Where is leadership in the European Union? Who dares to don its trappings, now that German Chancellor Angela Merkel no longer seems to command the authority she did up until the end of the summer? After the attacks in Paris, and with refugees still knocking on the door in their thousands everyday, voices that speak with authority are necessary. Yet it is not certain whether anyone will really listen.
Are we witnessing the beginning of the end of the European Union as we know it? It sure seems like it. As the Netherlands takes up the rotating chairmanship of the European Union in the first half of 2016, the country’s leaders are taking every opportunity to voice dire warnings.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte warned that the European Union should circle the wagons and finally close and guard its external borders to stem the refugee tide. If EU nations fail to live up to their commitments, said Rutte — commitments such as actually wiring the money promised to frontier organizations such as Frontex, and actually sending the trained border guards they have promised to that effort — the European Union will suffer the fate of the Roman Empire.
Rutte’s historical comparison was ill-conceived in many ways, but one — probably unintended — was right on the money. Rome did not crash and burn because the empire couldn’t protect its borders, but rather because of unimaginable corruption and egotism among its leading folk and regions. The northern tribes were able to invade and pillage only because of festering inner weaknesses.
Is the European Union disintegrating? Not yet, but there is a rot, and that rot is spreading. If one views the European Union through an internationalist prism of selfless solidarity, Rome is already burning. But looking at it through the eyes of its founders of yore, the Union is holding up as they meant it to be: a conglomerate of nations pursuing their happiness through open trade and resource sharing, not war.
Or is it?
Even on this fundamental level the rot is setting in. Dutch Finance Minister and leader of the Eurogroup Jeroen Dijsselbloem said that if the EU nations do not live up to their promises on burden sharing regarding refugees, countries like The Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Belgium and Luxembourg should leave the current Schengen open borders area comprising 26 nations and set up their own “mini-Schengen.” The much smaller size of this mini-Schengen would make protecting its external borders — and closing them — a lot easier.
The reason for proposing this is precisely the unwillingness of other EU nations to engage in burden sharing, Dijsselbloem said. Because other nations aren’t living up to their promises on providing shelter to refugees, or are reneging on those promises like the new government in Poland has done, countries such as Germany and the Netherlands should protect their own welfare states and close their borders. They would thus emulate the behavior of Poland, Hungary, and other Eastern European states, thereby quickening the downward spiral.
By referring to the Dutch welfare state — the pride and joy of many a Dutchman — Dijsselbloem is acting no different. He is stepping up for his voters. And so, one by one, EU member states are turning inward.
The problem isn’t the sudden erratic behavior of governments. Those now criticizing member states for their egotism seem to forget that all those governments are made up of democratically elected parties. Take the newly elected Polish government, made up solely of the right-wing conservative PiS party. Despite its dark history of political corruption and graft when in government previously, Poles voted for the self-centered, nationalist platform in mass numbers. Against refugees and international solidarity and in favor of biting the EU hand that feeds many expensive projects.
“He can say all he wants: he doesn’t have to explain his actions to voters,” said an anonymous government minister of a Central European nation to a reporter of Dutch daily De Volkskrant after listening to Frans Timmermans, one of the vice-chairmen of the European Commission. Timmermans spoke about the need for solidarity among EU nations in the face of crises, during a meeting with a number of representatives from several Central and Eastern European countries. Again a telling anecdote. Enlightened treaties of solidarity don’t vote in elections; voters do.
So to pro-EU internationalists, the problem should be with the voters. Not the leaders of the European Union, but the people who vote them in. As with the people of the regions making up the Roman Empire, the peoples of the EU member states will gladly remain within the Union so long as the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. But each benefit and each disadvantage carries its own weight. And right now, among many voters throughout the European Union, voters are weighing the disadvantages of open borders while refugees are flowing in, against the benefits of the economic prosperity machine that is the European Union. Polls and election results throughout the continent are painting a clear picture of which carries more weight at the moment.
So in the end, Mark Rutte is right, but for all the wrong reasons. The European Union shouldn’t close its borders because of supposed barbarians at its gates, but because of inner rustings. Whether Rutte is the leader to whom Rome will listen is however much in doubt. At the moment, no one can claim the title of popular emperor. That is a problem in itself.