The European Union: “No, thank you, for the time being”
MEHMET ÖĞÜTÇÜAs a former Turkish diplomat, who worked tirelessly for his country to join the European Union (EU) at some point, I do not take pleasure in saying that this ambitious federal project is not going anywhere and that, after all, it may not be worth becoming a member in the foreseeable future of this exclusive club, once viewed as a golden prize for candidate countries.
Clearly, the EU project is not progressing in its current form the way it was designed by its founding fathers. All ambitious blueprints and goals often remain on paper and detached from reality on the ground. Yes, the “European integration movement” has gone through its cycle of ups and downs in history – two steps forward, one step back, like the Janissary Band’s (Mehter) March. This time around, there are even fewer signs that its success will follow the gloomy years we have experienced over the past decade or so.
The 28-member EU, with diverse interests and structures, is extremely difficult to run efficiently and reconcile when so needed. It is already under severe attack from all sides, including its strongest supporters because of its mammoth-size and failure to deliver. The treaties and institutions underpinning the EU are no longer “fit for its purpose.” The EU’s failure to drastically “reinvent” itself in keeping with the new global dynamics may condemn the continent to a future of economic crisis, democratic deficit, political bottlenecks and further decline.
The growth figures remain low. Europe’s jobs crisis and the wide disparity in economic performance in the Eurozone are still in full swing. The euro was supposed to challenge the dollar as an international reserve currency and boost Europe’s standing in the world. To the contrary, Europe has suffered an unprecedented loss of economic activity, big (in some cases dramatic) increases in public debt in most countries and a crisis of its currency union.
There are vocal voices that high-energy prices are sapping the bloc’s ability to compete, making European industry less competitive globally – for instance, paying three times more for gas than U.S. consumers. An energy price gap is likely to stay for the next 20 years. Differences in resource endowments between Europe and North America, as well as inevitable transport costs, mean that gas price differences are likely to persist.
In debtor countries, such as Italy and Greece, people are angry about the imposition of austerity, which is increasingly identified with the EU, particularly Germany. In creditor countries, citizens are angry about the creeping mutualization of Eurozone debt, which they fear will force the fiscally responsible countries to subsidize the irresponsible.
The EU is not doing well in educating its next generation either: one in four adults in Europe lack basic numeracy and literacy skills, impeding them from finding work. The economic loss of having 7.5 million young EU citizens out of work or training is 150 billion euros every year. Europe is also losing its technological edge. China has overtaken the EU in expenditure on science and technology as a percentage of its economic output.
Relations between member-states, moreover, are perhaps more strained than at any point since the birth of the EU, and Europe’s standing in the world has declined sharply. North, east, south and central parts of Europe do not see eye-to-eye as each has different agendas, levels of development, values and geopolitical interests.
A domestically weak EU cannot do much in responding to the tough external challenges it faces. The explosive developments in Ukraine are less the reason for tensions than the result of a deeper-seated problem that divides the EU and Russia now. It was naively optimistic of Brussels not to think Putin would do everything in his power to stop Ukraine from entering an economic and defense partnership with the West.
The loss of support for the EU is likely to be reflected in European Parliament elections on May 26, 2014, in which Euroskeptic parties are expected to make a strong showing. Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front, which wants France to abandon the euro, is expected to emerge as the biggest party.
Beppe Grillo’s Five-Star Movement and the UKIP are rising in Italy and the UK respectively. Euroskeptic voices have been getting louder in Germany as well.
It would be a huge pity if the largest and one of the most sophisticated economies in the world, with high living standards, world-class companies and a justified reputation for successful integration and rule-making is not capable of economic renewal, political cohesion and a re-invention of its prized social model. Europe has shown in the past that it can rise to serious economic and political challenges if it has to.
Once upon a time, enlargement was a powerful carrot-and-stick tool for Brussels. No longer so. Accession talks with most applicant countries have ground to an almost complete standstill. Beset by integration fatigue, Europe will prefer keeping the bigger countries in its outer periphery at a distance. In fact, they may not be so much interested in getting into the EU strait-jacket.
Talks have stopped with Turkey, which was pinned down in the Commission report for its troubled relations with Greek Cyprus, and lack of progress on human and minority rights, as well as freedom of expression. Blames should be fairly shared between Ankara and Brussels. With its youthful and dynamic population equaling almost all Central and European countries, Turkey is turning itself into a major economic and political power, despite the recent troubles that Ankara has created for itself in economic fragility and democratic credentials.
Viewed from the prism of Ankara, the EU still offers promises, but not in its current juncture of crisis – it has been repeatedly despised as a dysfunctional club that has lost its competitiveness, suffers from internal bickering and is rapidly ageing.
Perhaps in this new globe emerging before our eyes, a middle ground could be found to achieve a re-balancing of interests in the critically strategic “win-win” partnership between Ankara and Brussels, independently of the far-reaching and slow-moving EU accession process, which is clearly not going to happen anytime soon.