Divided and Challenged, EU Saw Its Better Days
Alex GORKA | 08.09.2017 | WORLD / Europe

Divided and Challenged, EU Saw Its Better Days

In March 2017 European Union leaders stressed the need for unity at a celebration in the Italian capital marking 60 years since the Treaty of Rome was signed. Back then, European Commission head, Jean-Claude Juncker, spoke of a new mood of optimism about the way forward. «Europe as a political entity will either be united, or will not be at all,» European Council President Donald Tusk said. Those were great words but just a few months later there is little ground for optimism and the unity is very much questioned.

The decision already approved by ambassadors to prolong the sanctions against Russia will be announced formally on September 14. But who exactly continues this policy? Certainly, it’s impossible to say that the sanctions policy is implemented by a «United Europe» speaking with one voice, because no such thing as the unity of Europe exists. And there is no «one voice». Not anymore. The members of the EU challenge the bloc openly today, refusing to abide by the very same rules it is based on.

On September 6, the governments of Poland and Hungary refused to comply with a ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ), the EU's top court that upheld the legality of quotas for states to take migrants relocated from the Mediterranean. Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto rejected the ruling as «outrageous and irresponsible» and «a political ruling which rapes European law and European values». «This ruling places the European Commission above nations. That is unacceptable,» Szijjarto told a press conference, promising that «the real battle is just beginning».

Polish Prime Minster Beata Szydlo said she had expected the judgement, and that her government would continue to refuse to take refugees for «security reasons». In the Slovakian capital Bratislava, the Social Democratic Prime Minister Robert Fico acknowledged the verdict, though still insisting that the relocation scheme is «unjust».

The scheme aims to relocate 120,000 asylum seekers around the bloc. So far, 27,695 refugees have been relocated under it, roughly two-thirds from Greece and a third from Italy. Slovakia is expected to take 902, and has accepted 16. Hungary and Poland have not relocated a single person and the Czech Republic has not made any offers for more than a year.

Europe's mandatory refugee quota system was approved in September 2015 by a majority of EU member states. Back then, it was rejected by Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Romania and Hungary. Poland joined the opposition later when the right-wing PiS government came to power. The ECJ has the power to levy financial penalties on governments which fail to comply with EU law. The European Commission is currently pursuing legal action against the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland for failing to meet their legal obligations on relocation.

The court decision came as the EU executive curtly dismissed Orbán’s request for EU funds to help build a border fence. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker refused, pointing out that Hungary’s refusal to accept its quota of migrants relocated from Greece and Italy was illegal. The EU pays billions of euros to Turkey and Libya to keep migrants away but it refuses to provide a much smaller sum (€ 400) to an EU member for the very same purpose! The EU did provide money for building fences at the Bulgaria-Turkey and Greece-Turkey borders.

There are tensions between the EU and Hungary over other issues, like restrictions on the operation of universities and NGOs that receive foreign funding. The European Commission will be asking member states at the next general-affairs council this month to back its legal action against Poland over its judicial «reform» program.

According to Carnegie Europe, «Defiance of core EU principles by the governments in Warsaw and Budapest is turning into a political crisis». Poland and Hungary have joined together in opposition to the EU bureaucracy on many issues, adding to the process of alliances forming inside the EU to undermine its unity and cohesion. With Poland and Hungary staying together, no EU sanctions can be applied against these states. EU’s Article 7 says two members can deadlock the mechanism by protecting each other.

The emergence of alliances within the EU is a trend. The Visegrád group, the Nordic countries, the states of Benelux and Mediterranean agricultural producers - there are many groups within the EU structure pursuing their own interests and shaking the Union’s cohesion. For instance, Poland is threatening to block part of the trade deal between the EU and Canada (the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement - CETA). It is concerned over a planned mechanism for resolving disputes between governments and multinational companies. The European Union and Canada have agreed to start a free trade agreement on Sept. 21, paving the way for over 90 percent of the treaty to come into effect. There is little time left to smooth over the differences.

There will be more soon. After Brexit becomes reality, Scotland will most likely vote for secession and apply for EU membership. Will it agree to share the burden of refugees? Will it be a condition for membership? Catalonia’s parliament has just voted for Oct. 1 referendum on split from Spain. The EU says it will lose EU membership if the province declares independence. Then the EU will lose an economically prosperous part of it. A rich Catalonia located in the heart of Europe outside of the alliance will be a problem.

If Scotland applies, Spain said it would block its entry. Other members would support Scotland’s accession. There will be more divisions. Europe is gradually moving to become independent in terms of defense capability. The implementation of this policy envisages more expenditure. The opposition will be strong because East Europeans and the Baltic States do not approve the idea.

The EU appears to be in deep trouble, with internal divisions tearing it apart. The United Europe’s much vaunted unity is vanishing right in front of our eyes. Groups of states are emerging on the European political landscape to differ on the issues the EU had been unanimous on until recently. With so many problems unresolved and gaps unbridged, the European Union is no longer as strong and unanimous as it used to be. Its heyday is over.