Matthias Matthijs is assistant professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
Over the past decade, Europe’s celebrated project for an “ever closer union among its peoples” has been in a constant state of paralysis because of a series of crises: the euro-zone debt crisis, the flood of refugees knocking on Europe’s doors, Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and covert support for pro-Moscow rebels in Ukraine, and the systematic move away from democratic principles in Hungary and Poland. Finally, Brexit — Britain’s vote in favor of leaving the European Union — raised fears of the union’s disintegration.
To get a broad sense of Europe’s predicament, there is perhaps no better guide than William Drozdiak’s “Fractured Continent.” Drozdiak, a former chief European correspondent for The Washington Post, crisscrosses the region from Berlin to London, Paris to Brussels, Madrid to Rome, Warsaw to Copenhagen, and Riga to Athens, with jaunts to Moscow, Ankara and Tunis, ending with a final trip to Washington. Along the way, he skillfully investigates the state of politics in Europe’s capitals, its citizens’ ambivalence toward European integration and the shifting balance of power among the large E.U. member states. Combining the objective distance of a well-informed outsider with the subjective warmth of someone who for a long time adopted Europe as his second home, Drozdiak concludes that each country struggles with its own unique crisis of national identity, while Brussels — the capital city of Europe’s two key postwar institutions, NATO and the E.U. — mostly resembles the Tower of Babel, with “many tongues in search of one voice.”
Drozdiak demonstrates that while national elites are preoccupied with domestic problems, the E.U. and NATO have a hard time dealing with the combined international challenges of the 21st century, i.e. trade, migration, capital flows, climate change, terrorism and a steady global retreat from democratic values. Drozdiak explains why Germany has not yet come to terms with its status as Europe’s indispensable nation — the continent’s chief creditor and dominant economy — and why it sees its leadership mainly in terms of making sure the southern-periphery countries in the union follow the rules. He dissects Britain’s misguided decision to break away from the rest of Europe, analyzes France’s quest to recover its lost glory under President Emmanuel Macron, and wonders whether the political center can hold in Spain, Italy and Greece. Informed readers will find little to disagree with in those chapters.
They will probably learn most from Drozdiak when reading about issues that have received relatively less attention in the media, such as Denmark’s unique commitment to fighting climate change, the strange paranoia of Poland’s recently elected ultra-conservative government about Berlin’s and Brussels’s intentions, and Latvia’s daily treatment of its ethnic Russian population as second-class citizens.
Drozdiak observes an inward turn in Europe’s capitals and institutional navel-gazing in Brussels, noting that it could not have come at a worse time. The traditional guarantor of Europe’s postwar security, the United States, is living through one of its occasional isolationist moments. President Trump has portrayed NATO as “obsolete,” disparaged the E.U. as a vehicle for German power and hinted that Article 5 of the Atlantic Alliance — which states that an attack on one is an attack on all — is conditional on NATO members first paying their fair share. Russia’s saber-rattling on the E.U.’s eastern flank, first in Georgia and then in Ukraine (both once touted as prospective NATO members), has served as a rude wake-up call for the West. Finally, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s power grab and autocratic temptation, as well as the crushed democratic hopes of the Arab Spring of 2011, are stark reminders that Europe’s soft power is not enough to transform even its own neighborhood.
What seems to be missing from Drozdiak’s book, however, is a central argument for how Europe arrived at this moment of continental discord. While he does an excellent job of weaving together the disparate threads of Europe’s current malaise, he does not really explain how we got here, thereby leaving the reader bereft of any potential solutions. The central thread that seems to tie the chapters together, and the argument he should have made, is twofold. First, unlike many other advanced industrial states, the E.U.’s member countries have lost much of their discretion over national economic policy and have given up control over their borders. Second, as long as democratic legitimacy lies with the national capitals, European rules agreed upon 25 years ago and enforced by an unelected technocracy at the European Commission in Brussels will quickly lose their popular appeal in tough times in favor of national governments taking back control. Subtly woven through Drozdiak’s chapters is a hidden but recurring theme: While many economic problems are idiosyncratic to the E.U.’s member states and therefore in need of national solutions, most political and foreign policy problems are crying out for European solutions.
Many of the E.U.’s problems are of its own making, even though it is fashionable to repeat ad naseum in elite policy circles that member states themselves are largely to blame. Between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s, Europe’s member states chose to take three ambitious leaps forward in economic integration. They created the single market and the common currency, and embarked on membership enlargement to the east. The idea was that economic integration would lead to convergence in living standards and would naturally be followed by political integration. The dictum of E.U. founder Jean Monnet that Europe would be forged in crises and would be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises was believed by many to act like an iron law of progress toward European unity.
But while E.U. member states embraced the four freedoms — of goods, services, capital and people — and a common currency, they forgot to put in place the institutions necessary to manage them in an orderly manner. They chose to give up national control over important economic policy levers, depriving member states of vital domestic shock absorbers, instead opting for a set of rigid (and German) rules. That choice may have made sense during the benign economic climate of the 1990s and 2000s, but it proved counterproductive after the global financial crisis of 2008. At the same time, the E.U. relied on the American security umbrella for Europe’s defense, rather than putting in place a muscular foreign and security policy of its own. Enlargement to the east also made for a much less cohesive union and multiplied the potential for discord.
In this elite-driven process, Europe chose to largely ignore its own people, who were perhaps willing to entertain closer cooperation on issues of foreign policy, terrorism and climate change, but did not necessarily long to give up national discretion over trade, migration and economic policy matters that create local winners and losers.
Even though a recent uptick in economic data may suggest that the “wind is back in Europe’s sails,” as European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker put it in his most recent State of the European Union address, the underlying causes of Europe’s recent crises have not been addressed. Like other federalist romantics, Juncker still believes that “more Europe” — more powers for his commission and continued transfers of sovereignty from the member states to Brussels — is the answer. But if one reads Drozdiak’s book carefully, one will quickly come to the conclusion that most problems ailing Europe’s national democracies cannot be solved at the supranational level, as there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Many national and local economic problems have only national and local solutions. Where there is a need, and a popular desire, for more Europe — in dealing with refugees, terrorism, Trump’s America, Putin’s Russia, Erdogan’s Turkey, etc. — there is no appetite among elites to forge a common strategy.
While Drozdiak leaves open the possibility that the E.U. may yet turn out to be a rising phoenix, a more realistic takeaway from his book is that Europeans have yet to come to terms with their shattered dream.
By William Drozdiak
298 pp. $26.95