Fintan O’Toole: EU is still at risk of slow self-destruction

If response to Brexit is just ‘good riddance’, the EU may sleepwalk into its own demise. Our ‘Europe’s Future’ series concludes

This is the final part of the ‘Irish Times’ series Europe’s Future. With Brexit talks in train, and the European Union assailed by threats on various fronts, ‘Irish Times’ writers have examined the union’s prospects at a critical point. Has the populist wave been halted? Is the EU facing a crisis of legitimacy? What can it do to reassert itself?

When the alarm clock goes off you can do one of two things. You can get angry at the clock, throw it across the room, turn over and go back to sleep. Or you can wake up and face the day.

Brexit is the European Union’s alarm clock, and it is not yet clear which of the two reactions will take hold. On this choice may well depend the future of the EU itself.

If the response to the departure of one if its largest members is simply a blithe “good riddance”, the EU may sleepwalk towards its own destruction. If it is a more rueful “there but for the grace of God”, the union may be stirred into facing the hard work of saving itself.


Brexit arises from political and historical forces specific to the United Kingdom. But shocks of a similar order could have happened in one of the EU’s core founding members, France or Italy, last year.

The extraordinary rise of the proudly pro-EU Emmanuel Macron in France obscures the reality that in the first round of the presidential elections, in April, a clear majority of voters backed either the anti-EU Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon or the heavily Eurosceptical François Fillon. In Italy three of the four major parties are hostile if not to the EU itself then at least to membership of the euro zone.

The British government has been performing an accidental morality play for the citizens of other countries: if you think the EU is bad, just consider what leaving it looks like

If there had been referendums in France or Italy last year, when the wave of anti-establishment anger was at its height, there is every possibility that the EU could now be facing an existential crisis of much greater import than Brexit itself.

Simply forget

Yet there is a strong impulse to simply forget this. Last week schoolchildren in France received an educational guide to the EU. Already it is a union of "27 pays" – the UK has disappeared from the map. It's over – and the EU, the not-so-subtle message suggests, is moving on.

This message is being inadvertently reinforced by the chaotic mess that is Brexit itself. The British government has been performing an accidental morality play for the citizens of other countries: if you think the EU is bad, just consider what leaving it looks like.

In this way the tragicomedy of Brexit paradoxically reinforces some of the smug habits of mind that contribute to popular distrust of the EU: if the only alternative to technocracy is setting your own hair on fire, technocracy must be doing okay.

But “stick to nurse for fear of something worse” is not a programme for the long-term survival of the most innovative political experiment in modern history.

Maze of contradictions

The EU is currently caught in a maze of contradictions. It has created, especially with the adoption of the euro, a huge technocratic infrastructure (most obviously in the European Central Bank) without creating the mechanisms of democratic accountability to keep it in line.

It has acquired many of the characteristics of a state without having the deep sense of identity and allegiance a state requires. It has created expectations that it should be able to solve problems collectively, but when faced with crises like the vast influx of refugees it lacks the power (and apparently the will) to do so.

The United States of America, to which the EU is often compared, struggled to create a common identity even within a dominant white, Christian, anglophone capitalist ethic

It has created (as the euro-zone crisis showed) the need to build federal institutions with formidable economic powers, but it has not created an appetite among most of its citizens for those powers to be ceded to the European centre. It can neither move forward to a federalised future nor retreat to the more minimal status of a trading bloc.

At the core of these problems is an ideological crisis. The EU has to root itself in ideas and values because it can’t root itself in anything else. It can’t be built on the foundations of the 19th-century nationalism from which most of its member states draw their sense of identity: the narratives of blood, soil and belonging, or even affiliation to a common language.

The United States of America, to which it is often compared, struggled to create a common identity even within a dominant white, Christian, anglophone capitalist ethic. The EU can’t – and certainly shouldn’t try to – bind itself together in the way the US did, through aggressively violent expansion and a cult of military greatness.

So what has it got instead? Fear. Historically fear is almost always politically toxic. The EU is one of the very few examples of a political project built on fear that is positive and inclusive. It came about because of fear of fascism and communism on a continent that had been torn apart by one and split in two by a totalitarian form of the second.

Basic dignity

The fundamental perception that gave it life was that in order to avoid a resurgence of fascism, and to compete ideologically with communism, structures had to built in which all citizens could enjoy at least a basic level of security and dignity.

The EU was built on an alliance of social-democratic and Christian-democratic parties, differing in many ways but held together by the belief that capitalism must be heavily moderated if it is not to destroy itself and take down whole societies with it.

But that fear dissipated. The generation scarred by fascism passed on. The Berlin Wall fell and communism ceased to be a threat, either internally or externally. Without this fear the social-democratic parties lost both their radicalism and their relevance and the Christian-democratic parties became cheerleaders for neoliberalism. The consequence is the biggest contradiction of all: while the EU sells itself to its citizens as the motor that drives economic and political “convergence”, the reality is one of fatal social divergence.

Growing inequality is fundamentally incompatible with either economic or political stability

In the 1980s the average income of the richest 10 per cent of Europeans was seven times higher than that of the poorest 10 per cent; today it is about 9.5 times higher. The long-term trend is towards increasing inequality in both income and wealth. The poorest 40 per cent now own just 3 per cent of wealth.

And since the young have now replaced the elderly as the age group most at risk of poverty, this inequality is being cemented into the foundations of Europe’s future.

Those foundations simply cannot be secure. Growing inequality is fundamentally incompatible with either economic or political stability. People who feel that their political institutions are not only not protecting them from the ravages of hypercapitalism but are actually dismantling the protections they did have will be angry and volatile.

Inevitable consequences

And this is the fear that the EU has to use to motivate itself, just as the dread of dictatorship and war got it moving in the first place. It should hear the alarms going off and take fright at the inevitable consequences of growing inequality.

When it came into being, the case for the EU could be explained to every citizen in a single, comprehensible sentence: “The union exists because we must never go to war with each other again.”

Now it has to be able to express its reason for being in a similarly compelling sentence: “The union exists because citizens in a globalised economy need a transnational power to protect them from a feral capitalism that would destroy their environment, their social services, their rights as workers and their belief that their children can have better lives than they do.”

The EU’s double bind is that in order to do this job of protecting its citizens it needs to be more powerful. But in order to become more powerful it needs to convince those citizens that it actually does exist to protect them. For far too many of those citizens, especially in the wake of EU-led austerity programmes, that conviction is hard to come by.

Powerful institutions

There is a very strong case for an EU that moves forward to become something much more like a federal state, with powerful democratic institutions and the power to redistribute wealth from its richest to its poorest citizens. But that case is weakened by the existence of an EU that is neither democratic enough nor sufficiently committed to economic equality.

It may be that by the end of 2017 we will be able to say that the EU has had a lucky escape, that a year in which its effective demise was conceivable has passed and left it more or less intact. But if relief gives way to complacency this will be a mere stay of execution.

Samuel Johnson claimed that nothing concentrates the mind like the thought of being hanged in the morning. The EU should not need the prospect of its own imminent demise in order to concentrate its mind on the inequalities that will kill it more slowly.