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Ramifications of EU parliamentary elections: Back as a balancer?

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What began as an European economic integration just after World War II (the European Coal and Steel Community, or Schuman Plan, in 1950), finds itself in desperate need of political integration seven decades down the road. This was a necessity from the very start, but virtually impossible to consider and cultivate during the Cold War, which globalised the European balance game: without the United States supplying that anchor, no European integrative effort might have succeeded as much as today's sprawling edifice did against all odds during not only the 1950s, but also the "agree to disagree" 1960s, the even more paradoxical expansion amid visible roadblocks during the 1970s, and the independent take-off with the Single European Act (SEA) in 1986. Growth followed, with membership doubling, then the hiccupping start of the 21st century indicating some degree of over-reach, until the exit prospects of Great Britain today opened a can of worms. The 2019 parliamentary elections seem, as if, a rendezvous with destiny. The message is clear: without the United States, Europe is returning to its fractious self, yet even with the United States today, the Cold War magic, upon which other global initiatives were modelled, may best be left to history books than the politician's playing-field.

By unconditionally guaranteeing European security during the Cold War, the United States prevented European countries from their historical addiction to building weapons against each other: without the Soviet Union's ghost prowling over Europe, European integration might have been a non-starter. With the Soviet Union gone, Europe must play with Russia as it did up to the end of the 19th century: another multi-polar player, useful to balance Europe with, but better kept outside its gates.

Not so for the United States until the second 21st century decade. What was the world's most "special" relationship (between the United States and Great Britain from roughly the end of the 19th century) blossomed into a European-US love affair: Germany's post-war era owes its dignity and stability to the United States, as too a string of East European members of the European Union (EU), led by Poland, which saw early enough the opportunities in balancing West European clout within the European Union by teaming up behind the United States: one recalls how former US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, coined two words for this configuration, the "new" Europe, clearly identifying but also keeping at bay "old" Europe, the former centred in East and Central Europe, the latter in the West. The occasion was the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, when many in the latter opposed joining in, while the former groups supported and sympathised with the United States. The beginning of the Europe-US glow had started to fade.

Clearly as the United States and the Soviet Union moved rapidly towards a thaw from mid-1980s under Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, Europeans openly feared being sidelined. No wonder the remarkable post-SEA membership expansion, from 12 to 15, then up to 28, with even Turkey on the waiting list. This reinforced by the shift from the European Community to the European Union at Maastricht in 1993, opening up a single currency to function beside free-trade, and selective free human flows through the 1995 Schengen Area arrangements (beginning in 1985, then converging into the Amsterdam Agreement in 1997, before being implemented from 1999). This selective nature presaged the problem of divisiveness we see today, particularly with illegal migrants smashing these arrangements to smithereens. That they also fuelled today's European population must be the coup de grace that must be allayed for now.

Trade disputes with the United States spiralled after the SEA adoption as the United States began to feel uneasy about the string of collective goods. These were supplied at US expense to all the rest of the world to fend off communism during the Cold War: military organisations, like the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), exemplify the costs the United States bore for all too long to let West Europe grow. President Donald J. Trump is out to change that status quo.

"Timing is everything," goes a business cliché. When hijacked by politics, anything goes, and usually in the wrong direction. Both West European countries and the United States unwittingly began losing their economic competitiveness with the emergence of other global players, whether Japan or China, or the multiple others. Among the consequences: both West European countries and the United States shouting at each other instead of talking, sometimes for grievances incurred elsewhere, or from finding new "special" friends elsewhere. Added to this have been extraneous forces, such as illegal immigration, terrorist activities, and the Muslim-based apprehensions riddling Europe (more so than the United States owing to a larger population proportion). The dominant consequence: populism.

What populism has done for Europe in the 2019 EU election is to cut the dominant political factions down to size, at least for the moment. This is what it has done in some of the EU's many member countries in national elections recently. Illustrating the mood is Brexit, in the feisty island member, and the formidable Marie LePen charge inside the dominant founding father of the European Union: France. Smaller countries have had their share, as in Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, and Poland, threatening a Nazi-type revival of the 1920s. The EU parliament election results serve as a necessary antidote: the growth of "green" party candidates stands out as the most damning message that politics must stop at the water's edge.

This it cannot since the economic steam that drove European integration has run out. Germany was pivotal from the very outset in the 1950s: its recovery proved to be a "miracle." Bailing Greece out of insolvency in this century, Germany's economy has buoyed and strengthened European integrative efforts. Even if its economy is stuttering, we must never forget how the strength of the German economy facilitated reunification from the early 1990s, then anchored East and Central European countries in their "catch-up" race towards EU membership. Before that, it anchored even France's graduation into an industrialised country: France's Common Agricultural Policy, the fulcrum of institutionalising European integration was allowed to return its protectionist clout simply because the German economy was strong enough for France to shield its farmers as a step towards transforming a strong agricultural driven economy into manufacturing and services.

Amid these changes, the European Union could not but help shift paradigms: from economic integration to political. It is not just to compensate the US retreat from Europe only. It is for Europeans to get to know each other better. Hitherto the European Union largely meant technocrats in Brussels tinkering with economic policies since that proved the easiest pathway to integration: culture could be a contender, but emphasis on culture places the EU fortunes on a slippery slope, demanding even more political intervention than it does now.

Political integration has become vital to combat populism, the greatest internal threat EU members have faced. To not just stave the Brexit nightmare from spreading, but also to find another steadfast leader like Chancellor Angela Merkel, or even to promote climate-change responses, check illegal immigration, harness European Muslims, and balance US adventurism as much as it has Russia's, the European Union cannot but galvanise politically. That is the underlying message of the 2019 EU parliamentary election. That economic integration is possible was convincingly shown, but technological demands that economic structures must now be more global than regional to survive, further necessitating collective political training and exercises. This will be a challenge worth monitoring: any success would mean the EU is back again as a world model.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

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