The European Union is in dire straights. The organisation, once a beacon of aspiration and bastion of the unassailability of western liberal values, has suffered repeated blows to its reputation. A stagnant economy and an inability to deal robustly with migration has led voters to question the value of the European project, a sense compounded by the UK’s vote to leave the EU on 23 June. To prosper and thrive in the future, the organisation must receive a new breath of life.

The precariousness of the EU’s position is largely due to a wave of populism which has swept the European continent. Voters, angry at governments’ failure to manage the changes presented by globalisation, have lashed out at any sign of internationalism, most notably against migration and subsequently the EU itself. The fact that such nationalist currents have been enough to force Britain, the EU’s second biggest economy and largest defence power, to float away into the Atlantic should ring alarm bells in Brussels. Such nationalism is infectious and must be countered at every turn; the EU must convince people it has a positive contribution to make.

Bruno Girin

Image courtesy of Bruno Girin, © 2007, some rights reserved.

Brexit is a forceful blow to the integrity of the union. The departure of the EU’s most globally minded member is severely damaging to the EU’s international standing. Brexit must be a stark reminder that many of Europe’s citizens see the organisation as out of touch at best, and actively damaging at worst. Britain has long been the EU’s most awkward and reluctant member, a mindset fanned by an island mentality and post-imperial yearnings of greatness. However, European leaders must recognise that Britain’s grievances with the EU, chiefly migration, are also felt across the continent. It will be essential to face these concerns head on if the union is to remain relevant in coming decades.

Europe’s leaders face a Catch 22-type situation over migration, and indeed many other issues. The EU is criticised for being a dictator-like behemoth, which is unable to solve the problems of its citizens. If European leaders decide to press ahead with greater integration or grand European-wide schemes, then they face being accused of forcing yet more Europe down voter’s throats. They will be criticised of neo-imperialism and interference in internal affairs. But if they do nothing, or allow an EU-wide approach to fail, they risk accusations of incompetence and hand their opponents on a silver platter the argument that national capitals are better equipped to deal with border security. This will only accelerate the belief that states are best left to deal with their problems alone.

These are difficult waters to navigate, yet Europe must face these issues or else falter. The summit held in Bratislava in some ways perfectly mirrors the EU’s classic approach to such a scenario: an unambitious attempt to muddle through. The anemic content of the summit was not hidden by the gloss of a rare Franco-German press conference designed to show solidarity between the two pillars of the EU, and such unity did not hold. The Italian Prime Minister’s refusal to appear beside his colleagues and his announcement that ‘To define as a step forward today’s document on migrants would require a form of fantasy, a verbal high-wire act’ painted a more accurate picture of the EU’s divisions. The cherry on top of this cake of disarray was Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s comment that the EU’s migration policy was ‘self-destructive and naive’.

If left unmanaged, such fractures can widen and lead to further splits. If Britain has already voted to leave (chiefly due to grievances over migration) what’s to stop others from making the same decision? The only way to prevent such thoughts permeating other states is to take a united approach in Brexit negotiations and stick to the rules of the EU’s four principal freedoms: goods, services, capital, people. Such a stance is portrayed in Britain’s markedly right wing media as the EU taking a ‘hardline’ against the UK. This perception is flawed and biased; it is perfectly reasonable for the EU to deny Britain certain benefits of EU membership if it is not prepared to accept the club’s rules and pay its fair share. This is not a hardline approach; it is logical common sense. If Britain wishes to take a narrow, self-deprecating approach to its own national interest, then so be it. It should not be permitted to maim Europe too. Stripping Britain of the rights it has carelessly voted away will show Europeans not to take things for granted. Citizens must realise that visa free travel, universal rules and regulations and the rights to study and work abroad don’t just exist, but that the EU has built these up over decades.

The Bratislava summit’s response to this is greater European defence cooperation, which is far off the mark. Whilst greater cooperation between EU states may be welcome in a time of Russian resurgence, the focus on the creation of an overarching EU army floated in recent weeks is a mistake. Securing some form of comprehensive strategy to secure borders against a certain wave of migration next summer is far more important than securing them against an unlikely armed attack. Besides, there is no need to replicate NATO, which is already a guarantor of European security and the longevity of the transatlantic alliance. What’s more, the EU will only be confirming voter’s feelings that it is out of touch by pursuing such a policy; there is little appetite for an EU grand army. Armed forces are a strong source of national pride, similar to that of the monarchy. An attempt to tamper with them by the EU could result in a strong backlash from electorates.

In an increasingly uncertain multipolar world, the EU is a glowing example of interstate cooperation and pooling of sovereignty for the greater good of its peoples. Yet if the organisation cannot convince its own citizens of its merits, then this will all go to ruin. EU leaders must communicate the real benefits of EU membership to their electorates, instead of using it as a political dartboard. Fears of nationalism must be met head on, and member states should get together and forge policies that show they can deal with voters concerns. This includes having a firm, yet compassionate approach to migration. It is essential that the EU remains strong and united in its approach to the world. Internal divisions and infighting, such as those currently witnessed in British politics, will only hasten the EU’s decline. The union must not follow down the path of their soon to be ex-member.