European Disunion Rising Self-Interest Frays EU Spirit

An unusual number of crises -- from the Fukushima disaster to the Arab Spring -- have challenged what used to be called the "European spirit." The euroskepticism sparked by the euro crisis has become an epidemic. Experts warn of a retreat to nationalism.
Whither Europe?

Whither Europe?

Foto: Joern Pollex/ Getty Images

They were the usual words of reassurance and conciliation. "Content is more important than timing," EU Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger said on Thursday, addressing a disagreement in Brussels over "stress tests" for 143 European nuclear reactors. "The public expects credible tests that will cover all foreseeable risks and security concerns."

Like so much else in recent weeks, the safety tests for European nuclear plants have been a point of contention in Brussels. The meeting between Oettinger and representatives of the 27 member states ended without tangible results. In the wake of the Fukushima disaster the EU agrees that stress tests are important, but no one can agree on criteria. France and Great Britain, above all, have stonewalled detailed EU examinations -- they see no reason to test their reactors with regard to anything besides natural catastrophes.

Nuclear stress tests are just one example, though, of an atmosphere at the EU in which communal feeling is crumbling. The financial crisis has split the continent, and "me first" has become the new credo in Brussels. Denmark just this week shut its borders unexpectedly -- stepping back from the Schengen Agreement on visa-free travel throughout the EU on account of a sudden wave of immigrants  fleeing chaos from the Arab Spring.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a prominent Green member of the EU parliament, suggested that Copenhagen should feel swift consequences. "The Danes have to decide: If they want to be serious about closing their borders then they need to resign from the Schengen Agreement," he said to SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Then they'll need visas of their own to travel through Europe -- one for each country."

Against the Euro Rescue

Finnish voters, meanwhile, gave enough support to a right-wing populist party in a recent national election to let them, conceivably, enter the government and derail an EU support package for debt-ridden Portugal. Until this week, it looked as if the nationalist True Finns would throw the rescue plan for the euro into doubt. In the end the party was outmaneuvered, though -- and decided not to join the government over precisely that issue.

"Me first" Europeans have also gained ground in Germany, for the same reasons. After three bailout plans since the euro first wobbled -- and hundreds of billions of euros in loans and support for Greece, Ireland and Portugal -- Merkel's opponents fear that Berlin will become the paymaster for an increasingly hopeless euro zone.

The threat is real for Merkel. A total of 19 members of parliament from the chancellor's coalition -- which consists of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) -- have supposedly said they are no longer prepared to support Merkel's plans to save the euro. But the ruling coalition has only a 20-seat lead over the combined caucuses of Social Democrats, Greens and Left Party members. If more politicians from the CDU, CSU or FDP decide to defect, Merkel's domestic majority for measures to save the euro will crumble, and she would be dependent on opposition votes to get legislation passed.

Which, of course, would be dangerous. "Germany is the most important anchor for Europe," says Friedrich Heinemann at the Centre for European Economic Research. "The whole crisis mechanism (for the euro) stands or falls on German support for EU bailout policies." Complications with the crisis mechanism would send shock waves through financial markets.

Euroskepticism on the Street

The European experiment is showing severe signs of strain, not just among politicians. The euroskeptics in Berlin and Brussels are only reacting to the mood on the street. A recent poll conducted by Germany's Forsa Institute  found that there was widespread approval among Germans for certain positions voiced by right-wing populist politicians. Thirty percent said they wanted an "independent Germany, without the euro, where the EU holds no legal sway."

But it's the job of the European Commission to enforce and defend all treaties made in Brussels by EU member states. Instead of raising its voice to criticize the critics, though -- or to complain about one member after another trying to annul its responsibilities -- the Commission prefers to act quietly, behind the scenes. This tendency leads to lazy compromises.

For example: When the Danish government announced on Wednesday that it would suspend its adherence to the Schengen Agreement, and unilaterally close its borders, no one at the EU banged a fist to defend one of the greatest accomplishments of the European bloc -- freedom of travel. Instead, the Commission demanded an "explanation" from Copenhagen. Other individual member states then took their own initiatives. They demanded new guidelines for a temporary re-introduction of border controls within Europe. A majority of the 27 EU interior ministers declared on Thursday that they were ready to allow future border controls in "exceptional cases," including "immigration pressure."

'Too Little, Too Late'

The so-called Arab Spring in North Africa and the Middle East is causing trouble for Europe in more ways than one. It's given the EU a chance to exercise foreign policy, and on Monday the bloc imposed sanctions against Syria and froze the assets of 13 members of the Syrian government.

The German representatives questioned, though, why Syria's dictator, Bashar Assad, was not among the 13. Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, told the Germans to quiet down -- only to face mounting criticism in the European Parliament. "If no sanctions materialize against Assad, she will have to explain in clear terms just who stopped them," said Daniel Cohn-Bendit. Elmar Brok, a German Christian Democrat in the European Parliament, called it "too little, too late."

These compromise solutions in Brussels endear the EU leadership to no one. But a former longtime member of the Commission, Günther Verheugen, published a new book this week on European unity, in which he warns against the spread of right-wing populism and the dangers of "renationalization" in Europe. Without the "European spirit" once possessed by a number of state leaders, he argues, the accomplishments of the bloc -- including the freedom of travel, the single currency and more than 65 years of peace -- may come under threat.

"Hardly one of today's heads of state or government (in Europe)," Verheugen writes, "would risk his office on trying to deepen European integration."

With reporting by Christoph Schult, Stefan Schultz and Philipp Wittrock
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