Like the Soviet Union, is EU heading for ash heap of history?

Bryan MacDonald
Bryan MacDonald is an Irish journalist, who is based in Russia
Migrants wait to enter a transit camp in Gevgelija, Macedonia, after entering the country by crossing the border with Greece. © Ognen Teofilovski
A while back, Mikhail Gorbachev famously said: 'The most puzzling development in modern politics is the apparent determination of Western European leaders to re-create the Soviet Union in Western Europe.'

Gorbachev wasn't referring to the European Union's hunger to expand eastwards, but instead the bloc's top-heavy governance, where smaller states are increasingly dominated by larger members. This was evident last year, when Angela Merkel pretty much unilaterally imposed a liberal migration policy on the confederation, which has led to massive division.

A decade ago, Bulgaria and Romania were a few months off EU membership and Croatia was doing everything possible to follow them. In fact, the union was so attractive even wealthy Switzerland and Norway seriously debated joining. If someone had predicted then that, ten years later, the President of its parliament would be warning of the EU facing an “existential crisis,” you’d have probably asked for a sample of their tipple of choice.

But here we are in 2016 and Jean-Claude Juncker had this to say in his annual address to MEPs. Junсker admitted how the bloc “lacks unity” and cautioned “history will not remember us. It will remember our mistakes, and their effect on the next generation.” While the man at the top has belatedly informed his legislators of current realities, it’s reasonable to suggest the horse might already have bolted. That’s down to how events seem to be moving at a juggernaut pace around the continent.

A Divided Union

Just this week, Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister has called for Hungary to be chucked out of the club, for refusing to accept migrants, and Austria seems to be unable to organize an election. Some believe it’s because the establishment fear a nationalist take over, as polls show far-right candidate Norbert Hofer winning, but officially the reason is faulty glue.

Meanwhile, also in Vienna, the country’s most prominent clergyman, Christoph Schönborn, is alerting Catholics that Muslims are planning an ‘Islamic conquest of Europe. In a global context, Schönborn is not some obscure figure either, rather he’s the 12/1 sixth favorite to succeed Pope Francis as the next Bishop of Rome. 

At the same time, the Balkans are slowly reverting to type. We hear Bosnian Serbs suggesting a referendum on independence from Sarajevo and Zagreb’s response is to to threaten to “act to protect (ethnic) Croats” in Bosnia, which it regards as a “failed state.”

Of course, while all this talk may presage a crisis, the British have dispensed with the foreboding by actually voting to exit the bloc. And their neighbors in Ireland, once the EU’s poster child, have suddenly begun to question their own continued membership as Brussels presses Dublin on its taxation system. If that wasn't bad enough, anti-Brussels' politicians are rising in Italian and Dutch polls, and France's Marine Le Pen is proposing a 'Frexit' referendum. It's worth bearing in mind how these are three pillar states of the project.

Where the Fault Lies

Naturally, devoted Eurocrats, like our old friend Carl Bildt, are dismayed. But they seem unable to accept their portion of the blame for the slow implosion of the EU.

Put simply, it expanded too fast. And for too long, ideology was allowed to trump pragmatism. For example, in 2013, Brussels reached out to Ukraine with the idea of membership at a time when it was clear that the EU public had no stomach for more new entrants. Looking back now, how ludicrous was the presence of Britain’s Commissioner, Catherine Ashton, at Kiev’s Maidan, when we we all knew that the United Kingdom’s own position in the EU was tenuous? Yet, not one single British media commentator so much as mentioned the hypocrisy.

Things really came to a head in 2015, during the migration crisis, where certain elites seemed to make up policy on the hoof. Like how Merkel, apparently without consulting anybody, unilaterally opened Germany’s doors to newcomers.

Eventually, 1.1 million arrived before the end of December. And only 54 of them have so far obtained jobs with leading German companies, despite rhetoric from the likes of the Daimler Chairman, Dieter Zetsche, when he claimed that “most of the refugees are well trained and motivated. Mercedes needs them.” As it happened, the company eventually took on 40 interns.

Merkel also failed to agree her plan with other EU leaders. But now she expects them to help relieve Germany’s burden and take more migrants. So far, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia are notably refusing to play ball and some other countries are offering minimal cooperation. Latvia - where the population dipped by 15,400 people in 2014 alone - has taken 47 and Lithuania 26.

Good for the Goose

The root of the malaise is simple. Germany’s establishment largely favors large-scale immigration, even if two-thirds of its citizens don’t currently agree with the slogan “refugees welcome"according to polls. However, the governments of many other EU countries don’t support an influx, especially when most of the newcomers are not of Christian heritage. While the liberal media and Eurocrats themselves seem scandalized by this position, it’s a point of view that was pretty much general across Europe until very recently.

For instance, Eurocrats may detest Hungary’s Viktor Orban, but doing so ignores his constituency. Orban is not a dictator and his position most likely reflects the views of the Hungarians who elected him. Thus, were he to kowtow to Brussels’ demands, such actions would be undemocratic domestically.

Therein lies the whole problem. Liberals perceive the EU as a vehicle for democracy promotion, but then recoil when fairly elected politicians pursue policies that aren’t to their liking. We saw it in Ukraine in 2013, when the former President Viktor Yanukovich rejected an association agreement that represented a very bad financial deal for his country. Rather than respect his mandate, Eurocrats lustily promoted his ouster in a violent coup.

Alongside his dire warnings about the EU’s future, Juncker’s speech contained references to the alliance’s undoubted contribution to peace and to the travails of farmers and Brussels’ intervention to reduce mobile phone roaming charges.

However, he completely ignored the migrant pact with Ankara which is supposed to allow Turks visa-free travel in the Schengen Area this autumn. Juncker also failed to touch on poor relations with Russia or the Ukrainian war, which still simmers.

In January 2004, the EU had 15 members, uniformly western, mostly progressive and relatively wealthy. A decade later, it boasted 28 and most of the new arrivals are eastern states, which are comparatively poor and more socially conservative than their new partners.

That’s the problem. The EU has expanded too quickly and its now reaping a whirlwind because its structures can't cope. The bloc's leaders should have listened to Gorbachev. After all, nobody knows more about what happens when great unions lose the support of their public.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.