In 2016, the British people might have their final say on the UK’s membership of the European Union. The Finnish parliament will discuss a potential withdrawal from the Euro zone after 50,000 signatures had been collected in a petition. And the French people will elect a new president in the spring of 2017. Currently, France‘s most powerful political party is the Front National. Its goals are to leave the Euro zone and to re-impose protectionist tariffs as well as border controls.
Last month, in early December, the Hungarian and the Slovak government submitted a lawsuit before the Court of Justice of the European Union. It is a legal action against a majority vote by the council on the relocation of refugees. The Danish people held a referendum to declare that they prefer being on their own in terms of police and judiciary – even though Europe is facing a global challenge by Islamist terrorism. And in the last days during the Christmas season, the newly-elected Polish government and President rushed to pass a law which drastically limits the independence of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal and its capacity to act. Last but not least it is already widely known that Greece lacks both speed and ability to reform their state to become more effective and be able to adequately protect the European external borders.
One thing seems to be crystal clear: The next few months will determine whether the European Union we have known will survive.
The value of the European Union
This immediately gives rise to another fundamental question: which value does the European Union add to the life of individual citizens in the 21st century? Freedom, peace and economic development – these were the promises made after 1945. Only a few years ago, many took these promises for granted, almost considered them obsolete. Then came the global financial crisis and, hard on its heels, the crisis in Greece. And then, there was the Arab Spring, the conflict in Ukraine and then, a few weeks ago, on November 13, Europe was afflicted by Islamist terror. By now, most people do understand again that freedom, peace and economic development can by no means be taken for granted.
Compared to the original European Idea, the European Union has developed considerably. It has become more mature. Today, it is a globally unique union of free peoples based on democracy, rule of law, freedom, peace, economic prosperity and tolerance as well as personal safety and social security. With this mixture, the European Union has created an unparalleled space of possibilities for its citizens. Unique globally. And this statement does not deny the multifaceted challenges which the Union as a whole, its member states or just many citizens are facing in their very personal every-day life at the moment. However, when discussing the existence and future of the entire Union, being aware of its intrinsic value is vital.
Additionally, the European Union offers another important advantage. Only the Union itself is large enough to defend the interests of all European citizens in a multi-polar world of the 21st century. No European member state on its own is large enough to assert its interests vis-à-vis the U.S. or China if need be. The former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who passed away only a few weeks ago, always referred to this as Europe’s self-assertion.
The Union is worth to be protected – but not at any cost
These undeniable benefits and opportunities for each and every European citizen are a valid reason to protect the Union. However – and this is crucial – not at any cost. A Union which does not defend its values is not worth the paper they are written on. If in doubt, a healthy and slimmed down European Union is preferable to a submissive overstretched one.
In Article 2 of its Treaty, the Union laid down its values. According to Article 7, a clear risk of a serious breach of such values may be determined. It is a multi-staged process. In the end, the Council, acting by a qualified majority, may decide to suspend the rights to vote of a member state’s representative.
As a matter of principle, a government, which drastically limits the independence and capabilities of its constitutional court, violates values such as freedom, democracy and the rule of law as stipulated in Article 2 of the Treaty. It should, hence, lose its privilege and right to vote on European decisions in the Council. This should be a matter of course in Europe.
How to protect the European Union and its values
Therefore, the bodies of the European Union would be well-advised to carefully examine the law on the constitutional court passed by the newly-elected Polish government. Should this examination find that the law violates European values, which the situation strongly suggests at the moment, proceedings under Article 7 are to be opened against the new Polish government. Should the Polish government not rescind its law, the Council is to suspend its right to vote. The same holds true for the Hungarian government which has repeatedly expressed a lack of respect for the values laid down in Article 2. As to Slovakia’s lawsuit against the Union’s majority decision, it would be preferable to wait for the reaction of the European Court of Justice. Only one thing can already be said: If a government of a country of five and a half million people refuses to take in 802 refugees and submits a lawsuit to the Court of Justice of the European Union to challenge a decision made by a majority vote of the council, that government has no understanding of the spirit of May 9, 1950 and Schuman’s declaration, no understanding at all.
The British referendum also poses a risk to the survival of the Union. Britain leaving the Union would not serve the latter’s interests. Both, the Union and Britain stand to lose. However, there is one aspect to a potential Brexit which has not been publicly discussed so far. If the Brexit takes place and other nations follow Britain’s example, the Union’s very existence will indeed be fundamentally threatened. Therefore, everyone in the UK favouring the Brexit needs to understand that there might be never better conditions for accessing the European single market than today. For the sake of its own survival, the European Union has to ensure that accessing the European single market will be significantly more difficult or more expansive for Britain after leaving the Union. If this is not ensured, the risk of other states imitating Britain is too high. Each and every nation should undoubtedly have the right to decide on their withdrawal from the European Union. However, the citizens of the Union also have the right to agree on the conditions under which they wish to grand other people access to their single market – even when they just left the Union.
The Greek crisis, which is ongoing now for five years, also remains a threat to the core values of the European Union and its promises to all citizens. A fairer tax system, a more effective course of action against corruption and tax evasion, a powerful administration and an effective protection of the Union’s external borders – all of these objectives concern the core pillars of the Union. Faster reforms and the willingness to accept help by the Union quicker if the state’s own efforts are not enough would also be desirable. Otherwise, those who advocate the exclusion from the Euro zone and the Schengen area might make themselves heard again.
Where will the future of the European Union be decided?
Contrary to popular belief, the future of the European Union will not be determined in Brussels. Even less in Berlin, Paris, London or Rome. It is and will be determined within the hearts and minds of all citizens of the European Union – each and every one of them! The coming months will be crucial to the future of the European Union. As we would say in football: the final just begun.