Europe is changing before our eyes. What seemed impossible just a few years ago hardly surprises anyone now. The question is where these changes will lead the project of European integration as such and what they will entail for Europe’s neighbors. Russia has grown very tired of the European elite it has had to deal with in the last few years, and for this reason Moscow welcomes the change in the political landscape of the Old World either expressly or implicitly. However, this does not obviate the need for a more serious analysis of new European politicians and where they will lead European integration. Europe is once again an interesting and important area of study – not because it can claim global significance, for which there is almost no chance, but because it is proving to be a stage for fairly curious and instructive political processes.
Russia does not need to worry about the European Union as a security threat, and that seems unlikely to change in the future. The two terrible wars of the 20th century have exhausted the destructive potential of the leading European powers. Despite possessing considerable human resources and (in case of France) their own nuclear weapons, European countries are psychologically destroyed and apparently their fighting spirit cannot be restored. The most they are capable of is colonial operations like France regularly conducts in its former African possessions and, of course, auxiliary operations as part of US military actions. Therefore, Europe will not pose a really big problem for Russia. Moreover, the gradual departure of the elites, whose decisions brought Russia-EU relations to an impasse, may open up new opportunities.
And so, given this degree of chaos in the EU, it makes sense to analyze the possible directions it may take. To begin with, we can eliminate the scenario in which the EU collapses. The accelerating political processes are not likely to put an end to the very phenomenon of European integration. Brexit is a graphic example of the inevitable nightmare of a state attempting to withdraw from the common market while avoiding its own economic collapse. It is telling that in a recent interview, Marine Le Pen spoke about the importance of reforming the EU as distinct from her election rhetoric about the need to quit it.
Incidentally, this marks a very important change in the paradigm of the politicians that traditional EU elites commonly call populists and Euroskeptics. The EU’s largest right-wing movements – in Italy and France – have managed to coordinate their actions relatively well early in the European Parliament election campaign. If they, along with smaller right-wing parties of other EU countries, are able to present in the European Parliament a more or less coherent vision of the future of European integration, it will be a major landmark in EU history. Let’s recall that the first and only time the European Parliament originated a new conception of the paradigm of advancing integration was 40 years ago, masterminded by the older and wiser European federalists led by Altiero Spinelli. In 1984, they suggested a draft Treaty on the European Union, many provisions of which resurfaced in the EU’s most successful quasi-constitutional act, the 1991 Maastricht Treaty.
However, since then the European Parliament has essentially been relegated to the periphery of the discussion of Europe’s future. Its powers have grown, but its role in this important issue has diminished. All more or less important initiatives concerning the strategy of integration or Europe’s role in the world have been advanced either by the heads of the European Commission or the leaders of major countries. The same is happening now, as Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel try to act as the drivers, though, it must be admitted, not very convincingly due to a dearth of ideas and their own domestic challenges. As for the presidents of the European Commission, their political activism made sense during the time of the great Jacques Delors, but it is hard to understand coming from a complete non-entity like the two-term president Jose Barroso, or the slightly more substantial but "burnt-out” Jean-Claude Juncker. Political life in the EU has undergone a necrotizing bureaucratization. The work of Brussels officials, who are generally very competent, is based on their own institutional inertia rather than grand designs. In the meantime, the parliament has increasingly become an appendage to the European Commission and the European Council in adopting acts of subsidiary legislation. The traditionally low turnout of voters for elections to the European Parliament shows that European societies are well aware of this.
If and when the European right-wing politicians present business and society with a clear vision of what Europe can become in the future, while preserving integration, it will be a game changer. The behavior of politicians like Matteo Salvini shows that they are aware of this and will try not to miss their chance to edge out the traditional European establishment by acting through the very same institution the establishment created. As such, the elections to the European Parliament next May are likely to be the most interesting pan-European elections in almost 30 years. The success of outsider parties and movements in these elections will consolidate this theoretically most democratic institution of integration and will oust marginal Euroskeptics.
This is especially important considering that the four freedoms of movement – goods, people, capital and services – that make up the Common Market benefit the participating countries. Even the costs are entirely offset by the advantages from guaranteed mutual access to the markets. The situation with the euro is more complicated. The common European currency system is built in a way that makes it unequivocally good for one group of countries and bad for the other. It is necessary to reform this system, probably through financial rehabilitation and the withdrawal of the hardest-hit countries like Greece and Portugal, for which the euro perpetuates an eternal and insurmountable gap, all the more so since, the example of some East European countries, say, Romania shows it is quite possible to develop outside the eurozone.
Thus, the Common Market will be preserved, but the political superstructure that took shape over the almost 30 years of integration will be substantially limited. The functions and powers of the European Commission will be considerably curtailed as well. Instead of being a political institution, it will have to return to its function of serving the participating countries and their democratically elected governments. The issue of revising the established practice of constraining, in effect, the sovereignty of individual EU countries is likely to grow urgent in the next few years. Basically, the success of outsider parties in the elections in Italy can be explained by the fact that the EU’s third largest economy was essentially stripped of its rights as a result of decisions forced through by Angela Merkel in 2012-2015.
Europe is unlikely to acquire its own military-political institutions, either. Generally speaking, NATO’s presence makes absurd the idea of autonomous EU armed forces, primarily because it is impossible to imagine where they could be used. Protection against the only serious potential enemy – Russia – is provided by NATO. The struggle against terrorists or migration enforcement should be carried out by effective intelligence agencies, not marine battalions.
To offer a tentative conclusion, we can say that the future Europe will retain its Common Market and will even become more democratic in organizing political processes at the EU level. Russia is bound to benefit from this because it will have more opportunities to promote its interests. And finally, there is a chance that the foreign policy of united Europe will be more diverse and, most important, more cheerful.