NATIONAL

Europeans discuss challenges of integration

By Korea Herald
  • Published : May 8, 2016 - 16:54
  • Updated : May 8, 2016 - 21:58
Today is Europe Day: an annual celebration of the continent’s peace and unity. However, with the prospect of Britain exiting the European Union looming large, the EU’s state of integration is being questioned more frequently the world over.

The supranational union of 28 member states, with a total population of 508 million people, has been divided by the issue of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa, and shattered by terrorist attacks, with the latest in Brussels in late March that killed 32 people and injured more than 300.

Its economy, reeling from the Eurozone crisis, has not fully rebounded, despite improved financial stability and stabilized interest rates, according to economists.

Against this backdrop, the “European Dream” – as articulated by American intellectual Jeremy Rifkin in 2004, who optimistically described “how Europe’s vision of the future is quietly eclipsing the ‘American Dream’” -- has soured, observers note.

Vladimir Shopov (right), founder of the Bulgarian Institute of International Affairs, speaks beside Martin Heipertz, head of the European policy division at the German Federal Ministry of Finance, at a seminar titled “Asan Plenum 2016” on April 26. (Joel Lee / The Korea Herald)
Foreign policy experts and journalists from Europe gathered at the Asan Plenum 2016, organized by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, to discuss the state of integration and challenges facing the European Union. (Joel Lee / The Korea Herald)

How Europe will chart its course in an era of the “new normal” -- a state of anarchy, tension, conflict and war -- increasingly occupies scholars and students alike. To search for remedies, foreign policy experts and journalists gathered at the Asan Plenum 2016, organized by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

“There is a pervasive anxiety over Europe’s future,” said Steven Blockmans, head of EU foreign policy at the Center for European Policy Studies, at the event in late April. “The issue of migrants from the Middle East and North Africa has touched the raw nerves of public opinion and caused deep divisions over policy responses.”

Following the Brussels attack, the need to better integrate immigrants in society has gained greater currency, he added, calling it “a hopeful sign.”

The intergovernmental body, dubbed the “largest political experiment in human history,” exists by “grace” of its member constituencies and their trusting solidarity, according to Blockmans. “But that’s exactly where the problem lies.”

The EU’s alliance is being eroded, its worth and usefulness are being challenged, and officials and citizens are asking whether the integration project is “still reversible.” He mentioned the EU’s inability to adequately deal with terrorist and security threats from the Middle East to Ukraine.

Noting that the typical response has been to create more laws, red tapes and technocratic dossiers, the researcher stressed: “That is missing the point. Over the last 25 years, the EU has sidestepped the major question of its political makeup. There are member states that share a perception of an overregulated EU.

“The answer lies in accommodating different attitudes toward integration, irrespective of the likelihood of Brexit (Britain exiting the EU). This momentum should be used to reshape the EU.”

Philip Stephens, associate editor and chief political commentator for the Financial Times, discusses reasons behind Britain's June 23 referendum to either stay in or out of the European Union. (Joel Lee / The Korea Herald)

Philip Stephens, associate editor and chief political commentator for the Financial Times, said following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe stabilized the post-communist world by inviting countries to adopt democratic and liberal norms.

The dawn of the 21st century presented unbounded opportunities, and Europe offered a model of integration that could be expanded further and exported to the rest of the globe, according to the journalist.

“But Europe doesn’t look such a happy place now,” he said, listing the following challenges: slowed growth, high unemployment, economic imbalances between nations, financial polarization from globalization, the rise of populism across the political spectrum, fragmentation of politics based on identity, spillover from failed states in the Middle East (chiefly the explosion of migration and terrorism), in addition to security threats from Russian revanchism and the prospect of “Brexit.”

“A ‘new normal’ for Europe will be one that accommodates these stresses and divisions across the North and South as well as the East and West,” Stephens claimed. “Europe may have to accept a looser arrangement with greater diversities.”

While appealing that “the idea of a single structure is lost,” he suggested Europe could incorporate different states at different levels, with core countries consolidating “like the old Europe” and others “more loosely affiliated.”

Regarding the United Kingdom’s June 23 referendum to either stay in or out of the EU, the Briton cautioned against the latter, saying, “it would be a tragedy and gravely damaging to both the U.K. and Europe.”

“Since Britain’s referendum to join the EU in 1975, we were never entirely comfortable being a member,” he said. “We have been an exceptionalist in many integrationist projects, particularly in areas like security. This exceptionalism derives from deep issues of culture, geography, history and the legacy of governing an empire.”

Similar to how Russia today struggles with its post-soviet power space, Britain “still extraordinarily goes through the pain of losing an empire,” Stephens analyzed.

The “Brexit” controversy stems from “Britain’s historical and emotional desire to pull ourselves from Europe, against the realism of being a part for economic and political benefits.”

Unlike the 1975 referendum, the upcoming vote is “dangerous,” he asserted, noting that Euroskeptics have “bundled together all the anger and anxiety arising from globalization, stagnant real income and immigration into an anti-European populism.”

“When people go to vote, many of them will vote simply because they are angry, not for the future of their country,” Stephens indicated. “They will see it as a way of getting back on the elites.”

Foreign policy experts and journalists from Europe gathered at the Asan Plenum 2016, organized by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, to discuss the state of integration and challenges facing the European Union. (Joel Lee / The Korea Herald)

Vladimir Shopov, founder of the Bulgarian Institute of International Affairs and former counselor at the Bulgarian mission to the EU, argued that over the past several years, Europe has faced globalization’s repercussions, principally through economic disruptions, deindustrialization and mass migration.

“The ‘new normal’ has been a return to realpolitik,” he said. “Self-perceptions of Europeans have changed. People have lost faith in the government’s ability to govern.”

Clouds of collective and individual anxieties and doubts over identity have shrouded the electoral landscape, inflaming volatility, instability and populism.

Bulgaria, which joined the EU in 2007, has actively supported its enlargement process, Shopov underlined.

“We are among the countries making the point that the EU’s integration will not be complete without the Southeastern states,” he told The Korea Herald. He pointed out that the Western EU governments were preoccupied with their crises over organizational expansion.

Bulgaria has concentrated on reforming policies in the region, pursuing a dual track of assisting other countries who are not yet part of the EU prepare for formal accession, and facilitating intra-and-interregional political cooperation.

“We are trying to be innovative by promoting cooperation and progress without having to wait for the much bigger, more ambitious and difficult framework that the EU wants,” he explained.

“The idea is to help the modernization and Europeanization of these countries. Our administration has continuously made the point to other member states and the commission that we should start treating the Balkan states yet part of the EU -- Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina -- as if they are, to address urgent crises of migration and energy security.”

Vladimir Shopov, founder of the Bulgarian Institute of International Affairs and former counselor at the Bulgarian mission to the EU. (Joel Lee / The Korea Herald)

On the refugee issue, synchronizing the region’s legislations, policies and institutions with those of Brussels would enable better governance of stemming the flows, the analyst noted. He added that the recent EU-Turkey refugee deal is “only a temporary solution.”

On March 18, 28 EU heads of state forged an agreement with Turkey to freeze the influx of refugees and asylum-seekers who have crossed the Aegean to reach Greece from Turkey. In exchange for accepting “all new irregular migrants” who arrived after March 20, the EU will financially support their resettlement in Turkey and accelerate visa liberalization for Turkish nationals.

“We are currently in the process of changing various policies within the EU so that the continent is in a better position when comes the next wave of migration,” Shopov emphasized. “The scale and scope of the crisis are beyond our expectations. We need to plan against more migration and instability.”

Acknowledging that all Southeastern states are “transit countries” for the refugees and asylum-seekers, he cautioned against assuming they would all want to settle in Europe, as many desire to return to their respective countries after peace.

Over the next few years, a more developed mechanism for separating refugees from immigrants will be designed, he said.

Regarding energy security, the Balkan states and countries outside the region could cooperate to build the much needed infrastructure and enhance connectivity, according to the political scientist.

“The political point behind this is that in light of the need for formal institutional arrangements and legislations, we have common problems to address. That is without having to wait for negotiations to catch up.”

By Joel Lee (joel@heraldcorp.com)