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The end of integration – Europe in retreat

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The latest Euro crisis has cast doubt on the viability of European integration. While the economics of the EU are easy to implement, its desire for political dominion over its 27 members is damaging the Union. The European Union must learn that its citizens want is a single market and nothing more, writes Huw Longton. 

History shows us that Europeans feel more European at times of crisis and uncertainty. Indeed, it is in such a context that Europe has integrated most: the aftermath of World War II, the collapse of communism and fascism and the marginalisation of Europe in the global economy in the 1980s. The early federalists were gradually joined by disparate states on the fringes of the European core before the ‘big bang’ enlargement of the last decade brought the majority of the former communist east firmly into the European sphere, and the single market brought Europe back on to the world stage.

The current crisis in the Eurozone, then, would appear to present an opportunity, a crisis through which to push through the integration that the single currency needed for it to work in the first place. But rather than being an opportunity, the crisis is likely to mark the end of significant integration for some time.

Brussels usually responds to crises with the answer of more Europe, but the question that really needs answering is what kind of Europe we either want or need, for which either a democratic or political solution is required. This is the root cause of the problems afflicting the eurozone, and it reflects the evolution of European integration, from the European Coal and Steel Community to the European Union: a readiness to submit to economic integration but a stark unwillingness to cede political power. Europe is an odd mix of federal and inter-governmental institutions. The early federalism of Europe has largely died away, but it is left with a political cacophony of 27 national governments. For the euro, the economics were easy but the politics meant that it was fudged. The PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy and Spain) should never have been allowed to join, budgetary restrictions were never enforced and, now, there is no leadership in the eurozone to drag it out of its malaise.

All potential solutions are problematic. To carry on muddling through would lead to one crisis after another, but democratic and political responses are equally difficult. This is not a crisis that is likely to unite Europe. Populations across Europe are waking up to the impact it is having upon their lives. German taxpayers are unlikely to want to pay for the profligacy of others, who in turn are unlikely to approve the transfers of sovereignty necessary for fiscal union. Furthermore, for countries to withdraw from the euro would be to risk the vengeance of the markets, and there is no European political elite to force through to a long-term solution. National politics and supranational economics are too incongruous to do much more than avert another crisis.

Last week’s bailout is by no means the end of Europe’s travails. Nor, it should to be said, is it a problem for the eurozone alone. The British economy would be devastated by a failure to find a long-term solution and it should be a priority of the government to do so. The coalition’s austerity programme would count for nought otherwise, and it would almost certainly mean electoral oblivion. But, ultimately, Europe may be its own undoing. It was invisible in the good times and is a problem in the bad times. It is too weak politically to reverse its fortunes, and it is too late for democracy. National governments, such as our own, are going to use the crisis to retreat from Europe, and others will likely do the same. It is being hoist by its undemocratic petard, a fact that is becoming ever more apparent. It is likely that Europe, its people, politicians and politics, were not ready for anything more than a single market, and its people are beginning to realise it.



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