If you call Jan Zielonka these days to ask him about Europe’s ongoing crisis, you may not get a word in edgewise for a few minutes. Zielonka has both Polish and Dutch citizenship, lives in Italy and is a professor of politics at Oxford -- and he is furious about the "complete blindness of the European elite," about their "faith in integration" and about Europe’s "paralysis." Then, 10 minutes into the flood of words, Zielonka says: "The EU is no longer serving European unity. It is damaging it."
That is an outrageous sentiment. And it is a position that is hardly mentioned in the European public debate -- a discourse that is characterized by nervous waiting for the current crisis to end and desperate hope that things will turn out okay. Yet what Zielonka has to say makes a lot of sense.
The Greece crisis isn't being solved by the EU, he argues. Indeed, it was worsened and made virtually insoluble by the European currency union. To be sure, the debate (often framed as an effort to defend taxpayers’ money) over who pays for what -- and about who makes the final decision about which reform plans -- has resulted in Europe really arguing about Europe for the first time. Germans have thought about Greece’s social welfare net, for example, while Greeks have had to get their heads around party politics in Germany.
At the end of the day, though, it is still an argument. Indeed, the crisis has certainly not strengthened the faith in European unity nor has it done much to convince people that the EU is always good for those who live within its borders. If you also consider the erosion of Hungarian democracy; Europe’s apparent inability to fix its faulty immigration policies; Britain's desire to leave the EU; and, in many countries, the rising influence of right-wing parties, which have identified Brussels as their target and Russia as their willing beneficiary: It has become apparent that the EU of today is facing an unprecedented threat.
The reaction to that threat has largely been the rhetoric of reassurance. The crisis will "sharpen" the EU's profile, people are fond of saying. The EU will "emerge from the crisis stronger than before." Newspapers are full of pleas and appeals. "More than ever before, the EU needs courage," reads one such optimistic sentiment from the Süddeutsche Zeitung. My ZEIT ONLINE colleague Marlies Uken recently demanded: "Europe, reform yourself finally!" That would be great. But almost nothing hints at reality yielding to such desires. During the last seven years of crisis, not a single important EU reform has been passed.
Is Greece a Symptom of Europe’s Collapse?
The question, then, is: What if things don’t ever get better again? What if the EU doesn’t emerge stronger from the crisis? What if Greece isn’t just a hurdle on the path to an increasingly integrated Europe but is actually a symptom of the EU's collapse? Isn't it high time to begin thinking about what to do with Europe if it can't get its act together on its own? Simply crossing one’s fingers is not an adequate preparation for such a future. "The history of all political powers ultimately comes to an end," says Zielonka. Another one of those outrageous sentences.
The vacuum is one that Zielonka, along with a handful of others, has been seeking to fill. Zielonka, for example, has written a book entitled "Is the EU Doomed?" He argues that the EU long helped Europe grow together, but that it has now become a drag on that process. "It looks as though the pendulum of interdependence has swung over," Zielonka writes. "Interdependence no longer generates integration but instead prompts disintegration." He and others (including the German political scientist Fritz W. Scharpf) hold up the rules governing the currency union as proof. The common currency zone shoves very different countries into the same one-size-fits-all monetary policy framework even as that framework can never be adequate for all and is one within which each fundamental decision must be paid for by someone. Given such a situation, is it any wonder that those involved bicker among themselves and that antipathy between EU countries is growing?
In Germany, Potsdam University professor Henrik Scheller belongs to those who cast a critical eye on Europe and, together with a colleague, he last year published a volume focusing on European disintegration. "If you make such an argument, you are quickly seen as an outcast," he says. "Talking about disintegration is frowned upon." Still, he insists he isn't "trying to say: We should do less and integrate less. We are merely pointing out that there is a flip side to the coin, that disintegration is already taking place and that we should start trying to understand it if we want to exert influence on it." Zielonka agrees. "Those who say that we should perhaps do things differently, and that we need a Plan B or Plan C, are branded as euro-skeptics and spurned. But that’s absurd!"