You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

What Happened to the European Union?

William Drozdiak's new book charts the tensions that have divided a continent.

Leon Neal / Getty Images

The European Union defies historical analogy. It is not an empire, and Brussels is anything but an imperial capital. It commands no army, houses no single leader, projects no one culture outward from metropole to province. Still less is the EU a republic with an obvious bond of connection between state and citizen, though it is composed of many individual republics. Nor is the EU is a confederation, a Hanseatic or a Delian league redux. The EU is much more than a confederation of sovereign states. It is itself a state with a flag and a parliament and a currency. A state with a past, the EU has been decades in the making. But whatever the European Union may be in practice, it is a theoretical novelty. 

By 2003, when ten new countries began the process of joining the EU, it was a flourishing novelty. Its very existence symbolized the overcoming of centuries-long conflict between France and Germany. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it drew a range of post-Soviet countries into its orbit of law, cooperation and affluence. Such was the appeal of the EU in 2003 that the world around it seemed to be becoming “European” in hopes of membership or of partnership or at least of proximity. Czech Republic, Estonia, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Malta, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia became member states in 2004. Turkey, Georgia and Ukraine debated the possibility of joining the club in one way or another. Brussels welcomed and enjoyed the debate.         

In his new book, Fractured Continent: Europe’s Crises and the Fate of the West, the distinguished journalist William Drozdiak quotes from the EU’s first security strategy paper, which was released in 2003. “Europe has never been so prosperous, so secure nor so free,” the paper declared. “The violence of the first half of the twentieth century has given way to a period of peace and stability unprecedented in European history.” In the winter of 2018 these pronouncements read more like an epitaph for a bygone golden age. Fractured Continent traces the path from 2003 to 2017. How, Drozdiak asks, did we get from there to here?

The 1957 Treaty of Rome, signed by Belgium, France, Italy, Luxemburg, the Netherlands and West Germany, created the EU’s predecessor, the European Economic Community. The European Parliament began holding meetings in 1958; the first direct elections were held in 1979. The impulse to European integration in these years was predominantly economic, and economic integration made Western Europe a synonym for wealth. Despite terrifying Cold War tensions, the division of Europe into East and West with American troops stationed across Western Europe settled the question of European security. The United States was not always beloved by Western Europeans, but it had an urgent strategic purpose within this bounded Europe. When Americans and Western Europeans disagreed about this purpose, the Soviet threat kept them in line.

With the end of the Cold War, the European Union took on a new purpose: instead of serving as a bulwark of Western liberalism, it became a means of expanding the boundaries of the West. The Maastricht treaty of 1992 combined security and economic integration, while the 1995 Schengen Agreement enabled free movement across the borders of many EU member states. The Euro was introduced in 1999. Countries sacrificed a degree of sovereignty for the sake of participating in the European project, the benefits of which seemed to be self-evident. Nationalist conflict was to be exchanged for European integration, parochialism for cosmopolitanism, circumscribed markets for open markets.         

W. W. Norton & Company, 311 pp., $26.95

Europe’s string of organizational achievements appeared to be a microcosm of “the liberal international order of open markets, free speech, and democratic elections.” The United States had pushed for European integration, and from 1991 to 2016 the United States and the EU partnered in the extension of a liberal international order to parts of Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. This was an attempt to establish certain rules of international cooperation, a mixture of free trade and the peaceful resolution of conflicts, embedded in multi-lateral institutions. It was to be a genuinely global order. In 2013, President Obama announced TTIP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Drozdiak defines it as an initiative “designed to reaffirm western leadership of the global economy and to allow the West to set future standards for the rest of the world.” 

TTIP fell on dark days with Donald Trump’s election in 2016. (Unlike the Trans-Pacific Partnership, TTIP has not yet been formally unwound by the Trump administration.) The EU had been traumatized only a few months before by Britain’s decision to leave the union. These events are at the center of Drozdiak’s anatomy of fracture. Europe has found itself with serious internal woes: In the South there has unfolded “the worst crisis of youth unemployment in the postwar history of Europe”; in Central Europe, “a new brand of nationalism” has emerged, arrayed against Brussels in Central Europe; and Chancellor Merkel’s decision to welcome hundreds of thousands of migrants into Germany and therefore into the EU has caused widespread discontent. 

Europe’s foreign-policy problems are, if anything, more severe. “Today, Europe’s neighborhood policy stands in ruins,” Drozdiak points out, with Russia a hostile and revisionist power, Turkey a semi-dictatorship, and zones of chaos and war to Europe’s south and east. Just as the threats are proliferating, Europe is losing the guarantee of unequivocal American support. President Trump openly admires Putin and Erdogan, while his interactions with Theresa May and Angela Merkel have been awkward and strained. With its withdrawal from the Paris climate accords, its uncertain commitment to NATO’s obligation to mutual defense and its discontents with the Iran nuclear deal, Trump’s Washington has been a shaky sponsor of the liberal international order. After Trump’s election, Joschka Fischer, Germany’s former Foreign Minister, declared that “the Western world as virtually everyone alive today has known it will almost certainly perish before our eyes.” He may not be wrong.

Drozdiak offers only one wide-ranging reason for the slide from certainty and strength in 2003 to Joschka Fischer’s intuition of a perishing West. It is economic. The 2008 financial crisis “exacted a huge toll in public support for Europe,” causing a power vacuum across the EU. It exacerbated class and urban-rural divisions, enhancing the perception of elites as the beneficiaries of the EU and non-elites as its victims. It boosted youth unemployment, especially in Southern Europe, and it underscored the perils of globalization. Greece has suffered most acutely from all of these trends. It is ruled by Europe without truly being of Europe, “a sort of protectorate of the Western world, with the surface trappings of a sovereign state but under the close and relentless supervision of foreign creditors.”

Elsewhere, for reasons that are only partly economic, populism has been widening its reach. Erdogan’s founding of the AK party in 2001 was an early warning; only a year before, Vladimir Putin had come to power in Russia. The bell was tolling for the liberal international order, presaging the search for more traditional notions of nation, religion and gender, coupled with nostalgia for a time of greater ethnic homogeneity. Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski would ride these sentiments to power. So too would the Brexiteers. There is not a Western European country by now that does not have an active populist party.

“The fate of Europe will be decided largely in Berlin,” Drozdiak writes, and even Berlin is starting to partake of the European and transatlantic disorder. Although Drozdiak’s book does not cover Germany’s recent elections, the country’s third biggest party at the moment is the AFD, a German acronym that stands for “alternative for Germany.” The AFD has weakened Chancellor Merkel’s coalition to the extent that she is struggling to form a government.

More palpable than an explanation of Europe’s disorder, in Fractured Continent, is Drozdiak’s moral attitude toward this disorder. His is the attitude of many journalists and foreign-policy experts in the transatlantic realm who feel that what is happening should not be happening. Chancellor Merkel is the agent of what should be happening. A beacon of the liberal international order, she is the book’s hero. Her Germany betrays signs of “dominant, almost monopolistic control over European policies,” but it is a control wielded for and not against Europe. Emmanuel Macron exhibits a needed vitality. When he beat back Marine LePen’s populist hoards, “virtually all of Europe breathed a sigh of relief,” Drozdiak believes. If virtually all of Europe was rooting for the pro-Europe Macron, one wonders why there has been a problem with populism to begin with, why there are not Macrons in all of Europe’s capitals.     

An offhand comment about Brexit best illustrates the solipsism of Drozdiak’s identification with the EU and of his disgust with its enemies. He notes that “the British vote to bolt the EU had taken everybody by surprise”—not virtually everyone in this instance but literally everybody. Oddly enough, however, Trump was not unsurprised by Brexit when it happened. He was in favor of it. Nor did Trump’s possibly eccentric zeal for Brexit cause American voters to abandon him in a fit of Europhilic pique. The American electorate took both Brexit and the Republican candidate’s excitement about it in stride.      

Drozdiak’s morality play of populism at war with Europe or of Europe turning in upon itself is a story of Europe interrupted. Yet again the lights are going out across Europe. Strange problems are overtaking an intrinsically admirable project. Iron-clad alliances that were once iron-clad and self-evident are faltering. Novel enemies have appeared on the horizon, which is to say political parties whose cause is the destruction of the European Union, the questioning of the alliance with the United States, and the reconsideration of the poisoned relationship between Russia and the EU. The inevitable Europe of 1989 and 2003 has been betrayed by some amorphous spirit of narrowness, opportunism and malice. This spirit, abetted by hard economic times, is translating success into failure. The enemies are at the gates; a handful of them are inside the gates.

As literature, Drozdiak’s morality play has much to recommend it. A proper tragedy, it gives an emotional arc to events that have stubbornly defied prediction. On the other hand, supporters of the European Union and of the transatlantic relationship are not in need of any more morality plays. They have been indulging in them since Brexit. The renewal of the European project can only come from cogent, hard-headed analysis.

Such analysis might begin by examining the precarious nature of an ever-expanding European project. When the EU recast itself in the 1990s, the United States was an uncontested superpower. Twentieth-century Russia had been a dynamic part of the European state system for centuries, assertive toward any interest that concerned its borders. Its absence from the European state system in the 1990s was destined to be temporary. In 2014, Russia asserted itself once again as an actor in the European state system, when it moved to prevent Ukraine’s absorption into the EU. Russia’s actions were intolerable to the EU, which joined the U.S. in sanctioning Russia, making Russia and the EU parties to a destabilizing conflict. 

Ongoing disorder in the Middle East has compounded the EU’s security dilemma. The EU’s vaunted soft power is useless against Putin’s Russia, and it has been irrelevant in the Syrian civil war. Conflict in Syria has sent hundreds of thousands of migrants in the direction of Europe, as has chaos in North Africa. Disorder in the Middle East is more acutely a European than an American problem: Islamist terrorism flows more easily into the EU than it does into the United States. Since 2015, Russia has shown itself to be a more consequential actor in Syria than the pacifist EU. Russia has succeeded in propping up Assad and has been trying since January 2017 to supplant the “Geneva” diplomatic process for a post-war settlement in Syria, in which the West is involved, with the “Astana” process, in which the West is not involved.         

Europe’s economic tribulations run north-south rather than east-west. It has proven difficult to manage a single currency shared by diverse national economies, not all of which are well aligned with one another. In particular, Germany’s taste for austerity at home and across Europe, augmented by the advantages that have accrued to German exports from the Euro, has exposed a rift between a prospering north and a suffering south. Most likely, the German electorate would not tolerate a departure from austerity, and German workers do a great deal to fund the EU. At the same time, southern Europe’s economic misery has created the perception of German indifference or worse. This perception sharpened when in September 2015, as Drozdiak writes, “Merkel did not bother consulting with other EU leaders before deciding to fling open Germany’s doors” to migrants.

Culture is Europe’s third fault line. The European project today does not have a solid cultural foundation. In a pattern familiar from American politics, more educated and cosmopolitan Europeans tend to favor the EU, while populist and other assaults on the EU rise up from rural and economically depressed areas. The EU has a long record of faring badly when national populations vote on its policies in referenda. A decade before Brexit, French and Dutch voters rejected an EU constitution, demonstrating the limits of popular support for greater European integration. Nothing quite captures the EU’s popularity deficit than the superbly cynical quote from Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission: “We all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.” Put differently, Juncker and his colleagues really do not know what to do.

Europe’s challenges are not intractable. They could be resolved by the EU’s evolution into a republic, with well-defined borders, an army and a top-down capacity to balance the economic disparities that have made Germany so skeptical of Greece and Greece so skeptical of Germany. This republic could inculcate a republican identity in order to be buoyed by a shared and singular political culture. Or Europe’s challenges could be resolved by reducing the EU to a confederation, which is what the European project was in the 1950s. This would be painful. It would involve untangling bureaucracies that have long been joined. But countries that have reclaimed more of their sovereignty may be better at cooperating on core issues of security and economics, without requiring the cultural homogeneity to which Europe has never been prone.

Since 2003, what Drozdiak describes as “the world’s first postmodern superpower” has come down to earth. In the future, it will be less postmodern, less historically anomalous, less of a theoretical novelty and more like a traditional confederation or a traditional republic. By moving closer together or further apart, the countries of Europe will hopefully achieve a more lasting union. To do so would be to heal the fractures that currently scar the continent.