The EU is in a quiet crisis. For the first time it faces the prospect of a major economy leaving the EU voluntarily. Its internal structure for free movement of people is collapsing. Nationalist governments of one stripe or another are being elected. And a militarily assertive Russia provides another headache.
The problem is that the EU over-reached. It went from being a trade pact to a proto-federal state without the permission of the peoples it brought together. Its market harmonization turned into federal regulation. EU peoples felt disenfranchised as a result. They want more power over their borders and the economies. Europe has to find a way of granting that without falling apart.
That may be possible. David Cameron does not want the UK to leave the EU. He called the summit in February to find a way forward to end the will-they, won’t-they speculation over Britain leaving the EU and agreement over looser control over one nation could be applied to others.
The trouble is that Cameron’s demands are presently unacceptable to his European partners and unlikely to assuage the anger of British voters over high immigration levels. If he does reach agreement with his European partners the pro-Brexit forces are likely to brand him a sell-out. It’s hard to see a way Cameron wins. His best bet is get a better-than-expected deal and call a snap referendum.
Meanwhile, the combined migrancy and refugee crisis has caused huge problems. Countries within the Schengen area are restoring border controls. This strikes at the heart of one of the founding principles of the EU—free movement of people.
The EU economy is precarious. Successful countries like the UK and Germany are attracting large numbers of migrants, leading to popular unrest. Less successful countries like Spain and Greece have huge debt burdens, very high unemployment, and radical populist parties getting large percentages of the vote. The countries in between like Poland and Hungary are becoming more nationalistic and conservative. Another debt crisis could break the system.
There are still significant divisive forces at the national level. Separatist movements in Scotland and Spain came very close to success last year.
Russia likely has its hands full with ISIS and Ukraine for the foreseeable future. But if it were to be victorious in either of those conflicts it might feel more confident in exerting more influence over the Baltic States, for instance. That would not just be an issue for the EU, but for NATO. Russia’s energy dominance over Eastern Europe is also an intractable problem.
In short, the EU faces another year of existential crisis. So far they have managed to muddle through. Keeping Britain in and borders open are the first challenges. How the EU fares in those areas may determine its future.