Europe is declining, disintegrating, collapsing — for many observers, the only question left is how long this ugly drama will last. Across the Continent, optimism about the future of the European project is in short supply.
Perhaps the lone holdout is Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel continues to tell her critics that, from the Greek financial meltdown to the refugee crisis, a common solution is at hand. “We can achieve that,” she has said.
As is often the case these days, Ms. Merkel knows what she’s talking about. Not only can Europe overcome its current challenges, but the storm is actually making the union stronger.
The three crises threatening the European Union’s rules-based system are indeed serious: Greece, the Ukraine conflict and the refugee crisis.
But the response, largely coordinated by Germany, has been equally impressive. Ms. Merkel has set up an informal system of governance that works fairly well, inside and outside Germany: her coalition partners, the Social Democrats, at home; President François Hollande of France, crucial to winning Western Europe; the European Council president, Donald Tusk, representing Central European interests; and the European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, who knows how to play the Brussels machine. President Obama is the key outside partner.
A Merkel-centric “power-horizontal” sets up a very different union from the one that governments have agreed to in the treaties. Instead of Brussels, Berlin has become the power center. Neither federalists nor nationalists are happy with that.
And yet it is astonishingly efficient. Despite repeated predictions to the contrary, Europe is not falling apart. It is tackling the big crises together, with the regular meetings of heads of state becoming the central platform for decision making. With the possible exception of Britain, no country wants to leave, and union membership remains the dream of countries along its periphery.
Consider the euro crisis. As early as 2010, pessimists were swearing that it exposed a fundamental flaw in the currency union’s architecture, pitting strong economies against weak ones. And yet, five years later, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain are recovering, while Greece is out of critical condition, with a left-wing government committed to the painful reforms necessary to stay in the euro. Battered, the currency is all the stronger for it.
The same can be said for the Ukraine conflict. What was once a situation poised on the knife-edge of open war has, thanks to Ms. Merkel and Mr. Hollande, moved from the military playing field to the diplomatic arena. The United States, which was at first skeptical of their Minsk agreement, has quickly put its full weight behind the deal. Russia has been checked, giving Ukraine the opportunity to build a stronger state that can resist Russian attempts to bring it back in its sphere of control. Again, the union was tested, and it became stronger.
Perhaps no challenge better illustrates the union’s strengths than the waves of refugees arriving in Europe. Ms. Merkel has correctly framed it as a challenge for Europe as a whole, rather than for individual countries. And Europe has acted accordingly, taking a contentious but successful vote to spread the burden of accepting the refugees.
True, the old refugee system broke down under the sudden weight. But with a speed that surprised even Euro-optimists, the union has begun to fashion new rules, often on the fly.
What we see unfolding is a pan-European system of governance. It’s not always pretty. But that shouldn’t come as a surprise when 28 countries with different histories have to compromise on vital issues, and quickly.
The new European Union is redefining the role of the nation state without replacing it. The new European Union is overwhelmingly intergovernmental, built around cooperation among nation states. It is based on deal making, with the German chancellor as the power broker at the center. It deals with issues that have long been seen as internal affairs, at the heart of sovereignty such as currency, security and borders.
And while in the past the European Union was built and administered by bureaucrats, largely hidden from the public, the new union is deeply political. The time of backdoor deals in Brussels is over.
While centrifugal forces still threaten the European project, it seems that the center does in fact hold, for one simple reason. Member states ultimately feel that they get as much as they give: a framework that helps them to tackle the challenges of globalization.
Ulrich Speck is a senior fellow at the Transatlantic Academy.