The European Union’s Challenges

Of the ten European elections described in the previous blog post, only one specifically referenced the European Union. The United Kingdom vote in June 2016, known as Brexit, determined that the UK would leave the EU. And yet, the future of the EU was resting on the outcome of each election.

When the predecessor organizations of the EU were created in the 1950s, most of the issues facing member states today did not exist. Instead, the focus of cooperation was on ending the bloody wars between European neighbors. Lasting peace was the goal of the 1951 formation of the European Coal and Steel Community, economically and politically uniting the six founding countries, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. The European Economic Community (EEC), created by the 1957 Treaty of Rome, led in the 1960s to EU countries dropping customs duties when they trade with each other.

Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom joined the EEC in 1973. Beginning in 1979, members of the European Parliament were elected by direct popular vote. Greece joined in 1981 and Spain and Portugal joined in 1986. What is now known as the European Union was established by the Treaty of Maastricht in 1993 with 12 members. With the addition of Croatia in 2013, EU membership reached its current 28 members.

Sovereignty of member states was inherently at issue from the formation of the EU and predecessor organizations. By joining the EU, member states agreed to relinquish authority over significant areas, such as freedom of movement for people, goods, services and money across national borders, and standards for agricultural products. However, popular election of the 751 member European Parliament has not satisfied many citizens who feel they have given up an unacceptable degree of sovereignty. That was a major issue in the Brexit vote, and is behind significant opposition from extreme political parties in several EU member states.

New challenges to EU membership arose from events unforeseen in the formative years. Recovery from the Great Recession that spread worldwide in 2008 has been long and painful, for some member states more than others, and has exposed significant economic inequality both within and among states. Globalization and technological change have contributed further to the gap between haves and have-nots. Violence in the Middle East and Africa has generated mass migrations of refugees to Europe, where acceptance of immigrants has been generous in some member states and opposed in others. Anti-Western terrorism, much of it home-grown, heightened the tension within multi-cultural societies. Finally, Russia, already irritated by the EU’s admittance to several former Soviet states, annexed the Crimean part of Ukraine and engaged in proxy war in Ukraine’s eastern region. This is seen as a not-too-subtle threat to those former Soviet states.

If the institutions designed to maintain peace in Europe – and the world – are transformed or dissolved, what becomes of the peace?

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