A decade ago, European politics were just about the staidest in the world. Only the most die-hard wonks had the desire to slog through the technocratic language of EU policy briefings. Compared to the antics of Washington, Europe seemed like a preserve of peace and collegiality: slightly robotic but blessedly saved from the theatrics and acrimony of the rest of the world. But, as 2014 demonstrates, times have changed.
EU politics have heated up as the Union meets challenges at every edge. Once, the European Union saw itself as responsible for developing its edges. It dumped money into the economically-disadvantaged Mediterranean which was emerging from military dictatorships in the late 1970s. It then helped fledging democracies in post-1989 Eastern Europe. Politicians in Brussels assisted these regions to build stronger political institutions and, more importantly, they cut very big checks for economic improvement projects. Now, it seems as if the EU can barely maintain its gravitational center as its periphery pulls it apart. After years of resistance, the EU has finally signed-off on an American-style stimulus package -- but this is almost certainly too little, too late after half-a-decade of aggressive austerity enforcement. The world markets seem to agree as the euro plummets to its lowest level in a decade. There are three main forces participating in the pernicious tug-of-war to pull the EU into a new geo-political alignment: euro-skeptic Britain, the debt-burdened Mediterranean, and, most direly, the expanding orbit of Putin which is now at the Eastern gates of the EU castle.
The European Union has always had an unruly tussle with member states when it comes to giving up some elements of sovereignty in order to join the club. But no one has ever resisted so noisily, and for as long, as Great Britain. However, the days of British politicians' empty grandstanding may be over with election victories for the UKIP party, which as the acronym -- United Kingdom Independence Party -- bluntly intimates, advocates for an exit from the EU. Even if the EU were to lose the UK, which would sever it from the important financial capital of London, the bigger problem could be the precedent this sets for other malcontent members. The election of the left wing Syriza party in Greece and its vow to shred the country's IOUs could be a harbinger of things to come. As could a right-wing Front National government in France in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks and a potential rift with the EU over immigration. Things could end up looking like the 2013 U.S. budget shutdown but with 28 different countries, almost as many languages, and a far-less-healthy economy.
The Southern European edge used to be the great euro success story. EU development funds were liberally poured into countries like Spain, Greece, and Portugal and they were shepherded from military dictatorships in the 1970s to culturally-vibrant and economically-successful EU members in the 1980s. All seemed to be going swimmingly as per capita incomes and consumption shot up. That was until the financial crisis of 2008 reduced Mediterranean countries from junior-partners in the European dream to suspect debtors. The prescription was austerity and lots of it. Yet, after four years of this remedy, the patients still seem to be quite ill: Greece is a horror-show of increased poverty and their banking quagmire has infected Cyprus and nearly half of young Spaniards are unemployed. Debt-burdened countries (all in the Mediterranean, save Ireland) have been ignobly dubbed PIGS by creditor countries. In many 'PIGS' nations, citizens have taken to talking about the periphery as if it is governed by colonial overlords in Brussels who, through economic discipline, have removed their most basic democratic decision-making abilities. Greece, the worst of, has staged a minor revolution with Syriza now in power and many speculate that Podemos may come out on top of a Spanish election later this year.
Yet, the real powder keg of European politics is the Eastern European edge. Still largely unreformed from socialism, EU members like Romania and Bulgaria have struggled mightily with corruption, including multiple fatal self-immolations in the former in protest of endemic political graft and malfeasance. Hungary's Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, who recently handily won reelection, has declared the age of liberal democracy over. Although still a member of the EU, he has turned his country admiringly toward the models of Vladimir Putin in Russia and Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. If things were not bad enough with actual EU members, the war in Ukraine has threatened to test the resolve of the EU in ways it is blatantly unprepared for. Germany, the most important EU member, only reluctantly passed sanctions against Russia for its involvement with Ukrainian rebels who shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. One has trouble imagining a robust response to an incursion on Lithuania, Latvia, or Estonia. As energy prices plummet, some in DC see a potential Putin backlash but, like prewar Germany Deutsche Mark devaluation, economic peril could give a boost to unknown and radically nationalist elements within Russia. If the country does slip into a true depression, we could be applauding Putin as a great stabilizer and voice of reason five years from now.
The EU used to pride itself on its expansionary nature: every new yellow star on the blue flag symbolized cooperation, integration, and commitment to a post-national Europe. Now, that vision has been stopped in its tracks. The unruly edges of the EU seem to be straying from the center, where political and economic stability still reign. Some have said that a smaller EU may not be such a bad thing or that there should be different levels of membership, but others have pointed out that the "two track model" was exactly what the EU was trying to transcend by committing to develop poorer nations at its edges. The legitimacy of the EU mission is threatened by the dwindling coffers of Germany as well as resurgent militarism in Ukraine, not to mention the increasingly close conflict in Syria, which makes the continent look like a castle with an insufficiently large moat. In the past, these conflicts were dealt with using financial carrots but no sticks: post-communist countries like Czechoslovakia got carrots and malefactors like Serbia and Belarus got none. What's become clear in the past year, is that in an an age of more aggressive politics and increased military conflict, there may be an enhanced desire for political leaders who are armed with more than ideals and a checkbook.