Prepare for a New Europe

In his autobiographical and excellent overview of culture and society in Europe at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, ‘The World of Yesterday’, the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig showed how quickly the categories and concepts that describe the world around us can become obsolete. The lead up to World War I and the 1920s were separated by a mere decade, but when viewed in retrospect, these two decades seem to have little in common. For Zweig, writing in 1940, that entire bygone world was nothing more than an implausible legend.

No surprise, then, that Zweig’s book is currently read extensively and quoted frequently. There is a keen sense that the post-Cold War era is in inexorable decline, or has already reached its nadir. Alongside this, we see that concepts and convictions, which have thus far organised our world have become dated, read ‘outdated’.

Until recently, globalisation and interdependence have been seen as the guarantors of peace and cooperation. Instead, they have turned out to be the source of conflicts and the instruments of pressure. The statement “It’s the economy, stupid!” has ceased to be viewed dogmatically: the problems of identity and culture now move people just as much as their financial situation. Belief in the inevitable triumph of liberal democracy has been replaced by questions about the alternatives.

This miscalculation is equally relevant to the European Union. This is not merely the case with the wave of populism and Euroscepticism washing over the entire continent. What is more important is that this, alongside other factors, in particular Donald Trump’s becoming the President of the United States, is profoundly, though not yet entirely visibly, changing the fundamental assumptions upon which the project of European integration rests. The methods and standards of action appropriate in a given field are termed “paradigms” in academic texts.

There is much to show that the current revision of the three paradigms of integration is leading to an inevitable parting of ways with ‘The World of Yesterday’. How the nature and consequences of this process are understood will be of utmost importance when considering a key task facing Poland in the coming months and years:  the need to find its place in the new Europe.

Security instead of freedom

European integration was traditionally based on a simple principle: it was, above all, aimed at (market) liberalisation and greater openness of borders. It was built on the foundations of the four freedoms:  the free movement of people, goods, capital and services. From the outset, this integration was as much a project about freedom as about peace, perhaps even more so. This concerns both the value system and the principles of the political system.

The fathers of integration were guided by the conviction that their project would unquestionably  strengthen liberal democracy in member states, and that this form of government would provide the best guarantee that the age of wars in the Old Continent would be consigned to the past. This paradigm of freedom, in its previous incarnation, did not contradict security. On the contrary, freedom, liberalisation, and globalisation were all understood to be guarantors of security, both in economic and hard terms.

This understanding of freedom, particularly as it pertains to market liberalisation, is often criticised. It has been said that the European Union does an excellent job of setting free market forces but does not care enough for average citizens, who the free market treats with its customary brutality. Put another way, the EU lifts trade and investment barriers but fails to guarantee social protection.

Considering the economic crisis, technological changes and the persistently high unemployment level, neither the member states, nor the EU institutions can remain indifferent. Indeed, the EU recently passed a services liberalisation package, which may prove it is acting more in line with the rules of ‘The World of Yesterday’.

The winds of today have changed direction. It is becoming more common to talk about freedom in terms of its “excesses”, and populists are feeding on the rising social need for stability, certainty, and the protection of property. This means a return to security defined along traditional lines: a strong identity and being cut off from the world outside. Employees concerned about cut-price competition of the labour market (social dumping) are demanding greater controls of economic migration.

Economic protectionism, or to put it more delicately, patriotism is returning to favour as an instrument to secure the interests of a country’s own citizens. At the same time, for many people the threat of potential terrorist attacks, or changes taking place in the local environment as a result of migration,  makes the price of personal security, or an illusion of it, relatively low. This means the force which most strongly shapes the political imagination of societies and elites today is no longer a wish for greater openness and integration, which has driven change in Europe over the last decades, but rather an overwhelming desire to increase security and stability.

The paradigm of security is bound to change the member states and this, in turn, will change the EU. The influence of this paradigm can clearly be seen in the aforementioned area of protecting the labour market and of economic migration, and not only in the UK. The German Minister of Labour, Social Democrat, Andrea Nahles, has called for economic migrants to be prevented from claiming benefits for children living outside Germany. Austria’s chancellor, Christian Kern, also a Social Democrat, went much further in his “Plan A” agenda for Austria, which was presented at the beginning of January year. In this Plan, he announced that he intended to limit the influx of workers from the European Union to Austria, introducing the principle that Austrian citizens will have precedence when applying for a job. In the past only Eurosceptic populists called for this: now it is heard from the mainstream left.

This approach could be contagious if Britain wanted to remain a member of the EU’s single market and was granted concessions in the form of limiting the influx of EU migrants. A hard Brexit, that is London leaving the common market, might allay these concerns somewhat, but it would not eliminate them. Taking measures to limit Benefit Tourism is an easy way for the European elite to show their societies that they understand their concerns and need for security.

However, these can readily degenerate into far-reaching encroachments onto the four freedoms. Nevertheless, claims that the free movement of people is not a condition for the single market to function well are not the sole domain of politicians seeking social support. Experts from the renowned Brussels-based think tank, Bruegel, have also put this idea forward.

Perhaps these measures are necessary in order to appease citizens and, more importantly, stop them from drifting towards populist stances opposed to European integration. Nevertheless, replacing the paradigm of freedom with the paradigm of security will certainly have a decisive influence on the shape and future function of EU policy; this will also concern its finances.

One of the most important suggestions to stabilise the Eurozone today proposes its members introduce a joint additional European-wide unemployment security system. This would serve as an “automatic stabiliser” of the Eurozone, meaning that in situations where there is a sudden increase in unemployment levels in a given country, the cost of this would not automatically translate into excessive strain for the budget of that country, but would be distributed across the entire zone. It would also tackle the need to create a social pillar of the EU, which could build trust in its institutions and policies that thus far have been mainly associated with liberalisation and austerity. In order to implement this undoubtedly necessary, albeit currently rather distant project, would mean the financial structure of the EU would have to go through major changes, to the detriment of countries outside the Eurozone.

However, the paradigm of security does not encroach on the social sphere alone. The issues of internal security connected with terrorism and migration are no less important. The way European societies react to these challenges will be decisive in the future of the model which so far has been based on far-reaching civic freedoms and the idea of universal human rights. A recent report from Amnesty International is a good example of this evolution; it demonstrates that the paradigm of security lays out how anti-terrorist legislation moves the legal situation in EU countries in the direction of restricting freedom.

Refugee policy is equally important. The significance of the question how to control the influx of refugees into Europe, which is necessary to maintain social order, while also guaranteeing international rights (the 1951 Refugee Convention) and the principles of humanitarianism, goes beyond the dimension of crisis management. A Europe based on values cannot allow itself to defend its borders by violating the principle of non-refoulement (returning refugees without facilitating an asylum application) or by limiting itself to the so-called “Australian solution” (permanent detention in camps in third countries).

However, a search for a quick solution to the refugee crisis, along the lines of the paradigm of security, is in fact pushing European elites down this road. The erosion of European standards in this field could have far-reaching results, undermining the axiological framework of the EU and pushing back the legal and psychological borders of what could be accepted and imagined.

Flexibility instead of cohesion

These changes and reforms are a response to the greater need for security and to the differing interests of individual EU countries. The question is whether their implementation in all 27 member states would be feasible. The Brexit referendum demonstrated rejecting the model of the EU as an entity that leads to relative uniformity can have dramatic consequences even if the British decision was more complicated than that..

As integration moves forward, particularly with regards to further EU expansion, the discussion of how to balance the varied integration possibilities and ambitions of member states gains strength. A number of terms describing the different options have been popular in academic debate; flexibility, varied geometry, a hard core, or avant garde. And varied integration has been a fact for a long time. In practice, not all countries joined the Schengen zone; not all joined the Eurozone; some want to remain neutral in military terms and have steered away from common defence.

Despite these conditions, the definition of integration was based on the philosophy of “an even closer union”. It assumed the existence of an imprecisely defined horizon to the integration process, towards which all countries were heading, sometimes at a different pace and in a different choreography. Flexibility was viewed as an unpleasant necessity; a deviation from the rule; a transitory problem which needed to somehow be managed, rather than a permanent element of the architecture of integration. In other words, the image of the EU was governed by the paradigm of cohesion; the more cooperation and proximity between member states who were building up their interdependence and mutual solidarity, the better for the durability and stability of the project.

The provision for “an even closer union” is still in force and has not been affected by the pre-referendum agreement between the EU and Britain, which weakened it and which, finally, was not implemented; it was intended to persuade British citizens to vote to remain in the EU but which was,  as we know, unsuccessful. However, neither this purpose of integration nor the paradigm of cohesion continues to shape the future image of the EU.

In the past, it was necessary to limit the negative consequences of varied integration. Today, it is increasingly seen as a promising solution to the problems with which the EU struggles. Advocates of increased flexibility, as a principle governing the way the EU functions, believe that the only method to prevent the EU from falling apart is to loosen the bonds of integration, and to allow member states to have a greater say in which joint projects they wish to participate. “Flexible solidarity” was the Visegrad countries’ response to the trauma caused when attempts were made to impose relocation quotas. France and Italy were in favour of a return to the idea of  “hard core” integration, thus demonstrating reluctance towards an EU expanding eastwards.

It is not entirely clear how a flexible EU should function, whether on the basis of concentric circles, or centres of strengthened cooperation in different areas of politics, but the paradigm of flexibility has certainly captured the imagination of politicians and analysts. The supporters of flexibility as the new principle governing the EU argue that it must include the assumption that no country should suffer any consequences for refusing to participate in projects related to enhanced cooperation.

As attractive as this demand may be on paper, it is unlikely that it can realistically be put into practice. The EU’s cohesion has always been a condition, even a synonym for the solidarity of member states. Should a loosening of the bonds, by way of the introduction of more easily accessible varied integration levels occur, then it would be difficult to imagine that this would not be accompanied by an erosion of the fundamental values, on which the EU is based. Above all, it is anticipated that increased cooperation among a group of countries in a particular area would generate an enhanced sensation of proximity and solidarity, and would, inevitably, be detrimental to the countries outside this group.

The Eurozone is, of course, the best example of this. Even without the introduction of automatic transfer mechanisms, Eurobonds, the awareness of the scale and consequence of links between its members proves that the willingness to offer financial aid to countries within the Eurozone is higher than to those outside it. The creation of the European Stability Mechanism, the European Central Bank’s easy-money policy, and the banking union are all expressions of this stance. Germany’s inclination is to come to the aid of countries of the South is in its own interests and is linked to interdependence.

Further steps towards a greater Eurozone integration, such as the aforementioned unemployment insurance, a common budget, and Eurobonds, will, inevitably, lead to negative consequences for the remaining EU countries in the form of: reduced financial solidarity between them, a relative reduction in their credibility on the financial markets, a deterioration in their banking systems relative to the Eurozone, and an increase in the costs incurred in acquiring loans on the financial markets.

Furthermore, following the UK’s departure from the EU, the ability of the countries outside the Eurozone to secure their interests will be negligible. Driven by the pursuit of their own interest, London has been a powerful ally for countries outside the Eurozone that Brussels and the national capitals need to take this into account.

One further example is the possible enhanced cooperation on migration and asylum policy. Organising this area and subjecting the influx of migrants, refugees, in particular, to more effective verification and limits is among the most important challenges of the near future. It is difficult to imagine that the response to this problem could be restricted merely to strengthening the protection of external borders. This is essential but massively insufficient, not only for humanitarian reasons.

The EU, above all, needs close cooperation with the countries of origin of the migrants, mainly to ensure the efficacy of the policy of readmission of migrants who did not receive asylum in Europe. But this cooperation comes at a price: it must also include assurances that there will be legal channels for economic migration to Europe; the significant participation of EU countries in the policy of direct resettlement of refugees from third countries to Europe, which also cuts off the revenue stream of criminal people smuggling gangs; financial support for those countries, and cooperation with them in the field of security.

Clearly, not all the EU countries will want to take part in such joint efforts, and without them the administration of the migration and refugee problem will never be effective. However, the group of countries which could decide to face this challenge collectively, and bear the burden of a policy thus defined will, in consequence, be guided by a greater sense of mutual solidarity than they would feel towards the countries which refused to take on this responsibility, for whatever reasons.

The field of defence policy, or external security, also presents the same dilemma. The cooperation of some countries would in part be based on the integration of their arms industries, joint purchases of military material, pooling resources, and making common use of them, and, finally, the creation of joint military units. This would, by its nature, create stronger bonds between participating countries than other issues.

Certainly not every area of enhanced cooperation would lead to such a strong perception of solidarity, as is the case of the areas described above. However, what is most important is that an à la carte Europe, in which each country has the right to choose how far it wishes to integrate in particular areas, would not necessarily end up as a multi-centred union, or lead to a gradual disintegration. On the contrary: assuming that a large group of countries, led by Germany, would participate in all or the majority of joint integration projects, the result of this process might instead be a de facto hard core of integration, and a periphery bereft of influence on the direction the EU takes and its policy.

A post-Atlantic Europe, not trans-Atlantic

This question is crucial to the third, and possibly the most important, change in the paradigm related to Donald Trump’s presidency. European integration has always been essentially a transatlantic undertaking. The significance of the United States was not determined solely by the fact that Washington offered Europe security guarantees, firstly, the western part and later a large chunk of the east. It was equally important that it was overwhelmingly in the United States’ interests for the countries of Europe to be united and in close cooperation.

The role the United States played at the dawn of European integration was invaluable. Also, in the ensuing decades the United States saw a united Europe as an important partner in promoting its view  of the world based on international institutions, free trade, globalisation and, above all, on liberal and democratic values. In spite of divisions, e.g. during the Iraq war, this transatlantic paradigm remained in force.

The first statements and measures of President Trump praising Brexit, encouraging other countries to leave the EU, and criticising the EU as a project which only serves the interests of Germany could indicate that this approach will change during his administration. They certainly show that the values that thus far constitute the foundations of Trans-Atlantic cooperation will no longer occupy that role. There is no doubt that such development of the United States’ policy regarding Europe will significantly impact its security and internal stability.

Josef Joffe, the renowned German international publisher, defined the United States some years ago as “Europe’s pacifier”, or a power which can assuage Europe’s internal quarrels and conflicts by its policy of being a liberal hegemon. The United States’ rejection of the idea that European unity is good in itself may inflict worse damage on Europe than any potential ‘big deal’ between Washington and Moscow. The significance of the post-Atlantic paradigm for the EU will depend on how individual member states react to a change in strategy, should such strategy take hold, and on specific moves made by the American administration.

The EU should certainly not downplay the potential these reactions could have for disintegration. The most important areas are, naturally, security and defence. Trump already described NATO as “obsolete” during his election campaign. However, this does not need to lead to Europe closing ranks in order to develop their own effective defence capabilities. This direction was, in fact, already outlined in the EU global strategy adopted in June 2016, which emphasised the need to increase the EU’s efforts in this area, regardless of the result of the United States election.

In turn, in December 2016, the European Council adopted conclusions which laid out a further agenda of works, such as the “defence union” project. Immediately following Trump’s victory, the leaders of Germany and France made clear statements that the EU should take greater responsibility for its own security. The consolidation of the EU as a response to the uncertainty coming from Washington is currently the key message Angela Merkel communicates to her European partners. The way in which this consolidation plays out, and how the remaining EU countries respond to it will impact not only security in the EU, but, above all, its unity.

One threat this consolidation may face is the attempts of individual countries or regions of the EU to seek bilateral agreements with the United States, in response to what Trump has indicated as a transactional approach to international affairs. It is not currently possible to evaluate just how tempting this bilateralism will be, but it stands limited chances of success. This is particularly the case because factors such as a weakening of American security guarantees, should there be a US-Russian rapprochement, are precisely the factors which would motivate countries, for example Poland, the Baltic States, and Romania, to consider this option but would simultaneously rule out the prospect of bilateral guarantees.

However, it appears there is a view the United States should have stronger bonds with the Central,  Eastern and the South-Eastern regions of Europe, at least as concerns the Polish Three-Seas-Initiative. The vision of Poland as the cooperative leader of countries stretching from the Baltic to the Adriatic and the Black Sea, seeking regional partnership with the United States, may appear attractive against the backdrop of a shake-up in Europe and the distrust of its western European partners, particularly in the area of security.

Nevertheless, parallel attempts to build a European defence union and possible efforts to more firmly establish the United States in the EU, or in a part of the EU (at what price?), may lead to serious political divergences in the structure of the EU, regardless of the prospects both these projects have of success.

The issue of whether Europe’s reaction to Trump’s moves will be collaborative or diversified will be a difficult and dangerous test of the EU’s unity and many other issues. Possible tensions in trade issues, for example removing import tariffs on cars to the United States, will require a response from the EU. How this is drawn up, and the final shape it takes once it is prepared by the European Commission may bring about internal conflicts.

The prospect of a trade war with the United States seems rather unlikely, but it does seem worthwhile to ask whether a group of 27 countries can find consensus when a sub-section of them wish to react more firmly to Washington’s manoeuvres than others. Consular and other issues, already raised by Trump, may also have a polarising effect on EU countries, leading some to offer greater concessions and to others taking a tougher stance.

This situation could also come about through intentional measures taken in Washington, should Trump determine the EU is more of a competitor than an ally, and opt to try and weaken or disintegrate it. The positive reaction of a section of the European populist right to Trump’s victory, his criticism of the EU and anti-establishment and anti-liberal rhetoric certifies to the new problems awaiting Europe.

Above all, Trump’s rhetoric pushes the boundaries of public discourse in favour of groups who dislike the EU, liberal democratic values and the paradigm of freedom; precisely the values that have shaped the process of European integration so far. Naturally, speculation on the impact of Trump’s presidency will remain just that, speculative, up until his EU strategy takes a more solid form. However, the uncertainty connected with the post-Atlantic paradigm alone is a serious threat to the European project and, moreover,  means the pre-Trump era can be discussed in terms of ‘The World of Yesterday’.

Poland in the new Europe

A Europe defined by the new paradigms is, a less certain, less stable and less beneficial international arena for Poland and its key interests: security, prosperity and the solidarity of other EU members. Poland’s greatest threat would be the profound erosion, or worse, the collapse of the EU’s structures. This could lead to Poland lying outside the core of the EU, as defined by Germany.

Poland’s potential, particularly the significance of its relationship with the United States and Germany, and its role as the largest country in the eastern part of the EU, will be a crucial to sparking a revision of the premise on which European integration has been based, so far. This is why, in a new Europe, Poland will need considered and responsible policy, the ability to cooperate and reach compromises with its partners and the ability to resist the temptation to take action that could accelerate the process of disintegration. This evaluation leads to four conclusions in particular.

Firstly, it may be impossible to avoid a more flexible EU, by way of loosening the institutional framework towards a geometric integration, or even a Europe à la carte. Poland should not, though, be an advocate of this divergence, nor should it delude itself that this would be in its own interests. In the final reckoning, it is not formal treaty provisions or intergovernmental settlements which will have most importance, for example guaranteeing other countries access to circles of enhanced cooperation or ensuring equal treatment of all EU members, regardless of their level of integration..

What will be more important is the degree to which a given member state is willing to take on joint responsibility for and solve the problems of the EU as a whole. In other words, the level of solidarity which other member states feel towards Poland, their perception of connectedness, and their willingness to defend Poland, will be in proportion to how deeply rooted Poland is in the EU in its main areas of cooperation.

In the longer term, the model of the EU as a formation of various more or less interconnected circles of cooperation is certainly an illusion. Membership of these circles will begin to overlap over time, for example the Euro, migration policy, defence policy etc.,  and Germany will be at the core of them all.

The UK could have theoretically served as an alternative centre of cooperation outside the “core”, but now they have left the EU the centralisation of the EU on Germany will become particularly pronounced. This means it is not the future shape of a “flexible” EU which will be of the utmost importance for Poland, but rather whether it chooses to take advantage of this by remaining at the margins, or by more strongly establishing itself within the EU. It is not difficult to interpret this evaluation as a further argument in favour or Poland joining the Eurozone.

Secondly, Poland should show restraint from taking measures that would not strengthen EU structures and institutions and harm them, both in symbolic-rhetorical and in political terms. This is particularly relevant to the coming months: discussions about the EU’s  future in the context of the “Bratislava process” and the commemoration of integration in March this year.

Some demands which are unhelpful resolving the EU’s current problems are: criticism of the EU as a project dominated by its largest countries, in line with Trump’s rhetoric; calls for nation states to be strengthened, particularly emphasised by the governments of Hungary and Poland; ideas of institutional changes aimed at weakening the European Commission; and strengthening the binding force of national parliaments. These demands could, in fact, lead the debate within the EU astray.

At the level of the political message, Poland should support the view that, even though “more Europe” is not an antidote for all ills, in many areas, it is impossible to face up to the EU’s problems merely by maintaining the status quo, or by deciding to take a step backwards. Perhaps in some areas, the EU needs more intergovernmental, not community-based cooperation. However, if Poland takes this stance it will only be treated as a credible partner when it is prepared to fully and actively participate in those forms of cooperation, for example regarding the defence of the EU’s external borders.

Thirdly, Poland should, above all and in its own interests, work towards preventing the looming crisis in transatlantic relations from turning into a profound and lasting split between the European Union and the United States. Poland and the other countries of the EU have no influence on how relations between Washington and Moscow will develop. However, within the framework of the EU, their voice could have a certain significance. The degree to which Poland helps shape European policy to its own interests, in the post-Atlantic paradigm, will depend to a large extent on the state of its relationship with its key partners in the EU.

The comparison to EU-Russia relations is automatic, because the EU’s political elites see Trump as at least as big a problem as Putin. In both cases the efficacy of Polish diplomacy will in large part be a reflection of Poland’s position within the EU. That is why Poland’s priority should be to strengthen its bonds with the EU, rather than loosen them. It should also refrain from taking steps which could disrupt European unity. Action taken to maintain the EU’s and Poland’s close relationship with the United States should not cross the red line of the overriding importance of the EU’s cohesion.

The temptation to reach bilateral or regional arrangements with the United States should also be rejected, regardless of their merely illusory chances of success, because the Trump administration’s essentially unpredictable policy and transactional approach cannot be seen to guarantee Poland’s security outside of NATO. The real and measurable character of Poland’s links with Europe, particularly with Germany, will ensure they take priority.

Fourthly, in the new EU reality, many difficult decisions await Poland that are far from the win-win model that has previously shaped the imagination of European integration as a process where everybody benefits. This truth remains in place, but in the area of strategic moves, the coming months and years will require Poland to reach difficult compromises, and to take steps which may run counter the majority of public opinion in the country.

This social dimension of European policy is very important. As we showed in a recent analysis, the belief that Polish society broadly supports the EU is based on a gross simplification. It is true that over 80 per cent of Poles support Poland’s EU membership, but their willingness for further integration and taking on greater responsibility for Europe is limited.

Furthermore, due to the experiences of history and its value system, a large section of Polish society  is prone to nationalist and isolationist arguments, which reveal an aversion to outsiders and Western Europe. The best strategy in the time of “new paradigms” seems to be for Poland to become more firmly established in Europe, and not just to maintain the status quo.

For this to happen, a large section of society will need to be convinced. It is necessary to redefine Poland’s “pro-Europeanness” and to re-implant it into society again. This is a task for those amongst the political scene and the elite who identify with the conclusions of this analysis. It is doubtless an extremely difficult task considering it runs counter to the current dominant trend.


The article was originally published in Polish on the Stefan Batory Foundation‘s web page.


The views expressed in this opinion editorial are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Emerging Europe’s editorial policy.

About the author

Piotr Buras

Piotr Buras

Piotr Buras is director of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank; he is an expert on European and German affairs, and was Gazeta Wyborcza’s permanent Berlin correspondent between 2008 and 2012. He is the author of "Muslims and Other Germans. The Reinvention of the Berlin Republic." (2011).

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