Order & Chaos
If we are to believe the headlines, following the European elections any visions of a united Europe will have to be shelved when euro skeptics will overrun parliament and bring the EU to a standstill. Precisely at a moment when Europe is trying to overcome the worst crisis since the European integration project started and when Europe - in light of the Ukrainian crisis- has had to admit that although it may be an economic superpower it does not have much geopolitical clout. Europe can only keep up with the big boys if member states work together. First and foremost on financial-economic matters, but in the longer run more integration is also needed in terms of foreign policy and defense. All too often, other countries manage to play off European states against each other.
Sometimes the European patchwork looks like a disorganized army of self-absorbed manikins trying to knock each other out. On the other hand, there are people who risk all to gain entrance to the EU, which they see as a paradise where affluence, wellbeing, and harmony are top priorities whereas the geopolitical rough and tumble of history is a thing of the past. Impressions of order and chaos coexist. Will this divided/united creature survive or will the integration process run aground on the eurosceptic cliffs?
Anti-EU populists to overrun Brussels?
At the beginning of this century the sky seemed the limit. The EU's objectives were very ambitious. Today, the mood is very different. Uncertainty, pessimism, and negativism set the tone. The two main trends speak of aversion to the EU. In the first place, a call to reinforce the national parliaments at the expense of Brussels. In the second place, a focus on the principle of subsidiarity. At national level, this trend has prompted Ms. Merkel to say that it should be possible to devolve powers from Brussels while British PM Cameron keeps the fire burning under the Brexit discussion, whereas the Netherlands has come up with a list of 50 matters that should revert to member states. In other words, not just the populist parties are eurosceptic. Mainstream parties, too, are trying to retain voters by giving in to their objections to the EU.
Will all of this affect the result of the May elections? Anti-European parties could make big gains. But not big enough to cripple the EU. Out of 750 seats, eurosceptics are unlikely to win more than 200. As a result, (centrist) pro-European parties will maintain a comfortable majority. In addition, all of the candidates for the Presidency of the European Commission who have been put forward by the main parties are tried and tested in the corridors of Brussels and hold the EU dear. If these predictions are correct, the European Parliament will not change fundamentally. Nor will the European Commission consist of men and women who want to cage the EU rather than unleashing its potential and turning it into a proud and proficient animal.
Beast at the crossroads
Yet, this beast still needs to be tamed in various ways. That the EU does not occupy an undisputed place in the psyche of its citizens is evident from the question that dominates the elections: Are you for or against Europe? Translated into a national context, this sounds bizarre. If the French go to the polls, would anybody ask if they are "for or against" France? National elections should be about how to improve the country and the European elections should revolve around similar questions. Until that is possible, the EU's future is far from assured.
The crucial issue is has the European integration process reached a crossroads? Sooner or later there will be a tipping point, when continued integration will touch upon the very heart of the sovereignty of member states. At that stage, some fundamental decisions need to be taken. Will Europe become more like a federal state? Or will it continue to tread water? If the latter, there is a possibility that stagnation will - eventually - lead to the unraveling of the EU.
Train on a dangerous mission
In recent years, economic circumstances and financial markets have forced Europe towards further integration. At the present juncture, geopolitical dilemmas could so the same. Yet, it is obvious that the current political climate is not conducive to additional transfers of sovereignty, due to mounting grassroots opposition. Although populists will probably not be able to blow up the EU from the inside, their hold on the national governments may well intensify. This would hamper the integration process.
The EU integration train cannot languish at the railway crossing forever. It has to move on. The barriers may be down for another while but soon they will be raised. Next, the Renault Le Pen, Scania Wilders, Land Rover Farage and Fiat Grillo will rev up; a collision looms. International political and economic trends will be like a freight train coming up from behind, which forces the train to speed up. Simultaneously, the engine driver and conductors need to restrain unruly passengers who want to apply the emergency brakes. One thing is certain; the train cannot stop without derailing..