In his autobiographical and excellent overview of culture and society in Europe at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, “The World of Yesterday”, the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig showed how quickly the categories and concepts describing the world around us can become obsolete. The lead up to World War I and the 1920s were separated by a mere decade, but when viewed in retrospect those two periods seemed to have little in common. For Zweig writing in 1940, that entire bygone world was nothing more than an implausible legend.
No surprise, then, that Zweig’s book is currently one of the most read and most quoted. There is a keen sensation that the post-Cold War era is in inexorable decline (or has already reached its nadir). Alongside this we see that the concepts and convictions which have thus far organised our world have become dated (read, outdated). Globalisation and interdependence until recently have been seen as the guarantors of peace and cooperation. These have turned out to be the source of conflicts and the instruments of pressure. “It’s the economy, stupid!” has ceased to be treated dogmatically—the problems of identity and culture move people just as much as their financial situation. Belief in the inevitable triumph of liberal democracy has been replaced by questions about the alternatives.
This miscalculation is just as relevant to the European Union. This is not merely the case in regard to the wave of populism and Euroscepticism which is washing over the entire continent. What is more important is that this, alongside other factors (in particular Donald Trump becoming the president of the United States), is profoundly, though not yet entirely visibly, changing the fundamental assumptions, or paradigms, upon which the project of European integration rests.
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Firstly, freedom has been replaced by security as the value which organises thought on the future of Europe. European integration was above all a peace project, not a freedom project. The fathers of Europe were guided by the conviction that democracy based on freedom was the only guarantee that the era of conflicts and war on the Old Continent could be ended. Integration above all served liberalisation (of markets) and the furthering of openness (of borders). Its foundation rests on the four freedoms (the free movement of people, goods, capital and services).
It is becoming ever more frequent to discuss freedom in terms of its “excesses” and populists are feeding on the rising social need for stability, certainty and the protection of property. Employees concerned about cut-price competition of the labour market (social dumping) see economic patriotism as a way of securing their interests. For many people the price of security (or an illusion of it), e.g. the return of border controls, does not seem excessively high when compared to the perception of the threat of terrorism or the changes in the local environment due to migration. This means that the force which most strongly shapes the political imagination of societies and elites today is no longer the wish for greater openness and integration which has driven change in Europe over the last decades, but rather an overwhelming desire to increase security and stability.
The paradigm of security means that pressure on the four freedoms will increase, in particular on the free movement of labour. It is an area where the European elite can most easily send society a signal that they understand their concerns and need for security. Austria’s Chancellor Christian Kern has already announced that he wants to introduce the principle of precedence for Austrian citizens on their labour market. But the paradigm of security is already having an impact on changes in anti-terrorist legislation and asylum policy. The erosion of European standards in those areas could have long-term effects, pushing back the legal and psychological boundaries of what is possible to accept and imagine.
Secondly, the idea of EU cohesion rules out thoughts of different speeds of integration. The discussion on how to reconcile the member states’ various capabilities and ambitions of integration is not new. The diversification of integration has in fact long been the case (not all countries are in the Schengen zone or the eurozone).
Nevertheless, it had been assumed that an imprecisely defined horizon of the integration process existed which all countries were heading towards, sometimes at a different pace and in a different choreography. Different speeds of integration were, though, rather viewed as a necessary evil.
This paradigm of cohesion is currently out of favour—varied integration is less often seen as a challenge and more often as a solution to the EU’s problems. Advocates of this view state that the only way to prevent the EU from breaking up is to loosen the bonds of integration and to allow member states more freedom in deciding which projects they wish to participate in.
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Thirdly, Europe has ceased to be transatlantic and has become post-Atlantic. The EU was always essentially also a transatlantic project. The significance of the United States was not determined solely by the fact that Washington offered Europe security guarantees It was equally important that it was overwhelmingly in America’s interests for the countries of Europe to be united and in close cooperation.
President Trump’s statements and measures praising Brexit, encouraging other countries to leave the EU, and criticising the EU as a project which only serves the interests of Germany may demonstrate that thi s approach will change.
Josef Joffe, the renowned German publisher defined the US some years ago as “Europe’s pacifier”, i.e. a power which can assuage Europe’s quarrels. America’s rejection of the idea that European unity is a good in itself may inflict worse damage on Europe than any potential ‘big deal’ between Washington and Moscow.
The signs that Trump could support the centrifugal forces in the EU are worrying. However, there exists a further threat at least as serious. This concerns the reaction to Trump’s security, trade and visa policies which could sow divisions in Europe and lead to some countries attempting to reach bilateral deals with the new America to the detriment of the EU’s common stance.
There is much show that the revision of the three paradigms of integration which is currently under way is leading to an inevitable parting of ways with “The World of Yesterday”.
Piotr Buras is Head of the ECFR Warsaw Office. This text is based upon the author’s essay “Prepare for a new Europe” published by the Warsaw based Stefan Batory Foundation.
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