Countering the Forces of Fragmentation in Europe

Written by | Wednesday, January 28th, 2015

Cornelius Adebahr (Carnegie Europe)

The European Union is faced with a number of problems and challenges, such as different business models of its Member States and the rise of political populism. It is very difficult for the EU to come to terms with these issues because they are interrelated and solutions often lie outside of its sphere of influence.

One of the most painful contemporary problems is the economic fragmentation of Europe. The divide between an austere North and a profligate South is so widespread that it has become a caricature. However, all indicators such as GDP per capita, national debt, and unemployment –especially youth unemployment – show a clear core-periphery divide, separating the likes of Germany from Spain and Greece. In fact, the economic gains of the early years of convergence under the euro currency have been wiped out by the ongoing crisis.

Another problem is the rise of nationalist and separatist tendencies across the continent. The Scottish referendum is laudable as an exercise in civility and democratic decision-making. However, the whole campaign and the ultimate result have shown that questions of national identity or pride can trump the economic advantages of cooperation, which goes against the rationale of European integration. Separatist sentiments are also heard in Spain’s Catalonia, Italy’s South Tyrol and France’s Corsica. Nationalism is also on the rise in Hungary which could lay claim to its minority populations in neighbouring states.

Related to these tendencies is the growing popularity of populist parties which view the EU unfavourably as a symbol of bureaucracy, regulations and out-of-touch decision making. A product of the millions of disillusioned voters and frustrated protesters throughout the continent, populist parties are already in power in Hungary and Bulgaria. The governments in these states have started to employ “grey tools,” such as taxation of media and the Internet, or patronage and procurement, to tighten their grip on the state and undermine EU standards.

Then there is the sensitive relationship between the EU and its neighbours. There are clear differences of outcome between the successful enlargement policy and the failed neighbourhood policy. The experience of ten years of neighbourhood policy has shown that “anything but membership” is too weak a promise to prompt a country to embark on serious reforms. However, the reluctance for further enlargement means the doors will be closed for many candidates, leading to a loss of hopes and motivation.

The solutions to the above problems are not easy because their roots often lie on the national level. The situation is not hopeless, however. Firstly, the EU should integrate on the most basic level of rights and democracy as many European states as possible, and thus form a truly pan-European organisation similar to that of the Council of Europe. Secondly and more fundamentally, the EU should embrace the mechanisms of “multispeed Europe” and subsidiarity. Such reforms would necessitate a change to the EU’s pre-existing legal network, but they would also leave the EU more resistant to the economic, political and nationalist pressures it faces.

(The study can be downloaded here:

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