The Union of Aspirations and Reality

15. 3. 2017

The frequency with which the word self-reflection has been used in the European Union lately may give the impression that the EU is in a state of meditation, possibly to the sound of ambient new age music. However, reality has imposed a rather less harmonious, indeed rather screeching, accompaniment. This is best illustrated by this year’s September summit held in the Slovak capital, the first—albeit informal—Union gathering minus the UK. There was much talk of a “spirit of Bratislava,” in reference to the common will and determination of all participants, which Chancellor Merkel tried to conjure up during her diplomatic round trip before the summit.

The most tangible example of the hidden disagreements was Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s sudden decision not to take part in the final joint press conference with French President François Hollande and Chancellor Angela Merkel. However, when he complained that he was “not one of those who tell people after a summit that everything will be all right and that the roses are going to bloom,” this may also have been motivated by purely tactical considerations related to the fraught domestic scene in Italy, a country in suspense as it awaits the outcome of the referendum on a change of Constitution, which might seal Renzi’ s political fate.

More telling than the gesturing of Italy’s prime minister is the obvious fragmentation of the EU. Apart from the traditional North-South and, more recently, East-West axis, the Visegrad Four, which had lacked a distinctive profile in the past, has recently started playing a more prominent role on the European scene. The EU’s southern flank, known as Club Med, has begun to voice its views, while Austria has also been trying to form a bloc of its own.

The formation of utilitarian alliances would do no harm in and of itself, provided it contributed to gradual consensus-building among the nearly thirty member countries. However, most of these groupings have been weakened by the fact that they are united behind negative goals. For example, Club Med opposes austerity measures and fiscal discipline while Visegrad is against compulsory immigration quotas, but any cohesion shatters when it comes to other issues. For example, the Visegrad countries do not have a united position on Russia’s increasingly assertive policies.

The Little Big European Army

These obstacles might yet be overcome by means of an intelligible joint project. The idea of a European defense force, epitomized by the idea of a European army, is indicative of this new determination. Its greatest weakness is plain to see. Many similar ideas have been floated in the past but only few have materialized.

Although the prospect of Brexit has eliminated the issue of London’s resistance to a duplication or, indeed, replacement of NATO, a new obstacle has now emerged. If France is to be the only EU country with a large operational army capable of drawing on the experience and tradition of conducting operations abroad, which country might, in the absence of the UK, take on the role of its worthy and proper partner? Until the fall of the Berlin Wall, France had managed to work in tandem with Germany, with the military might of the former complemented by the economic engine of the latter.

However, a reunified Germany and an economically anemic France would not be able to repeat this performance even if the Bundeswehr were suddenly to receive much greater financial resources than it has had so far, with German defense spending lagging behind the alliance’s commitment of two percent of GDP. Initially this might be enough to plug the current German shortfall, whereby only 38 military aircraft (i.e. less than half of its total of 89) are capable of immediate deployment.

Even more than money, what undermines the idea of a European army are conflicting agendas. Berlin’s categorical refusal, five years ago, to join what had originally been intended as a joint French-British operation in Libya was a stark reminder of Germany’s strong reservations about direct participation in combat action abroad. In this situation the idea of a European army could serve as a useful and impressive instrument for demonstrating the cohesion of the 27 countries, albeit one that is limited to smaller scale operations. Nevertheless, it might succeed if joint operations deliver tangible results that are comprehensible to the electorate, for example in protecting external borders.


Surprisingly enough, the word least frequently used in Bratislava was the euro. The common European currency thus became the proverbial elephant in the room. This is because, although the eurozone has eliminated the most acute symptoms of crisis, the turbulence currently being experienced by banks in Italy—one of the “big four” European countries— suggests that a continuation of the current gradual recovery cannot be taken for granted. Similarly, it is far from clear what the impact will be of the continuing conflict between the Club Med bloc and the northern flank led by Germany, defending fiscal discipline.

Systemic Barriers

Surprisingly, it appears that the greatest weakness is the fact that during the financial and economic crisis all key decision-making shifted to the purely intra-governmental—often highest— level. With nearly thirty members, reaching the requisite unanimity and consensus is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible. With slight exaggeration we might say that the European Union would resemble a United States of America, whose fate was decided by an assembly of a few dozen governors, with one group of member states developing a common defense policy and another group focusing on common currency and budget policy. The European Central Bank as the only truly federal institution represents the opposite (though exceptional) case.

As the migration debate has shown, the logical conclusion that offers itself these days— strengthening the majority voting or, indeed, moving more competencies to a supranational level—is not politically viable. And in view of a series of forthcoming elections—in France and Germany as well as in the Netherlands and Austria—the current state of the European Union is not likely to change in the coming months.

Anyone wishing to raise a really burning issue would have to go back to 2003, when French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder jointly and severally (and, it has to be said, fully in line with the EU rules) prevented their countries from being sanctioned for violating their budget discipline commitments. What seemed almost like gentlemanly misconduct badly backfired later, when the Greeks were forced to admit that they had faked their statistics and had clocked up an untenable debt. You can hardly accuse a small farmer of bending the rules when the big boys have been doing so themselves.

Coda: If the European Union is to survive, its members have to go back to its original purpose and overcome their tendency to rivalries. This tendency, should it prevail, carries two risks: first, it might revive long-forgotten disputes and second, it might leave the EU significantly weakened in the global competitive environment, in which no single European country has much chance of succeeding on its own.

Adam Černý

Adam Černý is a journalist and chairman of the Czech Syndicate of Journalists, his commentaries appear in Hospodářské noviny and in Český rozhlas. He used to write commentaries for Týden weekly, worked in the foreign news section in Česká televize, and directed the foreign news section of Lidové noviny daily. His specialty is European and security politics. He was awarded the Ferdinand Peroutka Prize for outstanding journalists in 2006.

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