The European Union is being buffeted by crises that threaten its very viability. Yet it’s important to remember the reasons the institution, however beleaguered, was created and why it should continue. That was one of the messages that Anne Anderson, Ireland’s ambassador to the U.S., shared in a meeting with the Star Tribune Editorial Board and at a Minnesota International Center event last week. It’s a reminder that European — and American — leaders should heed during the turbulence ahead.
Overlapping political, economic and military challenges have sparked an existential E.U. debate. Most immediately, Greece faces an impending default and a “Grexit” from the eurozone. A “Brexit” from the union itself is possible, too, but unlike the Greek drama, an internal debate, not outside demands, may lead London to leave. Brits will vote on the matter by the end of 2017, promised Prime Minister David Cameron, who tapped into Euroskeptics en route to re-election last month.
Cameron says he’s trying to negotiate “a better deal” for Britain. E.U. leaders will listen. But they may also hear their own citizens seeking concessions — or even an exit. Populist parties on the left and right are already channeling disenchantment over E.U. approaches to sclerotic economies. Austerity has led to a leftist surge in Spain and elsewhere, just as bailouts frustrate voters in more dynamic Germany.
Outside forces factor in, too, especially from what Anderson called an “arc of instability” in North Africa and the Mideast that’s manifested in a Mediterranean migration crisis. Italy and Greece face the most immediate impact, but an E.U.-wide refugee resettlement plan joins already-controversial internal migration policies as a vexing issue.
And to the East, what Anderson deemed the “deeply unsettled question of Russian intentions” poses another external uncertainty.
These crises have led to widespread cynicism, but not as much in Ireland, Anderson said. For her country, she said, E.U. membership was “truly transformative” and “liberated us to see ourselves in a different way. We were no longer in our own minds and our own perception an island behind an island. … It generated a new self-confidence and unleashed a new creativity in Ireland.” This self-confidence was apparent on May 22, when Ireland became the first nation to approve a same-sex marriage amendment by referendum, and has also been evident as the country recovers from a devastating recession.
Ireland’s experience should result in E.U. skeptics carefully considering the durable value of the union, which despite its challenges is a bulwark against increasing geopolitical instability
“As U.S. policymakers, the media and the public look across the Atlantic and see Europe struggling with these difficulties, there is sometimes a tendency to allow current difficulties and current crises to obscure some of the deeper truths,” Anderson said. “It should never be forgotten that the union was born out of the trauma of two world wars and, despite all the day-to-day complications and challenges, the commitment and the vision that binds the member states together goes very, very deep.”