On March 25, 27 European leaders celebrated 60 years of European unity as enshrined in the Treaty of Rome, the founding document of the then–European Economic Community.
Today, the United Kingdom delivers a letter to the European Union invoking a legal clause (Article 50) to begin the two-year process to leave the Union.
Four days separate two seminal European events.
Much has been made of a union that has always sought more unity and solidarity in the form of “more Europe.” Yet on March 25, EU leaders declared that, in order to preserve an increasingly fragile unity, EU members will pursue different forms of integration in different ways, a so-called multispeed Europe.
This is our first historical experience with a European Union that will contract. In its 60 years of existence, we have only known Europe as an expansionary entity, until European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker declared this era over in 2014, noting that that there would be no expansion during his mandate.
Does Albert Einstein’s theory of bicycling—“to keep your balance, you must keep moving”—also apply to the functioning of the European Union? Will the EU bicycle fall over if it stops pedaling?
Not yet, but the wheels have begun to wobble. Europe has endured years of strenuous pedaling. When the original six European leaders met in Rome in 1957, Europe was still reeling from the aftermath of the Suez Canal crisis, as the Middle East and North Africa dominated news headlines. There was also great concern about a growing Soviet threat, as the 1956 Hungarian Revolution had been dramatically crushed by the Soviet Union the year before. A few months after the signing of the Rome Treaty, the Soviet Union successfully tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile and launched the first artificial satellite into orbit, Sputnik. Sound familiar?
Tragically, global instability has remained a constant. But as the European Union and the United Kingdom begin their divorce negotiations, which have already swung from ambivalent regret to deep-seated acrimony, these do not occur in isolation but against a backdrop of state fragmentation, rising popular unrest and nationalism, the re-creation of spheres of influence, and the self-inflicted diminishment of the U.S.-led, international rules-based system.
What is different today is that, despite periodic fissures in the transatlantic relationship, the European Union historically developed, prospered, and enlarged because of an ironclad U.S. commitment to its allies, the global alliance architecture, and the liberal international economic system. This commitment has been undermined by a newly elected populist and nationalistic American president and by adversarial powers that seek to accelerate the erosion of the credibility of the West.
This is why we enter this particular historic period with such trepidation and why we view every European election in 2017 and 2018—particularly the upcoming French presidential election—as a “make-or-break” moment for the future of Europe and for the West more broadly. The moorings that have always anchored Europe are giving way.
As the moorings loosen, the very forces that brought Europe to the brink of collapse twice in the twentieth century—populism and nationalism—are once again returning to Europe after EU leaders thought they had sufficiently eradicated these forces. But as students of conflict resolution know, the seeds of a future conflict are always sown into the treaty cloth of the last truce. And by rooting every last stem of nationalistic sentiment out of technocratic functionalism, the European Union did not allow for positive national ideation as it grew from 6 to 28 members, forgetting along the way that processes and institutions are means to improve the lives of citizens—not ends in and of themselves.
We have no idea whether Brexit will be a hopeful new beginning for the European Union and the United Kingdom, a disaster for both, or simply a continuation of their tempestuous relationship in a different form. We do not even know if the United Kingdom will remain united and at peace, as political turmoil in Northern Ireland and Scotland grows.
But we do know that the tide of history appears to be on the ebb for liberal democracies and their institutions, leaving the shore exposed to a raw and ugly nationalism that frightens us today as it did in the past.
Heather A. Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is a bipartisan, nonprofit organization founded in 1962 and headquartered in Washington, D.C. It seeks to advance global security and prosperity by providing strategic insights and policy solutions to decisionmakers.
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