The new array of European Union subgroups is a sign of deeper malaise
BERLIN — Metternich, the godfather of pan-European statecraft, once famously quipped that the Balkans started just beyond Vienna’s ramparts.
In the emerging EU of 27, the Balkans are everywhere.
The European Union could always be neatly divided into regional blocs that, for the most part, pursued a common agenda, whether the northern group around Germany or the southern “Club Med” countries led by France.
That changed recently as the flurry of economic and political crises to befall the EU spawned an alphabet soup of subgroups, with like-minded capitals looking for strength in numbers.
Now, Brexit is accelerating the trend as countries seek allies ahead of the coming debates over the EU’s future.
Last month, Athens hosted the inaugural gathering of the “EUMed” (Greece, France, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Cyprus and Malta), replete with a custom logo and family photo. The group’s aim is to build a bulwark against the Berlin-led alliance of penny pinchers they blame for the south’s chronic economic stagnation.
Central Europe, meanwhile, has revived the long-dormant Visegrad group, banding together to resist Brussels’ attempts to force them to accept refugees. Austria, one of the countries most affected by the influx, has created an alliance of its own. That group, consisting of Germany, Greece and several candidate countries in the Balkans, is set to meet in Vienna this weekend. They’ve selected the perfect venue — Klemens von Metternich’s former chancellery.
Finding consensus in an EU of nearly 30 states was never going to be easy. In stable times, the divisions are just easier to ignore.
In this latest fracturing, however, the flaws in the EU’s institutional architecture have been magnified by a lack of credible leadership. Like a mutinous army, member countries simply ignore Brussels’ efforts to impose discipline in areas such as refugee policy.
“It’s really a symptom of the deeper malaise in the EU,” said Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin. “There are very few areas where you have broad-based agreement anymore. That’s obviously dangerous for the European project.”
The blocs themselves can be as fractious as the broader Union. While the Visegrad countries share a common loathing for Muslims, their views diverge when it comes to issues like Russia and regional security. Some groups, such as the much ballyhooed Weimar Triangle between France, Germany and Poland, disappear altogether as domestic political priorities and constellations change.
There’s also a constant shifting of the alliances, depending on the issue at hand. Germany, Italy and Greece may sing from the same hymnal on refugee policy, but when it comes to economics, they don’t even share the same religion.
If groups like Visegrad or the newly formed EUMed were to coordinate policy and support common initiatives across a range of economic, security and political areas, the impact on the EU could be profound. Yet they remain light years away from achieving such consensus.
Don’t mention the euro
While the groups that have emerged recently often profess high-minded political goals, their main impact is to stall action in key areas. Instead of fresh solutions, what emerges is often little more than a blocking minority and further stasis, as illustrated both by the refugee crisis and Europe’s tepid strategy to revive the economy.
The real question is where will Europe’s increasing fracturing lead.
Brexit has spurred countries to stake out positions ahead of what promises to become an important, perhaps even decisive debate over the future of the EU.
“We’re all looking at London, but the bigger question is what the rest of Europe will do because they’re deciding the future,” said Jan Techau, director of the Richard C. Holbrooke Forum at the American Academy in Berlin.
The danger is the growing factionalism will smother that debate before it starts.
That problem was apparent at last summit in Bratislava. It took Germany’s Angela Merkel weeks of shuttle diplomacy to build consensus around a mostly humdrum list of initiatives, such as dispatching more border guards to Bulgaria. What was supposed be a nice photo-op to showcase Europe’s continued unity, despite Brexit, backfired in the end when Italian leader Matteo Renzi broke ranks and criticized the outcome.
What Europe must confront in the coming months is vastly more complicated than questions of refugee quotas and border controls. Though little discussed these days, the elephant in the room remains the euro.
Thanks to the European Central Bank, the euro crisis has gone into remission. But the underlying strains, the structural flaws in the eurozone’s architecture that led to the crisis, remain. The dislocution in Italy’s banking sector is just the latest reminder of the dangers that are lurking.
The only real way to fix the problem once and for all would be for members to relinquish more sovereignty, for example by accepting tougher fiscal oversight in return for common debt issuance.
A Balkanized Europe won’t succeed in meeting such a challenge.
“The euro is the big thing that could break everything up,” Techau said.