Most of the last decade saw the EU having to deal with a range of crises that emphasised a multitude of existing cleavages within and among its member states.
Firstly, as the financial and sovereign debt crises have been unfolding since late 2009, countries such as Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal have implemented substantial austerity packages under the close supervision of the so-called ‘Troika’, formed of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Austerity has arguably put a serious strain on these countries’ public spending and on the living standards of many of their citizens. Levels of unemployment have increased substantially, especially among the young, many of whom have been compelled to search for jobs and opportunities abroad. Indeed, the most affected countries have been witnessing so far, on average, a rather modest and slow economic recovery.
Secondly, the arguably less-than-democratic ways in which the EU has been dealing with some of these financial and economic problems (see, for example, the substantial influence exerted by institutions such as the European Central Bank or the Eurogroup, which arguably are not particularly accountable) have clearly challenged its perceived legitimacy among European citizens, as the growing levels of Euroscepticism over the last few years show.
Finally, Mediterranean countries have also been at the forefront of dealing with the migration crisis around people fleeing from conflicts in Africa and the Middle East, particularly Syria. The EU’s apparent failure to provide an adequate and unitary response to this humanitarian crisis not only entailed a disproportionate burden on Southern member states, in particular Greece and Italy, but has arguably further undermined the internal unity and perceived legitimacy of the EU.
On this background, the EU is currently going through the first exit ever of a member state – the UK, who decided to leave the EU following a democratic referendum in June 2016. At the same time, the increasingly manifest cleavages between remaining member states are reflected by the proposal of a ‘multi-speed Europe’ recently put forward by ‘core’ member states such as France and Germany and by the European Commission as a potential scenario for the future of the EU. In any case, that future seems today less predictable than ever.
See Module 6 to find out more about the crises currently faced by the EU, the ways it has dealt with them so far and possible alternative routes for European integration.