Can the European Union be saved?

In 1958 via the Treaty of Rome, six Western European nations (West Germany, France, Italy, and the Low Countries) began life as a cooperative economic entity known as the "Common Market."  For thirty-five years they succeeded in leading the remarkable economic recovery of post-war Europe while modestly increasing their membership.

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In 1993 under strong leadership from German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President Francois Mitterand, the member countries signed the Treaty of Maastricht committing them to a bold and ambitious program that went far beyond the partnership's original economic purposes.  The founding documents of this new "European Union" (EU) promised an "ever closer union" and pointed toward open borders and a common currency called the "Euro".

The times seemed propitious for such dramatic initiatives. The Cold War had ended, the Soviet Union had collapsed into political and military impotence, and newly freed Russian satellites, and even former parts of the Soviet Union were clamoring for admission to the EU (and NATO).  A widely hailed book of the time (Francis Fukuyama's The End of History) even announced the "final triumph of liberal democracy worldwide".

Thus the relatively homogenous original six members had morphed into a highly heterogeneous twenty-eight members, each of whom had veto power over all major EU decisions.

Suddenly ideas that appeared sound conceptually were proving unworkable practically. 

The common currency seemed reasonable – until its rigidity became a strait jacket that choked the economies of the poorer South (e.g. Greece) who them demanded bailouts from the richer North (e.g. Germany).

Open borders seemed reasonable – until a tidal wave of largely Muslim refugees from impoverished Africa and the war-torn Middle East flooded across the European continent.

More than anything else, the immigration issue demonstrated the incompetence of EU authorities in dealing with a phenomeon that was causing political chaos throughout Europe.  The political tone-deafness of the EU and national governments alike (none more spectacular than Angela Merkel) caused a yawning gulf to open between the rulers and the ruled.  Every election in the last three years revealed mounting evidence of a deepening alienation between ordinary citizens and the governing elites. 

No better proof of this syndrome is to be found than the manner in which the working class- for decades the foundation of Socialist governments across Europe- has abandoned socialist parties and left them in a state of electoral collapse.

The intractability of this EU pathology was clearly manifested in a fateful first weekend in March.

On that Friday, the German Social Democratic Party reluctantly renewed its toxic embrace of Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union -a pairing that has seen both parties’ vote totals fall to their lowest point since World War II.  While this shotgun marriage will enable Merkel to cling to power for the immediate future, it is already causing an exodus of disillusioned younger voters from both parties.  

Christian Lindner, leader of the Free Democratic Party, predicted disaster and bitterly assailed Merkel's "reckless" immigration policy, adding : "Her legacy is unleashing centrifugal powers and cultural alienation in her own country".

Then on the Sunday, Italy produced arguably the most shocking European electoral result in a generation with 69% of voters endorsing radical anti-establishment parties espousing improbable and contradictory policy solutions but making clear popular fury at the political class that has ruled the country for generations.

The Economist (3/10/18) declared this "a result that has surpassed the worst predictions and cast a pall over not only Italy, but the rest of the European Union, too".

Writing in the Wall Street Journal (3/12/18) respected Italian political scientist Francesco Ronchi saw a "wake-up call" that Brussels should take seriously: "Italian voters want Europe to defend external borders and deport illegal migrants.  They want to curb the power of technocratic institutions and a more assertive stance against a German-led European Union".

So where did the Maastricht vision of "ever closer union" - open borders, single currency etc.- go wrong?

In a little noticed but prophetic interview with Andrew Marr of the BBC this past January 20th, French President Emmanuel Macron was asked whether he thought France would have voted to abandon the EU if given a Leave/Remain option.  Quite candidly and surprisingly he replied:  "Yes, probably, probably yes". 

Macron went on to astutely describe what was ailing the EU: "Middle and working classes and the oldest decided that the recent decades were not in their favor.  The EU went too far with freedom without cohesion, free markets without rules".

A perceptive diagnosis. He must surely hope there is time for a remedy. Is there?

William Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post and Human Events.