by Mindy Clegg

In 2015, Slovenian industrial band Laibach released Spectre. Known for their cover songs, their eighth studio album consisted primarily of originals. One track, “Eurovision”, posits that after years of building up a pan-European organization, disaster looms for this decades long project. The song—released prior to Brexit—seems a warning, similar to their 1989 Belgrade concert where they performed a speech that juxtaposed the words of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and President and Serbian nationalist Slobodan Milošević as a warning against ultra-nationalist language.

Today Europe feels on the brink of falling apart. Brexit helped destabilize the EU. Many of the former Yugoslav countries—many of whom expressed interest in joining the EU—continue to struggle with the fallout from the wars of the 1990s and early 2000s. Belarus’ actions on the Polish border bring to light the EU’s problems with the issue of migration. These and other troubles could deconstruct the EU project altogether, which could cause other problems.

The EU project began after the Second World War as a means of bringing stability to a Europe that had torn itself apart twice in the previous thirty years. Cast as a unity project, its founding also speaks to the Cold War context of its founding. In 1949, a month after the formation of NATO, ten states founded the Council of Europe. Trade was a critical part of the EU project, with the European Coal and Steel Community emerging in 1952. The 1958 signing of the Treaty of Rome created the European Economic Community and European Atomic Energy Community. This period also saw the establishment of the European parliament, which began to vote on policies regulating trade within the union by 1962. The signing of several international agreements followed in 1963. From these six founding member states (Germany, France, Italy, Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg), the project snowballed. Ireland and the UK joined in 1973 along with Denmark, raising the number of members to nine. During the 1980s, as some of the final former fascist states were integrated as the Eastern Bloc began to see sustained internal protests. The Commons started as a free trade zone, but by 1986 EU lawmakers shifted to creating a single market. Although other shared issues were discussed (the environment and the freedom of movement for example), the connective tissue of the EU was the economy. The single market emerged in 1993. The Euro as a single currency appeared in 1999. New members continued to join including former Eastern Bloc countries such as Poland, Czechia, and Hungary. After a new constitution came into force, the twin problems of terrorism and the globalized neo-liberal economy began to make themselves felt. The migrant crisis and the rise in right wing political actions, including acts of terrorism, called the project into question. Then came Brexit and the rising tide of tensions with non-EU European neighbors. Many in Europe were expressing skepticism during this era. One example was Montenegro’s Eurovision entry in 2012, Rambo Amadeus’ “Euro Neuro”.

Although the economic justification was front and center by the end of the Cold War, seeming to take over other reasons for a unified Europe, the goal of a more peaceful world still was to be found in the background of the project. But that reason got more than a bit lost in rising criticisms of the neo-liberal economy demanding austerity and helping to create greater economic inequality than almost any other time in history.

These two intertwined problems of global economic instability and right wing violence threaten European unity. A modern wave of Islamophobia has marked far right politics since September 11. Right wing politicians leveraged fears of terrorism and tied it to the wave of refugees coming to Europe primarily from the Middle East and North Africa. These refugees were primarily the result of wars waged by the United States and her allies in those parts of the world since 2001. The people fleeing political violence were imagined to be trojan horses for a modern Islamic conquest of Europe. Although not the sole factor for pro-Brexit sentiment, many voters expressed concerns about the migrant crisis. Writing in the Irish Times, Matthew Goodwin also noted Nigel Farage of the far right party UKIP pushed a sense of being “economically left-behind” among some working class voters. Those two factors merged with a strong sense of “Euroskepiticsm” touted by the current Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Additionally, the UK under Tory leadership seems determined to walk back their agreements around the Irish border in the Brexit agreement. The Good Friday Accords, brokered by the US under President Bill Clinton in 1998, seems on the verge of dissolving. Many find a hard border between the Republic and North Ireland unacceptable, but so is a hard border between North Ireland and the rest of the UK. Although the UK has voted itself out of the EU, the Republic of Ireland remains. A return to the Troubles in North Ireland would most certainly include blowback for the Republic and the EU more generally.

On the other edge of Europe in the Balkans, the Dayton Accords—another Clinton era peace deal that ended hostilities in Bosnia-Herzogovenia—took a serious blow when the President of the Republika Srpska Milorad Dodik threatened to pull out of the shared governing bodies. The agreement set up a shared government between two separate administrative sectors with overlapping responsibilities. With President Dodik’s pronouncement, many fear that there might be a return to hostilities, as he promised to create a Serb-only military. Dodik rejected these fears, but he also denies the genocidal acts committed by Bosnian Serb forces during the war. In his analysis for Al-Jazeera Mersiha Gadzo noted that the UN representative Christian Schmidt believed this was “secession without proclaiming it.” Gadzo also quoted Ismail Cidic of the Bosnian Advocacy Center, who warned that “Dodik is doing all this because he understands that the international community is not going to react properly.” While Bosnia is not yet an EU member, their proximity to the EU would cause serious problems for the bloc, including more Muslim refugees though from inside Europe. This would certainly give the far right new fears to stoke.

The current situation on the Polish-Belarus border highlights tensions that could undermine European unity. Although the President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko claimed to have discussed the impasse with Chancellor Angela Merkel and agreed to negotiations with Poland the weaponization of refugees was certainly meant to inflame right wing sentiment in Poland. He was reacting in part to EU sanctions against Belarus. Some refugees were already seeking entry to the EU via Belarus according to Leonid Ragozin in Al-Jazeera as they have a “lax visa process.” Ragozin characterized Belarus’ strategy as “blackmail” that could lead to “full-out global conflict.” Critics argue that destabilization of the EU was the goal. Lukashenko found backing from Russian President Vladimir Putin, with some believing he’s a mere puppet of Putin.

Over and above the unconscionable weaponization of refugees desperate for a better life, Belarus’ actions also highlights some of the hypocrisy on the part of the EU. Part of what drove Brexit and the rise of right wing political parties was the stoking of fears of Muslims from Africa and the Middle East. Poland and Hungary, both EU members, have had their own problems with accepting refugees as demanded by EU policies. The Polish government began to ignore EU laws that the right wing Law and Justice party opposed around 2015. The EU discussed sanctions, but Hungary backed Poland, making enforcement difficult if not impossible. Both countries refused to accept refugees. This made the weaponization of refugees trivially easy for Belarus. The quickest way to defuse the situation would be to let the migrants into Poland, but Lukashenko realizes that is unlikely to happen. In some ways, the current Polish and Hungarian governments have more in common with Belarus and Russian than with their EU compatriots.

These events seriously challenge EU unity. They could result in real conflict, especially as the pressures from the ongoing pandemic, climate change, and movement of people from climate change and conflicts continue to escalate. Much of the criticism of the EU comes from the right, especially the far right, who focus on issues like “loss” sovereignty and fears of migrants. The left has its own criticism of the EU on democratic and economic grounds. Writing in the British magazine Ceasefire Tom Kavanagh called the EU undemocratic, even as he admits that the British government itself isn’t exactly a bastion of robust democracy right now. “The Union has been imposed from the top down,” he concludes. That is not a totally unreasonable criticism, as many see such supra-national organizations as more prone to capture by corporate interests and far less accountable to voters. One example he examines is allowing prisoners to vote. The UK government rejected the idea, but Brussels forced the government’s hand. Kavanagh argued this represents a bigger violation of basic rights than the act stripping citizens of their voting rights. But he also notes that many British citizens supported the measure of allowing voting rights for the incarcerated, which the British governments rejected despite the popular support. He views the EU as similar to the Soviet Union, where a centralized bureaucracy imposed policy on other states. The second comment to his article argued against the lack of democracy in the EU, claiming its far more democratic than most national governments. But Kavanagh rejected that dichotomy out of hand and goes on to note that a “rule by experts” as he sees the EU to be, isn’t inherently democratic and as such should rejected. But what about democracy that seeks to limit freedoms more generally for specific groups of people on a national level? It’s pretty well-established at this point that xenophobia was among the tactics employed by those promoting Brexit. Does democracy mean that people should be allowed to vote away the rights of others? On the other hand, should basic ignorance of political and social realities be a reason for barring voting, as some have suggested? In case you’re wondering, the answer to that is a firm no. But it’s worth asking what floor should we set for the preservation for basic rights for all of us and who gets to decide what those should be? That doesn’t even get into the problems of misinformation and propaganda exacerbated by the rise of social media. Either way, the path forward for a unified and peaceful Europe now seem, at best, rocky, and at worst, non-existent. One hopes that these problems can be addressed in a democratic manner going forward. Though there are no easy answers, ending the European unity project seems unlikely to fix anything. Injecting greater transparency and democratic practices might help solve these very serious problems faced by the EU.