The bicycle is perhaps the European invention that more people in the European Union use to get around these days than any other. All you need is a couple of wheels, a set of handle bars and off you go. The bicycle is a stroke of kinetic genius, transforming human power into locomotion without harming the environment. Walter Hallstein, the first president of the European Commission, once said that the European Union is a bit like a bicycle: When it keeps moving, things are fine, but if the bike isn't used, it falls over, lies in the weeds and begins to rust. After a time, a truck comes by and takes it to the dump.
Something like that could happen to the European Union. The political idea behind the EU, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize just six years ago, is not in good shape these days. Italy is prohibiting rescue ships loaded with hundreds of people in need from docking at secure European ports. Denmark is seeking to further seal itself off. Hungary has openly said it plans to ignore rulings from the European Court of Justice on asylum issues. Poland is reforming its judiciary in ways that pose severe threats to the rule of law. And in Germany the government is in danger of collapsing over the asylum question and the EU's approach to it. Five member states, two issues: helplessness in the face of the challenges posed by migration and a lack of direction for the EU's future.
Some elements of EU law, the foundation upon which the bloc was built, are being completely ignored. There are likewise problems with the current generation of politicians in Europe. They are proving unable to push the EU idea forward and fill it with vitality. Many of the current EU heads of state and government, many of the leaders of EU institutions, are like sparrows sitting on the gravestones of great European figures like François Mitterrand or Helmut Kohl. Small birds who may have noticed the approaching calamity, but who seem too weak to prevent it.
In early 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron, an exception in many respects, dared to articulate the horrific, but no longer improbable, scenario: The failure of the EU. Following the global financial crisis, which led to the euro crisis, a political dynamic developed in 2015 that could end in disaster. When several hundred thousand people sought to flee their war-torn countries for Europe that year, the EU was overwhelmed. The British vote of 51.89 percent in favor of Brexit didn't make it any easier for the EU to hold steady. Indeed, at least since Britain's rejection of the EU, the bloc has found itself in a phase of disorientation. The bicycle is still moving, but it can no longer accelerate. And as it slows, it has begun to tip to the right. The European Union finds itself at a crossroads, one that is focused on a single question: What should the EU do about the refugee issue?
Essentially, there are two possible outcomes: Either the refugee crisis will lead to the renationalization of the countries of Europe – an eventuality that will result in the reestablishment of permanent borders and the literal disintegration of the bloc. Or Schengen will once again shine as the defining symbol of the freedom enjoyed by all EU citizens and European integration will continue. Either. Or. For years, this decision has been deferred. But now, it has become unavoidable.
Should the EU decide to follow the trail currently being blazed by European nationalists, it will mark the beginning of the end of the Europe we have come to know. That is one possibility, but it is far from inevitable. There is a way to stop the trend of renationalization. It involves continuing the process of European integration with more courage and determination than has been shown in the past decade. The EU, as the sum total of its member states, must grow together more tightly so as to effectively address joint challenges. What, then, must be done?