Britain’s exit (Brexit) from the European Union (EU) is fast approaching, with negotiations scheduled to be complete by October 2018 and the official withdrawal in March 2019. This, amongst other political and economic challenges, threatens the founding principles of the EU and gives the remaining 27 member states a crucial question, do they strive for further European integration or has the time come for devolution by handing back powers from Brussels to national governments?
The rise of Eurosceptic populist parties across many national Parliaments is showing an undercurrent of public discontent for the EU, who cite a range of issues including the cost of EU membership, unemployment attributed to the Euro, and mass migration. Brexit itself was a Eurosceptic victory – a rejection of the idea of European unity, and the principle of free movement of people. The 2017 German elections saw gains for the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), a fallout from the 2015 migrant crisis where German Chancellor Angela Merkel grant residency to over 1 million migrants (including economic migrants and refugees). The anti-immigration Freedom Party is now in coalition in Austria, and the new Italian government contains the far-right League Party who pledged to deport 500,000 migrants.
Mass anti-immigration sentiment has the potential to create a vast humanitarian crisis. Economic migrants could face starvation from extreme poverty, and political refugees risk persecution as they flee conflicts or human rights infringements in Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea and others. Prejudice towards migrants will only lead to discrimination with such devasting impacts across all areas of life. Even on a local level, UEA thrives from its intake of international students and staff and rejecting this immigration will have a devastating impact; the quality of research and teaching will dramatically decline, and the range of cultures that makes UEA unique will be tragically lost.
Migration appears to have once again become a flashpoint for tension within the EU. A Turkish-EU caused a significant decrease in migration in 2016 and 2017, but for the first-time immigration statistics and asylum applications are increasing again with over 34,000 arrivals by sea alone in 2018 so far. The location of Spain, Italy and Greece means they receive a significantly higher proportion than other states due to migration from North Africa across the Mediterranean Sea. A quota system was suggested in 2015 to allocate migrants fairly across all EU member states but states, led by the Visegrad Group (Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia) opposed this, refusing entry to any migrants from Italy or Greece. These numbers are far less than what was seen in 2015 but they have violently re-opened political wounds. Chancellor Merkel faced a rebellion within her own sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), whose leader Horst Seehofer ploughed ahead with plans to refuse entry to Germany for undocumented migrants, in defiance of Mrs Merkel instruction causing her to ultimately back down. Although this will stabilise her political position in the short term, this level of political disobedience and lack of control will likely resurface later-on to tear apart her fragile coalition and spell the end of her career as Chancellor.
What is particularly worrisome about a tougher German stance is that Germany famously pursued a welcoming open-doors policy in 2015, and now it appears that public opinion against migration has shifted so rapidly in just three years across the EU as a whole. Most EU countries appear to be pushing for tighter migration control to appease anti-immigration sentiment, with Austria, Denmark and Italy now pushing for controversial detention centres outside of the EU to process asylum applicants. An EU summit on the 28th-29th June reached a shaky agreement to establish these centres, but vast differences in opinion between member states exist as to where to locate these with Italy and France already at loggerheads.
Unfortunately, problems for the EU do not end there. With Brexit meaning the potential loss of the second biggest economy in the EU (depending upon the final deal negotiated) and a net contributor to the EU budget, the EU could face a budget deficit. This, amongst other things, means less investment for research and learning, having a direct impact on EU universities. UEA was reliant, like many other UK universities, on funding from EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, with a budget worth €79 billion, which will stop post-Brexit with unknown consequences.
Moving away from Brexit, the EU is facing a security crisis. With the US pursuing an isolationist policy and imposing trade barriers, the EU may find itself facing Russian aggression alone. This is especially worrisome as President Trump has suggested that US commitments to NATO are in jeopardy, with Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on the 19th June warning of the possibility of the collapse of the military alliance. The formation of an EU military force has been suggested but this is likely to create fierce resistance from some member states, not to mention the reliance on the better-funded militaries of France, Germany and Italy post-Brexit. However, some in the EU, including the new Italian government, favour a warmer dialogue with Russia. Its political sway in the Middle East is undeniable and this has direct consequences for the EU. Peace and stability in Syria and neighbouring countries, something that Russia is likely able to negotiate, may reduce the increase in EU immigration and alleviate a headache for Brussels. A friendly EU-Russian relationship would see economic benefits, giving the EU an increased export market and larger imports of Russian oil and gas to reduce the reliance on US gas.
There is a clear and marked cultural difference between member states, with a group of more industrialised Northern states (led by Germany) pushing for federalism and tight cooperation, being met by fierce resistance from other states. I believe it is time that the EU faces up to this question. What is the purpose of the EU in today’s world? Is it a simple economic alliance, or should it be a truly European project with tight integration? Ask all 28-member states and you would get 28 unique answers. I think the only viable option is the introduction of a two-tier membership system, which has been suggested before, where member states could choose between two levels of integration. With the many problems coming down the line, doing nothing is no longer an option. But will it be a case of too little too late?