On September 12th, EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker assumed the podium at the European Parliament in Strasbourg to deliver the annual State of the Union address. The central theme of Juncker’s speech was, unsurprisingly, “unity”. While nodding towards a laundry list of disunity and problems ranging from the dilemmas accompanying Brexit to the Hungarian rebellion against Brussels’ cultural and demographic policies, to the widening rift between the US and Europe, Juncker hopefully insisted that “Whenever Europe speaks as one, we can impose our position on others” and spent several sentences assuring listeners that Europe is the “love of his life.”
As paradoxical as such may sound, Juncker hardly could have delivered a speech more faithfully indicative of the current state of the European Union.
As all recent elections across Europe have shown, the European Union is profoundly divided and facing only growing discontent with its model and political orientation. This trend is likely to only deepen as long as statements of affection and echo-chamber insistences remain substitutes for real ideas and actions. While official Brussels propaganda – exemplified in Juncker’s speech – has tried to present the crisis of the EU as conditioned by a combination of “old nationalisms”, “old intolerance”, and “foreign destabilization” threatening to mislead Europeans against the “bright and rosy future” of “European values”, any cursory review of the stack of problems on European policy desks reveals that the present crisis of the EU is both multifaceted and systemic.
In order to understand the significance of Juncker’s State of the Union and the real state of the European Union itself, I propose to conceptualize the crisis of the EU on two fundamental levels which explain the current balance of contradictions in European politics.
The most fundamental level of the crisis of the EU is geopolitical. A brief trip down memory lane is sufficient to recall that the European Union was first and foremost a product of the post-WWII American occupation of Europe and the subsequent geopolitics of the Cold War. Historically speaking, the EU was established as an instrument of the US-led Atlanticist project that reached its climax in the late 20th century and has been in decline since. As follows, the structure and ideology of the EU have always been subordinated to and determined by the prerogatives of the Atlanticist project, thus forming the de facto political-economic superstructure or parallel to NATO. The rapid induction of the former socialist-bloc countries, previous humoring of Turkish accession to the EU, the suicidal gambit of attempting to “snatch” Ukraine, the aggressive encroachment against Russia, and the tailing of US military operations in North Africa and the Middle East which have flooded Europe with refugees and migrants all cannot be explained without this Atlanticist-geopolitical logic and context of the EU’s nature in mind. The correlation between the presence of US troops on European soil and EU integration is an extremely telling index of the fact that the EU has, since the very beginning, been a bloc whose primary driving force has been allegiance to the priorities, ideology, and values of the age-old geopolitical vision of Atlanticism which in the 1990’s prematurely claimed victory in the Cold War and proclaimed a “New American Century” and the “End of History”, in which European peoples were slated the role of being “junior partners” of the US and dissipating into nameless crowds bound together by forces over which Europeans themselves have no sovereignty – all in exchange for the “four freedoms” of goods, capital, services, and labor, and abstract promises of “human rights”, “democracy.”
Now the geopolitical tables have turned. The United States of America itself, realizing the unavoidability of the crisis of Atlanticism in the face of rising multipolarity, has sought to jump ship to “Make America Great Again”, and is imposing punitive-tribute measures on Europe on its way out. The most recent confirmation of this balance of forces was the dispute over the Iran nuclear deal. When Europe perfectly legally and logically refrained from rushing behind the US’ unilateral move to trash the international agreement and re-declare economic war on Iran, Washington promptly responded with unleashing a trade war on the European Union. Juncker capitulated in exchange for unlikely compromises only for Trump to renege and slap the originally threatened 25% tariffs on European cars. In effect, the Atlanticist rug is now being torn out from under the EU by Washington itself .
It is in this context that Juncker has been desperately proclaiming since May that the EU should take over the Atlanticist project from the US, arguing in his State of the Union address that “We must improve our ability to speak with one voice when it comes to our foreign policy.”
In other words, Juncker proposes that the EU continue to pursue the Atlanticist track with only greater “unity” and, in his words, “lasting solidarity – today and forever more.” Translated into reality, this means the continuation of a number of problematic, unsustainable “commitments”, such as the continuation of EU support for terrorist groups in Syria – which are finally on the verge of defeat – in tandem with the continuation of unjustifiable and reckless immigration policies that have yielded such famous instances in which refugees fleeing foreign-provoked wars in the Middle East have met their former captors and tormentors freely roaming at large in the EU. Indicatively enough, Juncker said on this count that “the conflict in Syria is a case in point for how the international order that served Europeans so well after the Second World War is being increasingly called into question. In today’s world, Europe can no longer be certain that words given yesterday can still be counted on today.”
When states and blocs are faced with changing international order, one of their most important – and sometimes one of their only – resources is relying on their culture and identity to determine appropriate measures for adaptation and to mobilize their populations for what are likely costly reforms and maneuvers. Yet the very fraying of the Atlanticist geopolitical thread that has held together the EU establishment has only further revealed the profound crisis on precisely this level: the crisis of “European culture”, “European values”, and “European identity.” Juncker himself offered only words, rhetorically pledging that “we are able to uphold Europeans’ values, rights and identities in doing so.” But any cursory review of recent trends in the EU shows that, in fact, the opposite is the case.
Multiple EU countries have increasingly failed to guarantee the safety of their own citizens from repeated terrorist attacks, and simultaneously refused to recognize the glaring, corresponding need to reform border, immigration, and integration policies, instead expending resources on promoting “tolerance”, as if the perpetrators of violence against European citizens were “European nationalists”, not foreign terrorists. At the same time, Brussels has directed its efforts against those members who have attempted to formulate alternative visions of European identity and institute their own sovereign policies in precisely these most crisis-plagued spheres in which Brussels’ paradigm has literally cost European lives. The most glaring example is the crusade against Orban’s Hungary, whose insistence that Europe’s Christian heritage and the physical and economic security of Europeans is threatened by the unregulated import of refugees and migrants from Africa and the Middle East, has now been met with sanctions effectively disenfranchising Hungarians and their government in European politics. The point is not even whether Orban’s Hungary’s specific approach to the problem is “appropriate” or “right” or “wrong.” The point is that Brussels is not addressing these problems, but is instead focusing its efforts against its own members who have attempted to take such matters into their own hands in the absence of any sensible EU-level deliberations.
As a testimony to Brussels’ apperception, instead of addressing these clear and present problems, and instead of addressing the serious obstacles to resolving migration and security issued posed by the deteriorating state of relations with such crucial EU neighbors as Russia and Turkey, Juncker devoted a whole section of his address on the fate of Europe to…investment in Africa.
This “logic” of Juncker’s State of the Union is a lucid example of the fact that Europe’s crisis is largely exacerbated due to the European policy establishment, of which Juncker is the head, thinking and acting not as Europe, but as something else – as Atlanticism, as Liberalism, as Globalism, etc. In the face of Juncker, Brussels has clearly demonstrated to Europeans that it has no intent of taking Europe as its touchstone. Instead, it proposes only words – “solidarity”, “unity”, “tolerance”, and “love” – in place of real solutions to real issues which, as Juncker himself tacitly admitted, are calling into question the EU’s vitality and the present world order as a whole.
By virtue of these admissions and their context, it can be said that Juncker’s State of the Union was a signal – a signal to all those political forces who are committed to the sovereign existence of a European union in one form or another, that it is now or never their turn to take the EU baton. Hence why it is no coincidence or formality that Juncker so emphatically urged with regards to the upcoming 2019 European parliamentary elections that “we must show that Europe can overcome differences between North and South, East and West, left and right.”
Indeed, the next European elections will be a heated battle for the future of not merely the European Union, but for the very concept of Europe and how it will geopolitically and culturally define itself “between North and South, East and West, left and right” in this turbulent era of transition to multipolarity. Irrespective of the outmoded categories of “left” and “right”, Europe’s political battle is now between those who wish to sacrifice Europe for the sake of Atlanticism, and those who realize that Europe can and must reassert its own sovereignty and apperception, and that it has thousands of years of history upon which to rely for orientations. Juncker’s speech was a brilliant demonstration that Brussels has no interest in doing so, and therefore the 2019 Europe-wide elections are poised to reveal just who will dare to “plant the seeds of a more sovereign Europe”, and formulate a real political alternative to the empty slogans voiced in Strasbourg.