European federalism must overcome strong challenges to survive

What we today call Europe has a rich history of competing civilizations and ideas. Throughout the many centuries of its past, there were kingdoms, empires, tyrannical regimes and fanatical ideologies, which all tried to realize the ultimate goal of a unified Europe. From the rise and fall of the Roman Empire to the emergence of Christendom in the Middle Ages and from the goals of an Aryan-dominated continent under fascism to the humanist ideas of thinkers, like Richard Kalergi and Aristide Briand, there were many periods and different motivations to erase the borders between the countries in Europe to create a single European nation.

Today, the closest thing we have to these distant dreams is an institution that is also possibly the biggest social experiment in human history. Today, the European Union (EU) stands as the unifying force that links the economies, governments, laws, policies and cultures of its members for the grand purpose of promoting peace and democracy while preventing war between European nations. While many advancements — the creation of the euro as the single currency of the continent, the Schengen agreement and the Common Market — in European politics have all contributed to this goal, the EU still faces challenges that can potentially decide its fate for the future. This is because the project of unifying the entire continent under one banner cannot yet succeed under the set of challenges the EU is facing internally.

The opposition to the idea of federalization stems chiefly from political parties, which stand on nationalist platforms. While parties, such as the Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Germany and National Rally in France, continue to gain popularity due to the disillusionment faced by the traditional major parties of these nations, countries in the east, such as Slovakia, Hungary and Poland, experience strong voices of nationalism, which are opposed to the idea of European unification. There is a noticeable trend — fueled by discontent toward EU bureaucracy and legislature — among such nations to stray away from the policies promoted by the EU and prioritize national interests. Especially in the case of Slovakia and Hungary, their stance of opposition to policies planned by the European Parliament, such as military aid to Ukraine, signal the weaknesses of the EU’s structure and the ideals of democracy.

Most importantly, as economic and political integration is the defining aspect of the Union, there are potential threats to the EU’s integrity. Historically, the 2008 financial crisis showed the weaknesses of the systems used by the EU in the name of integration, most notably the policies related to the euro, trade and fiscal management. Since the EU represents an enormous part of the global economy, there is no room for mistakes when it comes to addressing these core policy issues. Politically, the EU is frequently criticized for its lack of transparency and representation — with its institutions often characterized as overly bureaucratic, bloated and inefficient in the face of both national interests and ideological principles.

There is a broad range of ideological groups which hold such positions against the EU, from socialists to conservatives and beyond. However, the recent swift trend toward nationalist and hardliner policies promoted by radical political parties is a sign that the key problem the EU will face in the coming decades will be in relation to the unity of the entire organization — the balance of power between core EU institutions, such as the European Parliament or the European Commission, and the individual states is a question that will require immense dedication and strength to maintain.

Since the driving force of European federalism is an overwhelmingly liberal and progressive ideology, the hardliner opposition to it is often disregarded or even mocked by those who defend it for being backward and illogical. However, such an attitude toward the problems of the whole organization is exactly the root cause of the disillusionment felt by the groups of people who turn to radical parties for representation. This is a deadly cycle that poses the risk of undoing decades of political and social progress achieved in the name of peace in Europe. It also erodes trust in the concept that nations can come together for cooperation and work as a group rather than isolated entities.

The EU is the culmination of centuries of war and competition for dominance. Should the problems related to its idealistic goals not be properly addressed, it would be reasonable to think that such significant events like Brexit would only be the first in many other steps toward the possible disintegration of this complex system. It therefore remains to be seen if the EU can stand the test of time, addressing the rise of radicalism as not just a mere fad, but the symptom of greater structural problems is the only way it can continue working toward the greater ideals of unification. The fundamental challenge the EU faces is the rivalry between pragmatic interests and idealistic projects. The question of nationalism against globalism is, therefore, the existential dilemma the EU must resolve carefully to survive into the future.

Deniz Gulay is a freshman majoring in history.