The EU, trade and the breakdown of unity
27 May 2016|

Major geopolitical shifts can be unexpected, such as the once unthinkable situation of European unity crumbling. This prospect may have delighted some observers, but it’s worrying for many others.

The European Union (EU) has been indispensible to US management of the post-Cold War international security environment as a partnership based on democratic values, human rights and shared international norms and a commitment to collective security through NATO. While the European refugee crisis—now exacerbated by the EU quota proposal—has emboldened the growing populist anti-EU forces, the debate over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) also has the potential to add to the growing breakdown of European unity.

With the rise of anti-immigration sentiment, resurgent nationalism and disenchantment with EU governance—and particularly the impacts of economic austerity—economic reform and free trade policies like the TTIP are exposing serious fault lines in Europe. The EU object of ever-greater integration is now an anathema to many Europeans.

Increasingly the usually dominant parties in Europe have had to modify their policies to accommodate attacks from populist parties that cater to general discontent and disillusionment with the European Project. The contest over the TTIP therefore presents an unprecedented opportunity for opponents of the EU, especially given the major elections in France, Germany, Luxemburg, and the Netherlands due to take place in 2017.

Last year only a tactical maneuvere by the major parties kept France’s National Front (FN)—which opposes globalization, is Eurosceptic and anti-immigration—from winning two regional presidencies. Marine Le Pen, leader of the FN, is regarded as having a real chance in France’s 2017 presidential race. Last month’s leak of EU TTIP negotiating documents by Greenpeace has forced France’s socialist President Hollande to take a strong negative position on the TTIP—more consistent with the FN’s stance.

Just this week, the Austrian presidential election saw a very narrow loss by ultra-conservative Freedom party of Austria (FPoA) candidate. The FPoA opposes ‘further European integration and the Islamisation of Austria’. Earlier this year the nationalist anti-Muslim Alternative for Germany (AfD) won representation in all three German state parliaments. A common feature of both the Austrian and German polls was the dismal showing of the liberal-centrist pro-EU parties.

Across Europe, illiberal nationalists, anti-Muslim/anti-immigration and Eurosceptic parties are increasing their influence—Poland and Hungary are governed by illiberal parties, and the Eurosceptic nationalist Finns Party is the second largest in Finland. Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom only holds 15 of the 150 parliamentary seats in the Netherlands, although polls show support rising from 15 to 38 percent. And in the UK, while only finishing distant third in last year’s British General election with 12.7 percent, UKIP’s policies have influenced the Tory government to hold a referendum on EU membership.

Meanwhile the Podemos Party in Spain and Syriza in Greece, while nominally leftwing and pro-immigration, have in common with the rightist parties a strong opposition to neoliberal austerity policies and trade liberalization. They also advocate reform of the EU and devolution of power back to member states.

We’re likely to see the emergence of several ultra-nationalist Eurosceptic governments in the coming year. This is an important moment for Europe, as ratification of the TTIP will be required at three levels—the European Parliament (EP), the European Council and by the parliaments of the member states.

Following the 2009 Treaty of Lisbon, the EP has a veto over EU trade agreements and it has already demonstrated some independence on the issue. Currently more than half the European population supports the TTIP, but the notable exceptions are Austria, Germany and Luxembourg.

In the prevailing mood in Europe and given the pressure for mainstream parties to make concessions to the disillusioned and disgruntled voters who support the Eurosceptic parties, the passage of the TTIP through national parliaments will likely be disruptive and not necessarily successful everywhere. It still seems unthinkable that the EU will unravel and it would be alarmist to suggest a breakdown is imminent. Yet it remains unclear how Europe will pass through this period.

The debate over the TTIP will not just exacerbate the existing obstacles to greater EU integration; it will invigorate the campaign for greater political devolution and meaningful national sovereignty in Europe.

If the consensus on Europe breaks down and the coordination of policy—including security policy—becomes harder to achieve, it would flow over to NATO decision-making. The US is already showing concern. A weakening of the EU could create opportunities for Russian and Turkish adventurism in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, and make dealing with the Middle East and the sub-Saharan Africa more difficult. A reawakening of radical ethnic nationalism across Europe would be the worst outcome. In times of growing security and strategic challenges, the world needs a strong EU.