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EU facing risk of collapse

Alex Gorka

An EU summit without the UK prime minister on 16 September in Bratislava will kick off the discussions on the EU’s future. The summit is «informal», because the UK has not yet left the Union, but its prime minister is not invited. Slovakia, whose positions on Europe’s migration policies have diverged sharply from those of the Commission and western European powers, holds the EU’s rotating Council presidency.

The decision to meet outside Brussels is intended to send a signal that Eastern European countries will be given more of a say on issues that have traditionally been the domain of core European powers like the UK, France, Germany and Italy. The EU members are divided over how to move forward. Some countries, led by France, Germany and Italy, have pushed for greater integration among EU countries, while others — especially in Eastern Europe — said there was a need to go slow. According to Belgian Prime Minister Charles, Michel countries that want to integrate more quickly should "be able to do so without being hindered by those who choose to take a bit more time to advance."

Member states in Central and Eastern Europe are suspicious of such moves towards a "two-speed" Europe.

Brexit allows adding new issues to the agenda. Five chiefs of governments - Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Beata Szydlo (Poland), Bohuslav Sobotka (the Czech Republic) and Viktor Orbán (Hungary) - concurred on the need to begin a debate on raising a common European army. The project is a clear call for Europe’s independence in the field of security which has been so far strongly rejected by the UK.

This is a major policy shift - a step to European identity and away from the dependence on the United States and US-led NATO.

But the summit will not be about Brexit or the divorce talks, but rather on the need for the EU to undergo deep reform if it wants to survive at a time when nationalism prevails over common European action.

The EU has never seen such hard times in its history. «The purpose, even existence, of our Union is being questioned», EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini wrote in the foreword to the EU Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy – the new document that saw light in late June.

«The crises within and beyond our borders are affecting directly our citizens», she underscored.

Indeed, the Union is facing a host of burning issues to tackle, such as: growing national debts of some member states, the terrorist threat that has not been countered effectively so far, the unprecedented inflow of migrants and the structural crisis illustrated by Brexit.

«Brexit is a turning point in the history of European integration», Merkel said at a joint news conference with leaders of the Visegrad group in Warsaw.

«It’s important that we come up with an appropriate response», she added.

In late August, Italian PM hosted French and German leaders for trilateral talks to lay the groundwork for larger Bratislava meeting. Renzi chose the island because of its part in the foundation of the EU, the Italian government said. Imprisoned there during the Second World War, two Italian intellectuals, Ernesto Rossi and Altiero Spinelli, wrote the influential «Ventotene manifesto» calling for a federation of European states.

EU states are divided on what direction the bloc should take to counter mounting Euroscepticism, of which the Brexit vote is the most dramatic example. Brussels and other capitals fear calls for similar in/out referendums could multiply, most imminently in the Netherlands. Faced with existential risks, Merkel wants to cement "a better Europe" rather than forge ahead with "more Europe." Renzi wants Italy to have a strong voice in how the bloc's future is shaped after Brexit and Hollande wants an EU-wide investment plan to be doubled. The three leaders also differ over how to boost the eurozone’s flagging economy, with Hollande and Renzi both broadly backing more investment and greater harmonization, but Merkel is anxious to preserve the bloc’s integrity and above all not undermine its deficit and debt rules.

The Eurosceptics and «populist movements» are on the rise across Europe including Germany. The Angela Merkel's ruling CDU party was beaten into third place by an anti-immigrant and anti-Islam party in the Mecklenburg-West Pomerania vote on September 4. The Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD) Party took just under 21% of the vote behind the centre-left SPD's 30%. The German chancellor's CDU was backed by only 19% of voters, its worst ever result in the state. The vote was seen as a key test before German parliamentary elections in 2017. It is especially embarrassing as the state is where Merkel has her parliamentary constituency. The result had great symbolic power ahead of next year's federal election and would add impetus to Berlin city-state's election on September 18. It puts into doubt the nation’s role as the EU’s driving force.

The news is being taken as yet another bellwether that the far-Right is once again ascendant in Europe. Hungary and Poland both have less than 0.2 per cent Muslim population, yet a recent Pew Research survey shows that the populations of these two whitest and Christian of European countries hold the most virulently anti-migrant and anti-Muslim views.

Political leaders weakened at home, as Mrs. Merkel now is, are less able to take the decisions at a supra-national level (on migration, global trade and the Euro) that are necessary to create the economic growth needed to quiet the current populist upheaval.

In the near future, a string of events may greatly weaken the European Union.

The 2016 Basque parliamentary election will be held on September 25, 2016, to elect the 11th Basque Parliament, the regional legislature of the Spanish autonomous community of the Basque Country. The event could change the political calculus. After the election, the Basque nationalists will likely return to Madrid with requests for more money and local empowerment, adding to the strain on a constitutional model that’s struggling to handle national divisions and a separatist push in Catalonia.

In October, Italians will vote on his Democratic Party’s plan to enact the most ambitious government overhaul in decades: a bid to end unstable coalition building by stripping the upper house of parliament of the ability to bring down governments. The number of senators would be cut by two-thirds. PM Renzi pledged to quit if he loses, a move that could benefit the anti-establishment Five Star Movement.

In early October, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban called the vote on whether the EU should be able to order Hungary to accept the settlement of migrants without parliament’s consent. The Hungarian government has opposed any EU plan to relocate asylum seekers across the EU. This might lead to an EU exit vote. A Hunxit, perhaps? Such a possibility is not excluded.

Austria will re-run a presidential election run-off on October 2, giving far-right Eurosceptic candidate Norbert Hofer the chance to reverse a wafer-thin defeat. Hofer lost out to pro-European former Green Party leader Alexander Van der Bellen. But Austria's highest court annulled the vote and required a re-run. The win of the Freedom Party’s candidate will mark an unprecedented victory for the EU’s populist right.

The next Dutch general elections will take place no later than 15 March 2017 to determine whether far-right populist Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party will get enough votes to form a government. Mr. Wilders pledged to immediately pull the Netherlands out of the EU should he become prime minister.

Scheduled for October, regional elections in the Czech Republic will become a test to Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka’s power in his own Social Democratic party. A poor result could revive the attempts inside the party to oust Sobotka and replace him with a more Eurosceptic leader.

The history of EU integration has not been a bed of roses. It’s enough to remember the EU vote that resulted in the dismantling of the EU Constitution in 2005 and the problems the EU had to overcome pushing the Lisbon Treaty through. Now the whole United Europe project is on the brink of survival.

Despite all the burning issues the bloc faces, Russia tops the list of EU’s security threats! «Russia represents a key strategic challenge», states the EU Global Strategy. Moscow has nothing to do with terrorism, migrant flows, economic stagnation and national debts. It did not tell the UK to organize the Brexit referendum. Russia did not create the EU bloated bureaucracy which causes public discontent in the member states. Perhaps, under the circumstances, the EU leaders would do better to consider carefully the Union's mistakes and failures over the recent years instead of looking for a scapegoat to distract public attention from the gist of the problem.

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