(Photo: European Parliament, CCL)
BY SOPHIE WHITTINGHAM
Europe, and the exact degree of cohesion between its member states, is one of the most contentious issues in politics today. The full ramifications of Brexit will not become clear for years to come, and the future of the European Union seems difficult to predict in increasingly turbulent political times. Yet the ideal of an increasingly united Europe now seems further away than ever. The migrant crisis, the collapse of the Greek economy, and the increasing desire within some states to reclaim sovereignty seem to point to a union that is reaching breaking point.
In France, the nationalist Front National party is doing increasingly well, and their Presidential candidate Marine Le Pen currently has higher approval ratings than incumbent President Francois Hollande. Her message echoes themes that were highlighted by Brexit campaigners and Donald Trump: that globalisation has hurt the poor of Britain, of France, of America. Madame Le Pen and her party are ardent Eurosceptics, and it is unlikely that, if she came to power, France would remain in the EU. One of her key election pledges is to call a referendum on the subject. The uncertainty alone would be likely to cause more disunity within Europe.
If both France and Britain left the EU, it would send a powerful message about a lack of confidence in the European project. The fact that two of the largest countries in the Union are expressing protectionist sentiments suggests a belief the EU has failed to adequately cushion its citizens from the effects of globalisation. Indeed, this sentiment seems to be a fairly populist one, as nationalism is also on the rise within Europe. If this populist dissatisfaction continues, the European Union may continue to fracture accordingly.
The EU is not only facing a crisis of confidence. The migrant crisis has also caused severe fractures within Europe, and there seems to be no easy solution. 98% of Hungarian citizens voted to reject the mandatory migrant quotas that the EU attempted to impose, for instance. They are not alone: numerous other countries have followed suit, with Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic (known collectively as the Visegrad Group) also expressing doubts about the quotas.
The lack of unity over such an immediate problem does not suggest that the EU can work as a cohesive entity in crisis. Similar problems arose during the Greek economic crisis when, in order to gain funding from Europe, Greece was forced into accepting austerity measures that were decisively rejected by the people. Such deep divisions cannot be easily smoothed over, and the EU cannot sustain pushing policies on unwilling states.
Prominent politicians within the Visegrad Group have already expressed increasing sentiments to see reformation and revolution within the Union. It is plausible that these jockeying desires for ever closer integration and a desire to reclaim sovereignty may lead to a complete fragmentation of the European Union.
One of the main themes of the Brexit campaign was the idea of Britain taking back its sovereignty: ‘Vote Leave, Take Control’ was the main slogan of the campaign, and effectively summarises the nationalist sentiments behind the growing Euroscepticism among EU member states. This fracturing between European states could leave the Union on life support, and may even provide the mortal wound should another irreconcilable difference emerge.
The future of the European project then seems to be dangerously precarious. Instead of an ever closer union, we are only seeing more and more divisions opening up. Instead of Europe gaining a more cohesive cultural identity, nationalism is becoming a more prominent theme in European politics. If Marine Le Pen succeeds in May, and France questions its part in the European Union, it may be the final straw for an already weakened and divided Europe.