A few months ago, at the height of the Greek debt crisis, I wrote in this space that the lesson of history is that the EU is a survivor. In other words, Europe’s integration process was not going to collapse, no matter the outcome of negotiations. The eurozone countries would find a way to keep Greece in the currency area, or the country would leave the eurozone, willingly or otherwise. Breaking the taboo on temporary or permanent exit would lead to consequences that might even increase the eurozone’s integrity, because other governments would take note. When anti-austerity Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras gave in to the inevitable and accepted harsh terms for a new bailout for Greece, the way was open for EU political economy-as-usual: all-night meetings, ambiguous implementation plans, plenty of wiggle room, and the potential for political resurrection.
Tsipras, having fought the good fight for his country and maintained Greece’s dignity, won a snap parliamentary election. The problem of Greece’s huge debt remains to be resolved over the long term, but no one doubts that, along with that country, the eurozone and the slow roll of European integration have been rescued. Greece’s travails are not only off the front pages, they’re hardly even newsworthy right now.
The same general pattern will play out as Europe addresses the sudden, massive influx of refugees, asylum seekers, and economic migrants. European integration as a historical process has crossed the point of no return. The degree of integration, determined in the clash of national sovereignty versus European decision-making, will wax and wane; certain structures or functions of EU life may go on life support. One or more countries may exit the eurozone, while the Schengen Area of internal border-free travel may falter. Perhaps a country will even opt out of the European Union — British membership is at stake in a referendum to be held sometime before 2017. But even then not all ties with the European Union would be broken. For example, access to the Common Market could be set up for a departing country under some new framework. Several possible frameworks already exist: association agreements and neighborhood agreements link a variety of countries such as Turkey, Israel, Jordan, and even Algeria and Libya, to the European Union. Brexit would not mean a complete divorce overnight, and the British would find that divorce is more painful for them than for the Continent. Indeed they might rethink such a choice. Brexit would be the start of a long negotiating process ending in another British special relationship.
When the Greek crisis broke, media commentators rushed to outshout each other: It was the deepest crisis in EU history; the Eurozone couldn’t survive, and without the euro all was lost. Surprisingly, the refugee crisis brought even veteran observers to similar views. Camino Mortera, an EU specialist at the Centre for European Reform in Brussels, said, “Schengen is the essence of the European Union … if Schengen were to collapse it could mean the whole idea of the EU is no longer valid.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as usual, intoned the language of responsibility: The refugee issue is a deeper problem for the European Union and will take longer to resolve than the Greek debt crisis. Among other things, this crisis puts the Greek crisis into perspective.
Europe’s internal relationships are under severe stress as its leaders figure out what to do with and how to absorb the refugees and would-be migrants. The first issue is attending adequately to their daily lives. In the process, issues of human rights, of sovereignty versus solidarity, and of practical organization, must be resolved. The outcome — the lives refugees will live after the crisis has receded — is uncertain. What is certain is that the refugees will not be allowed to starve and will be settled (some economic migrants may be sent back) in a reasonably humanitarian way, although not without conflict and controversy with local populations in some places. EU member states have conflicting views and plans over what to do, and European integration as a whole may advance or recede as a result. But the European Union is unlikely to collapse. It will adapt and continue to muddle through toward some ill-defined end point.
The European Union is just too important for European civilization, its integration too structurally and functionally elaborate, and its performance too successful in various respects, for Europeans to let it go. Europe will survive the current rise of ugly political populism in certain EU member countries. It will absorb a large number of new arrivals and carry on.