Imagine perusing your local newspaper one morning to discover the Province of Alberta had voted to secede from Canada and was in increasingly tense talks with the federal government over the terms of its departure. At the same time, the lower mainland of B.C. had voted to leave the province in a bitterly contested election that had seen Victoria send armed police to close down polling places.
Meanwhile, the cities of Winnipeg and Montreal had both announced they were considering holding elections to demand more autonomy from their respective provinces. Ottawa was threatening to suspend the voting privileges of MPs from Yukon and Nova Scotia in retaliation of those provinces declaring they would not enforce federal laws they disagreed with, while in Ontario a right-wing party accused of being xenophobic and anti-Canadian and openly advocating that Ontario should go its own way had just rocketed to a third-place finish in provincial elections.
Under those circumstances, you would likely conclude Canada was on the verge of breaking up and its future prognosis was grim. The Canadian dollar would be in a freefall and capital would be fleeing in search of a safe haven.
Welcome to the European Union 2017.
Great Britain, the EU’s second largest economy has voted to leave the European Union and, in increasingly tense talks, is trying to negotiate the terms of its departure. The Spanish region of Catalonia has voted, in a bitterly contested election in which the government in Madrid tried to physically restrain voting, to seek autonomy from Spain. The Italian regions of Lombardy and Veneto have announced they are considering holding elections to demand more autonomy from the rest of Italy.
Brussels has threatened to suspend the voting privileges of EU deputies from Poland and Hungary in retaliation for both governments refusing to implement certain EU laws. The German party Alternative for Germany, which has been described as xenophobic and anti-EU, entered the German Parliament for the first time. It gained 12 per cent of the vote in the federal elections and won 22 per cent of the vote, including a majority of male votes, in the former East Germany.
Europe, of course, is not a country. If it were, it would have the third largest population, behind only China and India, and the second largest economy in the world, about 90 per cent the size of the United States’, and half again as big as China’s. Still, it is more than just a common market for goods and services.
Europe does not have an army, but most of its members are joined together under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and are pledged to their common defence. They train together and share a high degree of interoperability in equipment and operations. They do not always have a common foreign policy, but most times are able to coordinate their diplomacy to achieve a common end.
The EU has a European currency, the euro, although not all its members use it. It has a federal budget that finances Europe-wide programs and that subsidizes poor areas by transferring wealth from richer areas. It does not levy taxes directly on its inhabitants but obtains funds from its nation state members which collect those taxes from their respective citizens.
Its economy is increasingly regulated by laws and administrative rules issued by EU bureaucrats in Brussels and by European-wide financial institutions. Its court system functions as the highest court of appeal available to European citizens.
In short, while the European Union is not a country it certainly has many of the attributes of one, even though federal authority is constrained by national sovereignty.
What is remarkable about the state of affairs in Europe is that these various political developments have not produced an acute sense of crisis or disarray, which they would have precipitated in other countries. The euro is off its highs, but neither is it in a freefall. There is little evidence of widespread capital flight from Europe. Nor is there any sense that the European Union is on the verge of breaking up. Within Europe, the EU’s problems are seen as serious but not existential.
Instead, the prevailing attitude is that the political problems facing the EU will ultimately yield to a combination of technocratic and administrative solutions and the old political standby of patching things up enough to push the problem far enough into the future that it will become somebody else’s issue to deal with.
As the geopolitical strategist George Friedman has noted, EU officials “don’t answer to constituencies. They are insulated from the pressure applied to a member state’s national representative. Their insulation can calm and clarify matters for them, but it can just as easily detach them from reality.”
The next few years will determine whether Europe’s problems represent bumps in the road in the EU’s grand vision for Europe or whether they mark a fundamental turning point in that vision. Either way, the outcome will have repercussions far beyond Europe’s shores.
Troy Media columnist Joseph Micallef is an historian, best-selling author and, at times, sardonic commentator on world politics.
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