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08.05.2023 from 
Research + Transfer
Europe in Crisis or Crisis in Europe?

Financial crisis, refugee crisis, Brexit, coronavirus crisis, energy crisis - for over a decade, Europe has been in crisis mode. But what are the causes, and what are the consequences? Does Europe have a systemic problem? “The EU is not some kind of decision-making machine that spits policies out,” says the EU expert and holder of the Monnet Chair at the University of Magdeburg, Professor Eva Heidbreder. Her research deals with European transformation processes and in our discussion she explains how, from a scientific perspective, the aforementioned crises have been the driving force behind considerable change in Europe.

Portrait Prof. Eva Heidbreder (c) Jana Dünnhaupt Uni MagdeburgProf. Eva Heidbreder (Photo: Jana Dünnhaupt / Uni Magdeburg)

Professor Heidbreder, we have lived through the financial crisis, the refugee crisis, Brexit, the coronavirus crisis and now the Ukraine / energy crisis, not to mention the climate crisis. Is Europe in permanent crisis mode?

Yes, that’s true! But I’m tempted to respond with a quip: “That’s life”. In the past, too, Europe and the European Community lived through a great number of crises. Often they were the rationale for further European integration. However, most of the current crises are not limited to the EU, and it is also clear that they will not be going away in a hurry. So it seems more to be the case that, after the Cold War, the last thirty years, in which to many people in Europe, the world, at least geopolitically, seemed to be so peaceful and orderly, were the exception.

According to Duden, a crisis describes the culmination or turning point of a dangerous conflict, caused by a massive and problematic malfunction. Does Europe have a systemic problem?

Malfunctions have different causes: either the system is faulty, in other words it produces the crisis itself, endogenously. Frequently, however, crises are triggered by outside events. These are known as exogenous shocks. So it is important to correctly determine the cause of the crisis. Many of the crises with which the EU is faced have not been triggered by the EU. But the way in which the EU works can make a crisis worse, or, indeed, facilitate solutions. Look at the global banking and financial crisis that started in 2008. The acute cause was the external shock of the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the bursting of the US real estate bubble. The structural problem behind the ensuing banking crash, i.e. the dynamics of a lightly-regulated and globally networked financial market, also existed in Europe and so crashes ensued here too, initially in Ireland. The cause in this context was not the eurozone. But due to the structure of the eurozone and above all the political decisions of the governments during the initial phase of the crisis, to begin with the euro functioned as an accelerant. Is that a systemic problem? Yes and no, since the strong interdependence between the euro countries gradually led to them having to seek joint solutions. In the banking union, the eurozone saw the creation of a new tool, which has thus far protected it during the coronavirus economic crisis which is just a great as that of 2009. In addition, we can also see a learning process taking place in terms of dealing with the economic consequences of the coronavirus crisis. In 2021 a fund was set up to offer relief first and foremost to the economically weaker countries in the EU financed by joint borrowing. The response in 2021 was therefore radically different from that in 2009. All things considered, the question is not so much, does the EU have a systemic problem. Instead, it is whether it is a system that is able to overcome crises. In the euro, coronavirus and Ukrainian crises, I am convinced that the EU provided an extremely important operational framework for cooperation that helped to tackle those crises. And in the climate crisis too, the EU system offers possibilities for cooperation without which we cannot hope to overcome the challenges. Nevertheless, all these arenas for cooperation are little use if the central stakeholders - and that means the governments of the EU member states - do not choose to work together. Above all this has been evident for decades in the search for solutions to the issues of migration and refugees.

In many people’s perception, the EU is inaccessible, opaque, over-regulated and bureaucratic. Are our crises homemade?

The EU is bureaucratic in many areas and, yes, anyone who has to deal with implementing EU regulations on a day-to-day basis often has cause to moan - I only have to mention the word “procurement”. But: do these things really cause crises? We have to be careful not to reinterpret questions of transparency or accessibility or other justified criticisms as the causes of crises. That is because the question here is rather whether the weaknesses of a system make it impossible for it to overcome any crises that arise. And here, in recent years, the EU has shown itself to be extremely resilient. It did not fall apart as a result of the banking and subsequent fiscal crisis. Instead it built a banking union. It did not fall apart after Brexit. Instead it strengthened the consensus of the EU 27 and was very transparent. And for all the carping: the joint procurement of covid vaccines would not have worked better had the 27 countries competed with one another. That is to say, it was not the EU that signed the contracts with the pharmaceutical companies, but the member states, who all wrote what they wanted on their order list. So, if errors were made with the ordering, then in the best case that was a collaborative effort, but individual countries would only have received vaccines more quickly if they had outmaneuvered others in the EU. It is good that that was not the case.

The EU is not some decision-making machine that spits out policy separately from its members. It is the sum of the compromises between EU institutions, above all between the Parliament and the Commission and the governments of our countries. As a platform for achieving compromises, the EU tends to be an excellent way of plowing through crises. But it always falls down if no compromise can be reached or there is a lack of political will for agreement.

In 2015 saw the refugee crisis, the management of which led to major conflict within the EU. The migration of 4 million people placed the common asylum system under strain and the individual countries were unable to agree a joint position. Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic refused to implement quota solutions. What did Europe learn from this?

Since 1996 the EU has been able to forge a common asylum policy and has had the competence to act in this area since then. The Commission has suggested countless legislative packages relating to this issue, all of which, however, have failed due to the fact that there was no agreement between member states. We have had a standoff for a long time: the existing Dublin Regulation asserts that only the countries in which people first arrive in the EU have responsibility for them. But these countries of arrival are in the minority in the EU. And so there is no majority in favor of establishing a change of rules in order to achieve a more even distribution. This has been the case for decades. Furthermore, the quota system mentioned came about in a somewhat unusual way for the EU. In a departure from the norm, the countries who had concerns about the regulation did not share these concerns before the discussions took place and so the regulation was quickly resolved upon at ambassadorial level instead of being escalated to the political, ministerial level. But then Hungary immediately filed suit in the European Court - and lost. A lack of solidarity is not, however, only confined to a few countries; no country has fully adhered to the quota regulation. A few members have raised their voices particularly loudly and vehemently against migration, but it is not at all the case that they are alone. And the completely different way in which fleeing Ukrainians have been dealt with does not fundamentally change anything in the overall deadlocked situation affecting EU migration policy.

Following the refugee crisis, in 2020 the EU had to cope with Brexit, against the consequences of which there had been dire warnings on both sides of the English Channel. At a little distance now, how do you assess the situation for the EU?

For the EU, in economic terms, Brexit has largely been written off, day-to-day political business continues, key decisions have been successfully made to determine the future of the EU without the United Kingdom. But under the surface, Brexit continues to simmer, above all, because the British government continues to feed off the promise that it has got Brexit done and will push further ahead with it. Specifically, the successor to Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, Liz Truss, fundamentally questions the Northern Ireland Protocol and has threatened to unilaterally terminate the agreement, which could even lead to a trade war with the EU, not to mention security risks for the border within Ireland. In summary, it is true that in terms of day-to-day business, the EU has coped very well with Brexit. But the tense relationships with such an important neighbor, the United Kingdom, are placing a strain on some areas, such as research, and also still have a fundamental dimension because the question of the unity of the United Kingdom is closely connected to the Northern Ireland Protocol and ultimately, peace in Ireland depends upon it. Brussels anticipates that these problems will not become easier, but rather will remain equally difficult, to solve with Ms Truss as Prime Minister.

From 2020 the measures taken against the coronavirus pandemic resulted in an economic crisis for which the EU was little prepared. The governments of the member states seemed to be rather uncoordinated. The European Investment Bank (EIB) devised a recovery program. What are its key points?

The core role of the European Investment Bank is to issue loans, something that it has increasingly done in response to the crisis for small and medium-sized enterprises. The far more important joint EU response to the situation, however, was that the EU budget was expanded in a way that had never happened before. To explain: the EU budget is actually comparatively small. Member states pay around one per cent of their annual gross domestic product into the EU coffers and this money then largely flows through structural funding back to the members. And so the EU can only ever pay out what has previously been paid in. What was revolutionary in 2021 was what took place under the title “Next Generation EU”: the coupling of the EU seven-year budget with a never-before seen, in terms of size, recovery package. For this coronavirus recovery program - as an exception in order to combat the economic effects of the coronavirus - for the first time ever the EU entered into 750 billion euros of debt. These funds are now being disbursed to fund innovation-oriented investments in the member states. The fact that the EU has jointly taken on debt and that it not only is paying out loans but also making direct payments of up to 340 billion euros for the reconstruction and strengthening of especially the weaker economic regions, is new, and a completely different reaction than that seen in the wake of the financial crisis in 2009.

In 2021, the President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, was quoted as saying, “A country can be a speedboat. And the EU is more of a tanker.”  in acknowledgment of the fact that there had been failings in the procurement of vaccines in the EU. Is the EU lacking in tools to enable it to react effectively and in a timely manner to current crises such as the pandemic?

Every decision made by the EU involves a very large number of stakeholders, in many situations vetoes can impede or even completely prevent decisions. Finding compromises often takes a long time. Nevertheless, in the end, when it came to procuring covid vaccines, the EU member states were definitely better off in their joint tanker than going it alone in 27 different speedboats.  Not everything worked well, not by a long way, but I do not believe that it would somehow have worked out better if 27 countries had negotiated alone. But whether or not the EU is ultimately fast or slow does not depend so very much on the tools at its disposal, but on the people making the decisions and what it is that they want. Let us look at another equally complicated area of policy. On 20 July 2022, the European Commission submitted a proposal for an Emergency Energy Plan, which was passed as early as 26 July 2022, although initially there had been a very great deal of disagreement about it. Under the plan, the member states, including those that have accrued sufficient energy reserves, offer one another mutual solidarity and concrete assistance. The compromise may be sprinkled with exceptions, but essentially agreement was reached extremely quickly that an important signal must be sent that the 27, or more precisely the 26, stood together in solidarity against the challenges of the war in Ukraine. Unfortunately only 26, because Hungary did not participate in the resolution.

In several EU countries, the rule of law is threatened, freedom, democracy, equality and the safeguarding of human rights are established as common values, and yet member states infringe basic principles such as the independence of the judiciary, the separation of powers or openly call into question the fairness of the electoral process. Can the problem be solved?

I do not dare to forecast whether the problem can be solved entirely - in any case it is impossible for any power to intervene in the government of a country and re-establish the rule of law. That cannot happen. The thing that, however, absolutely must be solved, is the way the member states of the EU deal with these problems. There are different mechanisms for membership of the EU to actually promote the removal of corrupt and autocratic systems in the member states. The allocation of EU funds, which often also serves to corruptly preserve power, is critical. For the first time, the Coronavirus Recovery Fund mentioned above sets clear conditions for the receipt of funds. This means, that countries that do not adhere to the principles of the rule of law may not receive any money from this pot. There are other mechanisms for protecting EU financial interests, in order to prevent corruption. In the past, the Commission, which is responsible for verifying the allocation of funds, frequently refrained from or was slow to initiate legal proceedings and to retain funds. Hungary is blatantly threatening to block all resolutions that have to be made unanimously. The European Parliament in particular, which also controls the Commission and is pushing hard for the new conditions to be applied, is therefore calling for the abolition of the national veto. What can the EU do? It has to use the tools at its disposal, primarily in the allocation of funds, and find alternative decision-making routes to overcome any embargoes. Mostly these do exist, if only there was sufficient political will. Most important, however, is that autocratic politicians are voted out of office - that may still happen in Poland, it failed to happen not long ago in Hungary, and it is also unclear in this respect how the elections will turn out in Italy in the autumn or in France in 2024. But the EU is not a power above the states, it is the cumulative power of its member states and citizens who develop common rules. If the members and citizens no longer adhere to them, then the EU will end.

The outbreak of the war in Ukraine led to the proclamation of the so-called new era, the defense budget was increased ad hoc to the 2 per cent set by NATO. In the meantime, Emanuel Macron has described NATO as being “brain dead”. What is your assessment of European security policy in times of crisis?

What Macron, in the time-honored French tradition, repeatedly calls for, is more EU sovereignty, with which he means stronger European military capacities. The EU was and still is not a strong military power. This is also because, militarily, in recent decades, the member states have not invested a great deal in national defense. The slogan of the last decades was always “operational capability”, and there as a group we continue to limp badly behind. Without the USA in the context of NATO, Europe cannot defend itself. To enable us to plan an independent European defense at all, the manifold deficiencies in the Bundeswehr, which can easily be tracked in the media, need to be addressed. Here too it is the case that the EU will become more capable in terms of defense when the member states are capable of defending themselves. Naturally, it is sensible that in this process, procurement, strategic planning, innovation and so on are coordinated as closely as possible, as was formally decided after the start of the war in Ukraine in the Strategic Compass. The bottom line is that the war has, first and foremost, led to greater investment in the member states. That is the foundation on which, at EU level, cooperation can be achieved. At present, it is very closely coordinated with NATO, which several EU countries are currently in the process of joining. Should there be a significant change of course in the United States, greater EU sovereignty as promoted by Macron might result. However, the idea that we are close to the creation of a European army is illusory and at present also not achievable operationally.

The latest Eurobarometer surveys show that only just half of the population of Europe believes that EU membership is beneficial to their country. Are we in a legitimacy crisis?

The legitimacy of the EU is somehow always in crisis. Above all the reason for this lies in the way in which we perceive legitimate government. That is because it mainly happens through the central decision-makers, who we know and listen to, and they are the governments of the member states. We also see that in federalism. Elections are held for the state parliaments, but votes are cast on unpopular decisions by the Federal Government, precisely because the Chancellor is better known than the State Premier or especially the state ministers. However it is also true that the federal governments aways want to convince their own electorate to re-elect them, which is why the temptation is great to present the strengths and weaknesses in their own record in as positive a light as possible. That is why achievements - and rarely mistakes - by the EU tend to fall beneath the radar. Domestically the covid vaccine procurement was portrayed as a total failure by the EU - which it wasn’t. But I do not see how the federal government or even one of the state governments could have prevented the mistakes that were criticized. Added to that is another problem. Because so many people are involved in EU decisions, it is often difficult for citizens to determine who is responsible. Because the questions that are dealt with by the EU are, however, so controversial, and because ever more politicians are successfully employing a generalized rejection of the EU in elections, national decision-makers should communicate their part in EU decisions more clearly. “Brussels” cannot control this, everyone in the EU is a part of it.

Professor Heidbreder, thank you very much for speaking to me!


Background information

Jean Monnet Chairs are endowed with 50,000 euros and are allocated by the European Commission through a competitive award process, in order to promote teaching, research and societal debate concerning the process of European integration. The chairs are named after the French entrepreneur, Jean Monnet (1888-1979). As the author of the manifesto that became known as the Schumann plan, Monnet is one of the most important instigators and designers of the European integration process.

Eva Heidbreder is Professor of Political Science with the focus on Multilevel Governance in the European System at the University of Magdeburg and is head of the European Studies program. Her main research areas comprise policy-making in the EU, the implementation of EU policy and civic participation in the EU, which, among other things, looks at questions such as the organization of the Brexit process.  She is the spokesperson for several working groups and sections in specialist national and international associations.