Divisions are not new to Europe; they have always existed to some degree, whether it has laid between the old and new members of the EU or between the members and non-members of the eurozone. The EU is even divided fiscally between the responsible and irresponsible countries. Presently, the most pressing European division exists between the Eastern and Western countries, with the Eastern countries considered to be the political antagonists, primarily because of their negative attitude toward the refugee redistribution. What are the solutions to these crises? Could it be the often-discussed multispeed Europe, or even deeper integration?
Before any plausible strategies can be formulated, the key issues must firstly be distinguished. Simone Roden-Benzaquen, Director of Paris Bureau, American Jewish Committee in France, identified three problems which she believes contribute to the crises the most. The first is the steadily increasing distrust in the system and the democratic structures within the EU societies. It must be recognized that the lower middle class has lost trust in the institutions. According to the Eurobarometer, only 18% of Greeks and 20% of Italians believe that their vote could have an impact, while the vast majority of Brexit voters did not trust the system at all. Secondly, issues persist with the polarization within EU societies, which is mainly caused by the failure of the elites to effectively tackle important issues, such as the demographic problems, or the rising threat of terrorism. The final crucial obstacle is the fragmentation of public opinion, which is reinforced by social media. Different internet platforms facilitate the communication between like-minded people, which is further supported by algorithms. In reality, this means that people are no longer exposed to different opinions or challenged by them, and as a consequence, it becomes more and more difficult to compromise.
It appears, therefore, that the EU is at the crossroads, although Balázs Molnár, Deputy State Secretary for EU Affairs at the Prime Minister’s Office in Hungary, states that this has been the case for a while. Mr. Molnár believes that Brexit is not the cause of the problems, but a consequence of them. Tensions are stimulated when the European Commission conducts politics in a way that is contradictory to the interests of the population and to the member states. The situation is then worsened when the institution does not react promptly to pressing problems, such as youth unemployment or the migration crisis, and it generally contributes to the rising Euroscepticism, even in the new member states. The public support of the EU, nonetheless, is strong in the states which joined after 2004, because people still remember the conditions prior to the enlargement. The key problem is that some of the advantages gained through EU membership disappear, for example the newly introduced border controls between Austria and Slovenia.
Popular opinion identifies the East-West division as the most important case of disunity; however, Konrad Szymansky, Secretary of State for European affairs for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland, is not of this opinion. Mr. Szymansky perceives Central Europe as one of the most stable regions and states that it is growing economically. He believes the central regions are pro-European, and that the East-West divide can be easily solved with a more consensus-based decision-making process. Regarding the migration crisis, he advocates that an external migration policy as the only plausible solution that works. This has already been experienced with the Turkish agreement, however more agreements with other countries are needed and although Poland is not affected in this crisis, the country would like to help. A more profound conflict exists amongst the fiscal disputes in the North-South crises. Mr. Szymansky usually avoids speaking about the future, but he admitted that the outlook is worse than it has been in the past, when predictions were better. Contrastingly in the current situation, a variety of problems need to be tackled, such as welfare issues or internal and external security.
In line with this pro-European assessment, Zanda Kalnina-Lukasevica, Parliamentary Secretary for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Latvia, expressed how the Latvian society also feels very strongly about the EU and the Eurozone. Although Ms. Kalnina-Lukasevica does not agree with the division which is presented here, nor does she appreciate the approach where geolocations are stressed, she underlined the importance of recognizing the diversity within Europe. Soon, Latvia will reach its 100th anniversary and the Parliamentary Secretary, who is proud of her nationality, emphasized that a strong Europe is important for Latvia’s longevity. Nevertheless, to promote the development of the EU each member state must share this responsibility. Ms. Kalnina-Lukasevica is not alone in this opinion. According to Domagoj Ivan Milošević, Chairman of the European Affairs Committee for Sabor in Croatia, all reasonable politicians, excluding extremists, acknowledge that the EU is good for all member states. The union is, however, very complex and difficult to lead, and thus it requires a lot of patience and trust between the members, which he believes would not be encouraged by the adoption of different speeds.