The bloc is struggling to keep its member states in line
Farmers’ protests seem to be the new canary in the coal mine for European politics. After Dutch farmers protested EU nitrogen regulations in March, the bloc is now at loggerheads with Eastern European countries over the influx of Ukraine grain imports.
The decisions in these countries — Poland, Hungary, Romania, Czech Republic and Slovakia — to ban imports of grain, oil seed, dairy products and meat from Ukraine is a problem for the whole bloc. Individual EU member states cannot simply ban products from a third party, especially if there is a free trade agreement, as in the case of Ukraine. The European Commission was quick to remind Warsaw et al. that trade “decisions can only be taken at the European level. That is why unilateral action is not possible.” This view is, unsurprisingly, not shared in Eastern Europe, and so the grain rebels have not thus far relented.
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Anticipating that these five states will not give up their proposed protectionist measures, Brussels is preparing an emergency measure to allow a de facto ban of Ukrainian agricultural imports into its neighbouring member states until June. In other words, the EU folded under pressure from a small number of member states — just as it did during the financial crisis between 2007 and 2009.
Despite past experience, however, the EU seems to be committed to making things worse. Its myriad rules and broader structure appear strongest under conditions of peace and tranquillity, but bend easily during times of crisis. The European Commission, for example, is currently preparing a lawsuit against Hungary at the European Court of Justice over a 2021 law regarding the treatment of LGBTQI+ communities.
Whatever the merits of the case, it has no doubt been noticed in Budapest that pressure can go in both directions, and Hungary’s participation in the import ban is a clear indicator of that. The lawsuit is also characterised by the absence of support from Central and Eastern European countries like Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Bulgaria. What’s more, it’s no secret that the Polish Government sympathises with the type of legislation enacted by Hungary, and only narrowly escaped a similar lawsuit.
Yet divisions are not just appearing between Europe’s East and West, but also within these two blocs. That relations between Poland and Hungary have deteriorated thanks to differing approaches towards the resolution of the Ukraine war is clear; the same is true regarding serious disagreements between Paris and Berlin in all matters energy. While Germany is gathering supporters for its anti-nuclear policy, France has announced the formation of a pro-nuclear alliance within the EU. Emmanuel Macron’s divergence from Europe’s China policy and demand for more independence from the US remain a sore point on the continent, as these approaches were coordinated with neither the EU nor other member states.
All these growing internal divisions reveal that the EU is not just a project geared towards advancing peace, but one that depends on peace, too. Throughout its history, the Union has shown real trouble keeping member states in line when armed conflict loomed near its borders.
Contrary to the oft-repeated line that times of crisis “strengthen European unity”, the historical record demonstrates the exact opposite. The most remarkable acts of unity — like the introduction of the euro or the acceptance of large numbers of new member states — happened at times of remarkable peace and stability during the 1990s and early 2000s. This was at a time when the “End of History” thesis was at the apex of its popularity.
With the end of history ending, we might see the same happening to the myth of an ever closer Union, as European states increasingly forge a different path.