. Besides this, the migration crisis has also given way to the rise of populist and nationalist movements in Europe by putting the EU’s core values under threat. By exploiting voters’ fears, the supporters of these extremist views achieved some electoral successes. For example, the far-right Eurosceptic Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany Party), which was founded in 2013, has gained representation in 10 of the 16 German state parliaments in the September 2016 elections. In France, anti-immigration rhetoric brought the leader of the Front National (National Front), Marine Le Pen, significant gains in the local elections of 2015 by becoming first in six of France’s 13 regions.

During a time of concern for the union – with a fragile Eurozone, a vulnerable Schengen system and rising extremism – Brexit further bolstered the concerns regarding the future of the EU. Defining future relations between the EU and the U.K. will be a challenge for both parties. Furthermore, the economic costs of the exit and compensating the U.K.’s role in the EU’s political, economic, security and defense policies are critical issues to be addressed by the union. 

Nevertheless, the EU should seize these crises and turn them into something positive for the union’s future. It is evident the EU is at a crossroads and is undergoing an existential crisis. If the EU wants to continue to be a relevant and competitive actor, three elements need to be included in a future redesign of the union: continuing enlargement, a change in outlook toward the continent and the wider region, and a change in the mindset of the EU.

Regarding the first, the union’s enlargement policy is a mutually beneficial process for both the EU and new member states. Mainly, it creates an environment conducive to economic growth and investment, becomes a drive for compliance with higher living standards, helps tackle organized crime and corruption, strengthens democracy and extends the single market. By moving away from its traditional enlargement policy, the EU is not only sending a confusing message to the countries aspiring for EU membership, but also undermining the credibility of the accession process with regards to the stabilization and political consolidation of its neighbors. Therefore, enlargement should remain on track through its transformation capacity by encouraging reforms and expanding fundamental values.

Throughout its expansion, the EU – as a part of the wider European continent – also provided partnership frameworks to the countries that sought better engagement with the union. The European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) has been a key instrument in handling the EU’s relations with 16 countries from its eastern and southern region. However, increasing instability and geopolitical crises demand a more dynamic and strengthened ENP that properly takes into account the diversity of the aspirations and challenges for different countries in the region. Reinforcing its relations with the neighbors and showing awareness of their challenges would strengthen the credibility of the union as a regional actor.  

Internal tensions regarding the functioning of the union have always existed within the EU, between those that seek an “ever closer union” through greater integration and those that prefer to preserve their national sovereignty. In this vein, EU leaders need to continue engaging in serious soul-searching about a vision for its future. Ultimately, a new mindset and new thinking on EU integration is inevitable. 

*Sebahat Demirci works at the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). This is an abridged version of the original article in Turkish Policy Quarterly’s (TPQ) Spring 2017 issue.