The European Union is currently experiencing a number of challenges to its existence, challenges that were always present but have been compounded and magnified since the global economic recession. It is a truism that political crises follow economic ones, a sequence of events especially evident at the supranational level of European governance. Storm clouds may be an overused metaphor but it is difficult to think of a better expression to capture the sense of impending doom in the face of severe fiscal austerity in many Euro states (Greek wages, where they exist, have fallen on average by a third). The EU has faced severe challenges before (the oil crises of the 1970s for a start), but the combination of factors in the current crisis means that the future of Europe is decidedly uncertain. The road to integration has never been rockier.
This rocky road is to a large extent a by-product of a global recession that shocked in its
capacity to destroy economies, and the crisis in the EU should be understood in this context. But Europe also has an internal context that cannot be ignored, a context that has a powerful influence on EU affairs. Arguably the greatest thorn in the side of the EU, one that strikes right at the heart of the European project, is the refusal of the nation-state to fully bow to its demands. This is not just in relation to political economy – there’s been enough wrangling over principles of subsidiarity and constitutional federalism to keep the legal profession occupied for decades to come; it is also because the nation-states of the European Union, far from diminishing in significance, are threatening to multiply. This threat is not just down to the usual suspects, the ones that have threatened to separate for some time (Scotland, for example, and Catalonia). There are significant movements in many other regions towards separatism, including Flanders, Lombardy, Veneto, Bavaria and South Tyrol, all of which have prominent separatist or regionalist movements (see the special report in the Guardian, November 23rd, 2012).
At a political level, this wave of separatism is a tragedy of immense proportions for Europe. One of the original reasons behind the establishment of the EU in the 1950s (then the EEC) was the desire to minimise the significance of statism – politically, legally and economically, but just as importantly culturally (It should not be overlooked that the EU developed in the shadow of a world war started between European nation states, with the consequent desire to bring France and Germany, in particular, closer together). But just when Europe desperately needs to pursue an agenda of further integration, to reduce the significance of statism, statism decides to rear its problematic head. This is a terrible irony on a grand European scale, meaning that the gap between the real and ideal of the European project has never been greater.