One year ago, the European Union seemed to be on the brink. It had suffered an annus horribilis of political shocks, with three major elections looming on the horizon. With each vote, the EU has stepped back from the edge of further destruction. In the shadow of Brexit, the bloc of 27 now feels collectively secure. But the situation has forced it to look hard at itself and become more disciplined, more clear about its own purpose.
For EU member states the need for solidarity has never been more urgent. Thursday’s elections in Catalonia highlighted the vast challenges ahead. Spain’s internal conflicts show how hard it is for a supranational entity like the EU to maintain its unity when its governments are wrestling with such polarised electorates. The vote also highlighted the uphill battle the EU faces in an age of digital warfare, with Russian propaganda intent on fracturing the bloc. In the end, the pro-independence parties’ narrow victory sent shock waves to Madrid, but they were unable to capture an absolute mandate. In the interests of stability, the Spanish government may well make further concessions, but the visceral nature of the divisions in Catalonia will make them hard to close.
Ironically, the mood in Brussels this year has largely been one of galvanised momentum. The Dutch elections provided the spark, but it was French President Emmanuel Macron’s victory in May that permitted a definitive thrust forward, stunning observers with the success of his unashamedly pro-European campaign. He injected confidence into the bloc while strong Eurozone growth raised hopes for economic renewal after a decade of bleak austerity. These encouraging foundations emboldened the European Commission this week to finally pull the trigger on Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty against Poland. Article 7 allows the EU to sanction and punish member states who seriously and persistently breach its values. Poland stands accused of subverting constitutional and media freedoms, including by an assault on its own judiciary. Invoking Article 7 is a declaration of strength from the EU, which, were it feeling less confident, might not be willing to stand on its principles in this way.
But there is nothing inevitable about the force behind the EU’s positive trajectory. For every risk evaded, there has been a shaky step sideways. Spain is not the only member state grappling with a fragmented electorate. Germany has spent a record number of days without a formal government, as the two major parties mull the risks of embracing another coalition. Many in Brussels are also keeping an eye on Italy, where maverick populists are leading the polls ahead of elections next Spring. The EU cannot thrive if it is as only as strong as its last election. A holding pattern won’t be enough to respond to the threats that menace its door. Longer-term structural challenges like an ageing population, global warming and the next wave of labour market upheavals loom large. It is also foolish to forget the millions of Europeans who voted for hard Right and Left candidates and for separatist parties — nor their grievances, which may only congeal and harden if not addressed.
The EU’s future depends on the stability and efficacy of national governments, whose capacity to resolve deep cultural cleavages is increasingly questionable. Only the cooling of internal tensions will make the whole bloc safe.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2017
Sophie Gaston is deputy director of Demos.