The European Union “stands at a crossroads, a defining moment in its existence”. These would be fitting words for today’s situation, as the Greek debt crisis has entered a state of open escalation. However, the quote originates from the Laeken Declaration, issued by the European Council fourteen years ago. Back in 2001, European leaders predicted that the euro would “become a day-to-day reality for 300 million European citizens”. They noted, moreover, that steps should taken to increase democratic accountability, addressing European citizens’ concerns “that deals are all too often cut out of their sight”, and mused about the EU assuming “a leading role to play in a new world order”. Today, the future of the euro is uncertain and the political institutions and processes to solve the crisis obscure and evidently unfit for purpose.
What is more, the continuing deterioration of the crisis puts in question Europe’s role in the world. Against the backdrop of the protracted weakening of the Greek economy and the impoverishment of the Greek people, achieving foreign objectives of the EU Treaties such as the global “eradication of poverty” and the “the integration of all countries into the world economy” (Article 21 TEU) increasingly appear unrealistic—if not cynical.
The recently launched Report of the Commission on Global Security, Justice & Governance stresses the important part that regional organizations play in global governance. Former Nigerian Foreign Minister and UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Ibrahim Gambari, who serves as Co-Chair of the Commission together with former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, highlighted the contributions of regional organizations at the Report’s launch ceremony at the Peace Palace in The Hague. Hence, the Commission, which is supported by The Hague Institute for Global Justice and the Stimson Center, calls in its recommendations for harnessing the potential of regional organizations as promoters of global security and justice and suggests a series of institutional and policy reforms to this end.
The protracted crisis in the Eurozone, however, puts in doubt whether regional organizations—of which the EU frequently portrays itself as the most sophisticated specimen—can indeed become powerful drivers for positive change in the world. Beyond the huge negative intra-European fallout of the crisis, this raises fundamental questions concerning the EU as a model for other regions and regarding the EU’s ability to remain an active contributor to better global governance.
How can the European Union remain a model for regional integration and cooperation in other world regions?
The EU likes to portray itself as the champion of regional integration. In the past decades, many other regional clubs, often using—at least superficially—the EU as a blueprint, have emerged. They include the African Union, ECOWAS, MERCOSUR or ASEAN. These associations also evoke values of mutual solidarity, shared prosperity, democracy, the rule of law and human rights. What united them is furthermore the idea that acting together they assume a stronger position on the world stage and can withstand pressures from great powers such as China, Russia or the United States. Regional integration should bolster the position of each member country globally, not marginalize them or result in collective paralysis. With this comes the idea that membership in such blocs is beneficial to all members small and large, that they all retain a say, preserve their identity, and that no one is left behind.
Looking at the way Greece has become a sort of pariah within the Eurozone, with voices being raised for a “Grexit”, must be a red flag for other regional projects. In the current circumstances, which leaders in their right mind would push for deeper economic integration, especially a joint currency? Only once the European integration project is back on track, having overcome the serious flaws the crisis has brought to light, can it serve again as a model worthy of emulation for other regions.
How can the EU continue to be an active contributor to global security and justice?
The 2001 Laeken Declaration stated that “in a globalised, yet also highly fragmented world, Europe needs to shoulder its responsibilities in the governance of globalisation.” It was to become “a power wanting to change the course of world affairs in such a way as to benefit not just the rich countries but also the poorest” and a “power seeking to set globalisation within a moral framework”. The EU has contributed to security and justice in various ways, including by being the world’s largest donor of official development assistance, a vocal supporter for human rights, democracy and the rule of law (e.g., campaigning for the abolition of the death penalty), and conducting more than twenty civil-military missions on three continents. For a while, these seemed to be the encouraging beginnings of the EU as a leading force for good in the world. This included innovative, “comprehensive” approaches combining the immediate requirements of stabilization in fragile environments with long-term endeavors of building viable institutions and sustainable peace.
Today, however, one may fear that this may have been already the peak of proactive “effective multilateralism”. The current ambition and vision of EU foreign policy does not seem to go beyond bombing vessels used by human traffickers on the shores of Europe’s neighbors on the southern coast of the Mediterranean. With this in mind for the EU’s external action, and seeing the introspective preoccupation of European leaders with keeping the Eurozone stable and containing (rather than resolving) the Greek crisis bodes ill for any prospect of the EU coming anywhere near being a “power seeking to set globalisation within a moral framework” or becoming the champion of “an international system based on stronger multilateral cooperation and good global governance”, as the Laeken Declaration and the Treaty on European Union put it, respectively.
In the first place, the immediate victim of the inability of the European institutions and leaders (which includes but is by no means limited to the Greek government) to resolve the Greek debt crisis is certainly the Greek population. In the second place, it is also the entirety of the citizens of the EU, whose trust in an ever closer Union which would deliver stability, prosperity and functioning, democratically accountable institutions is being shattered day after day. But what may ultimately fall victim to this crisis is also the idea of Europe itself—as a model for regional organization and as a contributor to security, peace and justice in the world.