Wither the EU? Not so fast — there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic

It’s easy to say “Europe is doomed” because of the flurry of disagreements among member countries of the European Union, but it wasn’t built in a day and won’t easily disintegrate.

Many of my colleagues and some legal experts say the EU crisis is deepening because of structural, political, economic and financial failures of the union’s supra-national socialization model.

In addition to Brexit, the EU is plagued by an Italian recession and the recent France-Italy diplomatic crisis. Let’s also not forget the immigration problem, Greek debt crisis and a growing dissent among member states on upholding EU laws and regulations.

If this keeps up, some fear it could culminate in the collapse of the EU. But are things really that dire, or is this simply another bump in the road for the EU? To answer that question, I discussed the issue with U.S. and EU legal experts during a four-day seminar on the “Rule of Law in the EU and the U.S.” in Dubrovnik, Croatia.

The notion that EU laws need to be upheld is being increasingly challenged by some member states. This dissent has manifested itself in various ways, from the rise of populist movements in Eastern European countries, to the blatant refusal of some Western European countries to implement EU immigration policies and legislation.

Brexit

When seen in that light, although perfectly in line with provisions of Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, Brexit is a continuation of those tendencies. The U.K. is yet another country to disagree with the way the EU is enacting legislation — so much, in fact, that it’s exiting the EU.

When asked about Brexit, Donald Regan, a law professor at the University of Michigan, said that even before Brexit, the U.K. had always been out of step with Europe. The U.K. was focused on the free-market aspects of the EU rather than the project of “ever closer political union,” he says.

The U.K. is not a part of the Schengen Area, which allows citizens of member countries to travel freely, or the eurozone, the region that uses the euro currency. It has been getting rebates on its contributions to the EU budget, though with the U.K. leaving the EU, the entire system of rebates may get scrapped. All in all, it seems that the U.K. sees the EU purely as an economic union. At the moment, the answer to whether Brexit happens or not is unclear.

The question remains: Could the U.K.’s departure serve as a precedent? Would other countries be emboldened to leave?

“The U.K.’s exit should make it less likely for other EU member states to leave,” says Regan, “because Brexit is probably going to be a disaster for the U.K.”

Still, Brexit isn’t the only bump in the road to EU integration.

Immigration is overwhelming some countries

After problematic remarks by Italy’s deputy prime minister concerning the “yellow vests movement,” it was unclear when and if Franco-Italian relations will normalize. Two months later, President Emmanuel Macron is already burying the hatchet, signaling he’s ready to salvage the diplomatic relationship with impetuous neighbors.

While the Franco-Italian diplomatic crisis seems to be subsiding, this comes as small comfort — the immigration problem still looms over the EU. Many member states are doing their best (or worst) to turn back the torrent of immigrants without giving them an opportunity to apply for asylum, as guaranteed by the Treaties and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

But this is far from a one-sided story: The Swedish example shows what happens when immigrants are allowed into a country without applying under proper asylum criteria. The rise of crime and violence has caused a tear within the Swedish government, and the news of it has spread like wildfire to neighboring countries and other EU members, serving as a cautionary tale and further fueling the resistance.

In recent years, Swedes have been doing their best to tackle the problem by securing more resources for the police so they’re better equipped to deal with growing violence and allowing legal provisions to send back individuals who refuse to assimilate. Finally, there’s the question of quotas — and this can be best applied to Sweden, which, aside from Hungary, at one time took in the most asylum seekers (first-time applicants) per capita. In the past five years, the country of 10 million accepted more than 400,000 asylum-seekers and relatives of immigrants.

While Sweden’s immigration wave may be rare and extreme, it still shows there’s light at the end of the tunnel. When proper policies are in place and precautions are taken, immigration becomes far less problematic and controversial.

Sadly, that is still not the case. Immigration has been widely used by various parties as an excuse to demonize the EU, leading the public to believe immigrants will overrun and destabilize countries. This isn’t necessarily true, and countries themselves (aided by the EU) should come up with legal frameworks that regulate residence permits for foreigners in a way that promotes adherence to national laws and customs.

Member states need an effective national security policy that needs to be within the legal framework of the EU. However, it seems that assisting the countries in formulating and enforcing such policies is something the European Union has not done enough of.

Greece’s ongoing crisis

Finally, there’s the Greek debt crisis (here’s a five-minute primer on the problem), the result of a dangerous amount of borrowing by Greece from the European Union between 2008 and 2018. In 2010, Greece said it might default on its debt, threatening the viability of the eurozone (see more on the eurozone crisis here).

In 2019, the issue still looms, and its many detrimental effects (including brain drain, the black-market economy and the mistreatment of asylum seekers) echo throughout the region, sending ripples of destabilization through neighboring countries and Eastern Europe.

Although Greece left the financial-assistance program on Aug. 20, 2018, hundreds of billions of euros worth of aid weren’t enough to jump-start the growth of its faltering economy. In fact, the Greek economy has shrunk by 25% since 2008, unemployment is still sky-high, and the national debt amounts to more than 170% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). And Italy is not doing much better, which makes it seem as if the EU has failed to enact reforms necessary for long-term sustainability of the union.

While the situation may seem alarming, researchers and academics I had a chance to talk to are actually quite optimistic. Viorica Vita, a European University Institute researcher, believes the EU is far from reaching structural failure. If destabilization does come, she argues, it will be from the core of the union. For the EU to fail, “engines of EU integration” must stop; that is to say, the founding member states — Germany, France and Italy — must give up on the European integration project.

Aside from Regan, who seems ambivalent on the matter, this “careful optimism” resounded with the rest of the experts with whom I discussed this topic — it seems both academics and some high-ranking EU officials agree that these destabilizing events are nothing more than bumps in the road. The EU is still on course of ever-closer integration, and the current storm shall pass, they say.

In an unlikely event that the EU does collapse, it won’t completely disappear. Some argue it would be replaced by an economic union, similar to the European Economic Community it was based on. When asked the same question, Vita says that while a dissolution would be quite a shock, the aftermath wouldn’t result in a complete destabilization of Europe. The EU wasn’t built in a legal void, and other, already existing economic, cultural and social inter-EU state agreements would quickly take its place.

What do you think the future holds for the EU? Let me know in the comment section below.

Jurica Dujmovic is a technology columnist for MarketWatch.

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