Divisive Internal Dynamics of European Union (EU)
Brigadier (Retd.) Dr. Ahsan ur Rahman Khan
(Published on 6th November 2021)
(Map of European Union Member Countries: courtesy Nations Online Project) (1)
Significance of the Study of This Problem
Recently many international TV channels have been reporting the cases of open dissent shown by certain EU member countries against the established policies of EU. Factually this phenomenon has been in prevalence all through the last decade; however the recent cases are reflecting an increase in this trend. Thus it is difficult to rule out the possibilities of certain EU countries ultimately adopting some policies seriously digressing from EU’s laid down policies, or even some member countries leaving the EU.
In the current timeframe, when US is finding it difficult to retain its ‘sole super– Power Supremacy’, and its ‘geopolitical hold’ on Europe, as also the unmistakable signs of the emergence of ‘multi–polar’ world order, this clearly weakening politico–economic integration of EU is most likely to have significant implications, which deserve serious study.
Gradual Integration of Europe into EU and its Original Aim
The document of EU, titled ‘The History of the European Union’ (2), has clarified that, “The European Union is set up with the aim of ending the frequent and bloody wars between the neighbours, which culminated in Second World War”.
This document has also highlighted the stages of through which these European countries integrated into the EU. It mentions:
In 1950s the economic–political European Coal and Steel Community was formed by six countries – Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and Netherland – in order to secure lasting peace.
During 1960s the EU countries agreed on such measures as not to charge custom duties from each other and joint control on food security, thus making the decade as the period of their marked economic growth and food security for their masses.
Denmark, Ireland, and UK joined the EU on 1st January 1973, making total number of members to nine; and European Parliament started increasing its influence on member states.
In 1995 Austria, Finland, and Sweden joined the EU.
In 2004 ten more countries joined the EU, followed by Bulgaria and Romania in 2007. The 2009 Treaty of Lisbon provided the EU with modern institutions and more efficient working methods.
In 2013 Croatia became the 28th member of EU.
UK left EU after 47 years of its membership.
The Integrating Factors
It is obvious that basically there were two factors which have been keeping these European countries integrated in the EU. These factors were:
(a) In view of the extremely horrifying memories of the enormous human and material devastation in Europe within a span of about three decades (1914–1939) due to the First and Second World Wars’ the overriding integrating factor was the urge of the masses of these countries to ensure avoidance of any military aggression, or even threat of it, against their country; and
(b) The other integrating factor was, the then pressing requirement, of these world–wars–devastated countries, of adoption of such mutual bilateral or/and multilateral policies which could assist in attaining economic growth in their respective countries, for socio–economic alleviation of their masses and uplift of their societies.
The Factor of Military Aggression/Threat
However, after a passage of about 75 years since the end of Second World War, these European countries are sure of adhering to their continuing practice of ‘mutual peaceful coexistence’; as also, after the continuing period of about 42 years of the breakup of Soviet Union, the most threatening possibility of military aggression from the then Soviet Union or now from Russia does not exist anymore.
Otherwise too, in the current timeframe the mode of conflict between countries has completely changed. The mode of war through military means is almost out. The modern high–tech military technologies have made the immense human and material cost of military wars unbearable. Currently other modes of conflict/war i.e. cyber war, hybrid war, destabilisation of target country to bring in regime change, etc. are in practice.
Thus the overriding EU’s integrating factor, of safeguarding these countries against intra–Europe war or military aggression by Russia, factually does not prevail anymore.
The Factor of Economic Growth through Mutual Economic Interaction
The EU policies for economic uplift of EU countries did work. Most of these countries not only gradually managed to revamp their war–devastated economy, but also stared building up their economic growth through intra–EU trade etc.
However, during that process of economic build up, the element of economic inequality amongst these countries also emerged.
That aspect is also reflected in the recent document (3) of eurostat (a Directorate General of the European Commission). It highlights, “Trade among EU countries as a share of total trade in goods ranged from just over 34 % for Cyprus to 80 % for Czechia and Luxembourg in 2020”. This document has also provided a chart showing the vast disparities between the EU member countries’ export during 2020 of goods to other EU member countries (as a percentage of total intra–EU exports). That percentage varies from above 22% of Germany, followed by Netherland about 14%, Belgium 8%, France and Italy about 8%, to almost 0% of Malta and Cyprus.
This economic inequality in EU countries is a very important factor to be kept in mind while assessing the aspect of the originally planned unity of EU. Scholars have discussed it from varying angles. However, common sense clearly indicates the adverse effects of this inequality upon the continuing unity of EU.
The European Commission in its document, Thematic Factsheet (introduction – p.1), has also asserted that (italic added for highlighting), “Inequality has risen in a majority of Member States, triggering concerns both for the sustainability of growth and for social cohesion”. (4)
The aspect, that this economic inequality amongst EU countries has been, and still is, causing disgruntlement in the adversely affected countries, was highlighted in October 2014 by Germany’s social–science research institute Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in its research paper titled Monetary Disunion–The Domestic Politics of Eoroland. (5) Following two extracts of that research paper (italics added for highlighting) clarify that aspect:-
a. “Regional disparities within the European Union have always been perceived as an impediment to monetary integration. This is why discussions on a joint currency, from their very beginning, were linked to compensatory payments in the form of regional policy payments. Structural assistance to poor regions and member states increased sharply at the end of the 1980s. Today, however, fiscal support has to be shared with the new member states in the East. Moreover, due to the financial crisis, the cheap credit that poor EMU member countries enjoyed as a result of interest rate convergence is no longer available. We predict that in the future, some sort of financial aid will have to be provided by rich member countries to poor ones, if only to prevent a further increase in economic disparities and related political instability. We also expect long–lasting distributional conflict between payer and recipient countries far beyond current rescue packages, together with disagreement on the extent of aid required and the political control to be conceded by receiving countries to giving countries”. (Abstract – p. iii)
b. “The domestic politics of Euroland will likely be dominated by an ongoing and potentially ugly tug–of–war over entitlements and obligations to international financial solidarity”. (p. 22)
These undeniable facts and research findings/inferences clearly indicate that by now the once strong integrating value of the factor, of EU countries economic growth through mutual economic interaction, has diminished considerably for those EU countries which are suffering due to the economic inequalities in EU.
The Divisive Factors
The Underlying Causal Factor – ‘National Élan’
While studying the aspect of the oft–reflected divisive tendency in the EU, the researchers have mostly not focused on the underlying causal factor from which have germinated the various divisive factors highlighted by them. That underlying causal factor is the ‘National Élan’ (vigorous and enthusiastic national spirit) of some of those European nations which have that Élan ingrained in their psyche linked to their glorious past.
About such glorious–past–European nations, which are now members of the EU, the commonly mentioned nations are the Germans and French (Britain exited EU in 2020). Germany and France are now again major European powers as also the dominant members of the EU. However certain other nations of Europe too had their glorious past, and hence, have their ingrained National Élan. As for example, the Austrian and Hungarian nations also had their glorious past in the form of the Austrian Empire (1804–1867) which was the then third largest Empire in Europe. And, after the dissolution of Australian Empire, and with the 1867 Austro–Hungarian Compromise, in the form of the Austro–Hungarian Empire (1867–1918) – which, in addition to Austria and Hungary contained parts of present day Italy, Romania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. (Map below):
(Austro–Hungarian Empire map courtesy: Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand) (6)
It is because of this National Élan of such European nations that even countries like Austria, Hungary and Poland, etc despise such EU policies and rulings which are considered to be overriding these countries’ own national policies, rules etc, and hence breaching their nation’s sovereignty. Thus, such countries have shown their respective defiant/rather defiant national policy stance. That defiance has resulted in exit from EU of Britain and is now being reflected with oft–emerging resistance of certain EU countries in relation to such EU’s dictates to member countries in governance, economic, judicial, etc. matters.
Factors Indicated by Researchers
a. As mentioned earlier in this article, Germany’s social science research institute MPFIG’s publication titled Monitory Disunion-The Domestic Politics of Euroland on its page iii had clarified about the divisive factors by asserting that (italics added for highlighting) – “Regional disparities within the European Union have always been perceived as an impediment to monetary integration. —– We predict that in the future, some sort of financial aid will have to be provided by rich member countries to poor ones, if only to prevent a further increase in economic disparities and related political instability. We also expect long–lasting distributional conflict between payer and recipient countries far beyond current rescue packages, together with disagreement on the extent of aid required and the political control to be conceded by receiving countries to giving countries”. (7)
b. The New York (US)–based digital library JSTOR in its article titled “The Divisive Euro”, dated 8 July 2015, has highlighted the factor of common currency (Euro) as the factor of divided response by the members of EU, as was found in a public opinion survey in 1995 in the then 15 members of EU. In that context, the article also mentioned (italics added for highlighting), “The ongoing crisis in Greece has put a spotlight on fissures in the unified European Union economy, but the euro has always been a divisive idea”. (8)
c. The EU’s financially supported European Trade Union Institute (ETUI), had published in 2015 its book “Divisive integration The triumph of failed ideas in Europe – revisited”. It has about 14 chapters (367 pages) written by scholars. Main focus of the book (italics added) “is the weight attributed to the different economic and social development paths in ten individual EU countries, and their interaction with the austerity regime established at EU level which in fact is deepening the crisis rather than paving ways out of it. (9) In the overview of this book, the editor of this book Steffen Lehndorff had clarified (italics added), “On one hand, economic developments in a few countries may promise some light at the end of the tunnel. At the same time, however, the centrifugal forces have grown stronger, especially within the Monetary Union, both economically and politically”. (10)
d. The article titled Lessons and Learnings from a Decade of EU Crises – pages 127–136 of Journal of European Public Policy of 2 July 2020 – highlighted the three themes of the lessons, learnt from the studies of the process of EU’s integration and policies, brought forth by the EU scholars. In the abstract of this article it mentioned those themes as (italics added for highlighting), “the effect of crises on changing modes of EU governance, the impact of domestic politics and public opinion on EU policies, and the growing influence and relevance of the EU’s supranational legal framework” (11)
Factor of Available Economic Interaction Avenue in China
According to European Commission document, EU permits its member countries to have trade relations with China, but with attached conditions. The document mentions (italics added for highlighting), “The EU is committed to open trading relations with China. However, the EU wants to ensure that China trades fairly, respects intellectual property rights and meets its obligations as a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO)” (12). On the other hand, China does not attach any such condition for trade/economic investment relations. As a result, China’s trade/economic investment relations with most of the EU countries have risen considerably.
And, that gain of China has been at the cost of EU countries’ volume of trade with US and UK. That fact was reported by BBC, quoting the data of EU’s statistical office. Report mentioned, “China is now the EU’s biggest trading partner, overtaking the US in 2020. Trade between China and the EU was worth $709bn (€586bn, £511bn) last year, compared with $671 bn worth of imports and exports from the US. —– Although the US and the UK remain the EU’s largest export markets, trade with both countries dropped significantly, the statistics showed”. (13)
In the meanwhile China’s economic interaction in the form of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), also known as One Belt One Road (OBOR), infrastructure development initiative offered to countries and international organisations around the world has also gained widespread acceptance. According to US’ research group Brookings, “As of January 2020, 138 countries have signed on to the BRI, ranging from Italy to Saudi Arabia to Cambodia”. (14) And, according to Fudan Research University of Shanghai, China: “As of January 2021, the number of countries that have joined the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) by signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with China is 140 (including 18 EU countries)”; those 18 EU countries include Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia”. (15)
China’s BRI initiative has also further assisted a great deal in making trade with China an attractive option for many countries. A November 2020 report in that context had highlighted that, “An examination of the Export data released by the World Bank, and available on their TCData 360 website has revealed that EU member states who have signed up to China’s Belt and Road Initiative are seeing their export volumes growing at a significantly faster rate than those who have not”. (16)
In this context it is also worth keeping a note of that a Chinese 16+1 (originally 17+1) Initiative is in operation, which promotes business and investment between China and 16 countries of Central and Eastern Europe i.e Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, and Slovenia. (17)
It is therefore evident that most of the EU countries have utilised/are utilising this extra–EU avenue for much profitable economic interaction (trade, investment, BRI) with China for the growth of their economic potential; thereby factually deviating from EU’s policy regarding the attached conditions for trade with China. Though these EU countries have not officially announced their national policy of this deviation from the laid down EU policy, yet their persistence on it and EU’s ‘helpless’ acquiescence in this matter shows the weakening of EU in stopping the EU countries in disregarding EU’s laid down policies at least in some matters – a clear sign of increasing trend of divisiveness in EU.
Proper study of all these divisive factors (as asserted by the economists, scholars, researchers) clearly shows that the divisive factors emerge whenever any EU policy is considered to be overriding the national policy of the member country; thereby challenging the concept of national sovereignty and National Élan of the people of that country. The problem is that emergence of these factors is persisting, and is on the rise.
The Current Standoff between EU and Poland
Many disputes between the European Commission (the executive branch of EU, responsible for proposing legislation, enforcing EU laws and directing the Union’s administrative operations) have emerged earlier also – like the dispute relating to the Euro zone reforms, UK’s January 2020 exit from EU, and the ongoing dispute about Northern Ireland Protocol (18), etc. However, Poland’s current standoff with EU has the potential of further enhancing the divisive trends in EU.
This standoff has arisen on a serious judicial issue, relating to the judicial powers of Poland Supreme Court’s Disciplinary Chamber.
“The Disciplinary Chamber of Poland is one of the chambers of Poland’s Supreme Court, as provided by Polish judicial disciplinary panel law approved by the Sejm (lower house of Poland’s parliament) on 20 December 2019. That law empowers the Disciplinary Chamber to punish judges who engage in political activity, including questioning the political independence of the panel. The law also changed the manner in which the head of the Supreme Court of Poland is appointed”. (19)
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) however declared that this Chamber and its decisions lifting the judicial immunity of judges are in contravention of EU’s judicial policy; and ordered Poland in July to immediately suspend this Chamber and reverse the decisions the Chamber had already taken in lifting judicial immunity of the judges. The subsequent stages of this standoff, so far, have been (20) (italics added for highlighting):-
.a. Last month (October), “the Polish Constitutional Court issued a verdict defying the primacy of EU law inside the country, a legal principle established in 1964, long before the country joined the bloc”.
b. In a meeting in Strasbourg (the seat of European Parliament) EU Commission President Vonder Leyen threatened Poland with EU’s punitive actions, including blocking of EU’s COVID recovery aid to Poland, if Poland does not rescind its controversial reforms relating to the establishment and judicial powers of Poland’s Disciplinary Chamber. Poland’s Prime Mister Morawieski retaliated by accusing EU of blackmail and exceeding its powers. (21)
c, Last week, EU announced punitive actions against Poland for not complying with EU’s instructions in this regard. Those punitive actions included: EU’s Court of Justice imposed daily fines of €1 million on Poland; and EU is withholding Poland’s €36 billion COVID recovery fund. (22)
d. Poland’s government has so far rejected EU’s punitive actions as blackmail and interference in the internal matters of member countries
e. The standoff continues with these strong positions of EU and Poland.
Though both EU and Poland are still adamant on their strong positions; yet there are factors due to which both may find it difficult to actually implement these strong positions in follow through actions.
On the one hand, EU is already beset with the aforementioned divisive factors and trend; any action, of expelling a member county from EU membership or even of such a punishment like severe ‘economic strangulation’, is more likely to result in commencement of gradual splitting up of EU. On the other hand, Poland does not have the national economic potential to absorb such economic strangulation for long. The possibility of a compromise between the two should therefore not be ruled out at this stage.
However, the most important inference is that even if a compromise is reached, the bitterness of member county/countries relating to their national sovereignty is now ingrained and is thus likely to become important in the already changing geopolitical/geoeconomic alliances in the world in the scenario of emerging multi–polarity.
(2). The History of The European Union
(4). European Commission document, Thematic Factsheet
(5). Germany’s social–science research institute Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies’ (MPFIG) research paper titled Monetary Disunion–The Domestic Politics of Eoroland
https://www.mpifg.de/pu/mpifg_dp/dp14-17.pdf (Hereinafter cited as MPFIG paper Monetary Disunion)
(7). MPFIG paper Monetary Disunion. op.cit.
(20). Euronews (Franc–based television network) report of 27 October 2020
https://www.euronews.com/2021/10/27/poland-must-pay-daily-fines-of-1-million-over-its-controversial-judiciary-reforms-ecj-rule?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=en&utm_content=poland-must-pay-daily-fines-of-1-million-over-its-controversial-judiciary-reforms-ecj-rule&_ope=eyJndWlkIjoiMmE1YWQzZjEyNzBlNWMzNDU3NDBkNWNlZjBiOTFkY2UifQ%3D%3D (Hereinafter cited as Euronews of 27 October 2020).
(21).eurotopics (European press roundup) of 20 October 2020 (Its link https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/?ui=2&ik=5693f9b0cf&view=lg&permmsgid=msg-f%3A1714131545968932982&ser=1 has since been deleted from Google search)
(22). Euronews of 27 October 2020 op.cit.