The main idea behind European unification was that when you make countries economically interdependent, they will think harder before they declare war on each other. Does it work? Europe has not had a war for seventy years. This does not mean it will always stay that way, but at least it’s difficult to envisage European countries taking up arms against one another any time soon.
But did unification also smother other forms of conflict? That is certainly more difficult to maintain. Just look at how European countries rob each other of tax revenues; how they eavesdrop and spy on each other; how ruthless they are in sweeping refugees into neighbouring countries; and how they all try to protect their banks and push the bad assets and losses across the border.
In hindsight we’ve been naive, assuming for a long time that “we in Europe” were not into power politics anymore. We thought we were above that now, and that there would be no slipping back. Many Europeans are now asking themselves: will tensions between EU-countries reach a brwaking point? Can national resistances to common solutions and arrangements actually explode the EU? Some fear it, others hope it.
We live in a globalised world, full of spillover - no country can remove itself from this. Globalisation binds countries together, but also creates a playing field for war by other means. „The trick is to make your opponents more dependent on you than you are from them”, writes Mark Leonard of the European Council on Foreign Relations in essay collection Connectivity Wars.
This is happening worldwide. China’s power politics relies not on war (even Beijing heavily invests in defence), but on its aggressive trade policy, on cyber attacks and development aid. The country also has set up an alternative to the World Bank, in an attempt to break Western dominance of international organisations.
Some Islamic countries intervene in ‘classic’ military conflicts, from Yemen to Syria. But they also wage new, globalised wars-by-other-means. They use oil and money as weapons, and have been trying for years to get the UN condemned for blasphemy.
Russia bombs Syria and has annexed the Crimea, but is also blocking gas pipelines, using military flights to disrupt civil air traffic over Copenhagen, bribing Balkan elites and spreading disinformation via YouTube. ISIS instigates massacres and uses migrants – typical products of globalisation – as a weapon. As to Europe, its armies are still active (mostly under the disguise of ‘peacekeeping’), but it is at its best when it uses economic weapons at a global level such as sanctions and fines for multinationals who violate EU rules.
The EU is a form of globalisation. It is globalisation on a smaller scale. Checking out is useless; it doesn’t make sense. Everybody knows that Switzerland’s biggest problem is Brussels, even though it is not an EU member state. The Euro crisis cost the Swiss a fortune, because it pushed the franc to new hights. Citizens all over Europe demand Grexit or Brexit, but their governments have a different agenda: to use Europe to reinforce their position, and to weaken that of others.
All EU countries are playing cynical games. Hungary is laying it on thick, but always climbs down when sanctions are looming. Poland doesn’t want to leave the EU; it wants to change the EU and remain the biggest net recipient. The closer Marine Le Pen gets to power, the less she is inclined to leave the Eurozone: this will marginalise France.
In this centrifuge the EU needs to keep a very stong center. The survival of its institutions, now put tot he test, are what will keep everything together. If the EU fails this test everyone will lose out.