The lesson of 2016: How to reverse the EU’s decline

What European policymaking needs now is a new devotion to grit-and-grind dispassion. 

Also available in

The year 2016 has seen the EU continue to lurch from crisis to crisis; at times even precariously close to the brink of disintegration. A misshapen and unstable common currency, a European youth without jobs, the strife over shared values, and the boisterous march of vociferous populists tear at the fabric of the Union; after Brexit, might we get Grexit, or even Frexit…

How much of this creeping sense of doom sounds familiar? The parallels to the tumultuous years preceding the First World War are startling. Historian Philipp Blom noted these as early as 2008 in “The Vertigo Years”: “Then as now, rapid changes in technology, globalization, communication technologies and changes in the social fabric dominated conversations and newspaper articles; then as now, cultures of mass consumption stamped their mark on the time; then as now, the feeling of living in an accelerating world, of speeding into the unknown, was overwhelming.”

Indeed, the collapse of order is one of the prominent themes of 2016. The two towering pillars of German foreign policy – the European Union and transatlantic cooperation – began crumbling within months of each other. The former, as a result of the British referendum and the ghosts of disintegration it has unleashed; the latter due to the election of a US president whose reputation for unpredictability has become a commonplace even before his entry into office.

After the momentous uprisings of 1989 and the collapse of the Berlin Wall, European states spent a tremendous amount of political and social capital on the construction of a political union, enabling a gradual unification of the continent. The question now, 25 years later, is whether the Union can prevail? This is a breath-taking turnaround from the positive energy of the 90s, exacerbated, no doubt, by the global financial crisis and its consequences. With hindsight, however, it is clear that this fate is, to a significant degree, self-inflicted: for the very same decision to expand the common market into a political project seems to have dangerously overextended the capacities of EU member states.

In the face of these developments, Germany has defiantly maintained the European Union as a pivotal point of reference over the course of 2016. Indeed, Germany’s loud and vocal support for Europe is essential for the survival of the Union, and German decision-makers are aware of this, as exemplified by their insistence on dealing with recent initiatives in foreign and security policy in the European Union framework. Critics who dismiss this approach as naïve – as if the Union was able to deliver on European security! – miss the point of the German efforts. Federal systems such as the EU rarely come apart with a violent bang – rather, they tend to slowly decay and become emptied of energy and political content until they remain husks of their former selves. This might happen through a return to isolationism and nationalism that can be seen in a number of member states, or through a continued blockade of the Union’s joint capacity to act. This would force states to find other forms of cooperation and collaboration, rendering the European Union obsolete and depriving German strategists of an essential referential axis.

What European policymaking needs now, then, is a new devotion to grit-and-grind dispassion, which would enable a shift away from its current reactionary mode. 2017 could be the European Union’s moment of truth. If it asserts itself, it could yet unleash unexpected strength and resilience. But for this to happen, it must abandon popular clichés. EU politics is not about appearances, about delicate technocracy or sanctimonious decorum, but about the messy work of politics. About meat and potatoes, nuts and bolts.

This mode of politics in itself is not particularly perilous; rather, the grave danger is if the EU system fails to build majorities to shape policies, as it currently often does. For this would continue to produce mediocrity, eschew Europe’s potential to deliver results, and hasten the Union’s march into its next – potentially fatal – crisis.

This piece originally appeared in German in the “political feuilleton” series of Deutschlandradio Kultur

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.