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The EU is entering a playing field in which it has little experience – European disintegration. EU interior ministers have openly threatened to expel Greece from the Schengen border-free zone and to seal the country off to the rest of Europe at the Macedonian border. While Greece faces the threat of a forced disintegration from a central European project, the UK considers a free-will departure from the EU as a whole. EU leaders will meet in February to discuss the UK demands put forward ahead of its membership referendum.
The threat to kick Greece out of Schengen and the UK referendum on the EU membership seem to have little in common. Yet they are both reflective of the EU’s struggle to keep together a club of twenty-eight member states in view of tremendous internal and external challenges. At its core, this struggle concerns the question of how to balance functional needs for more ‘Europe’ with the increasing desire of many European governments and citizens for less ‘Europe’.
This dilemma is particularly visible in the two EU flagship projects: Schengen and the Euro. To save the Schengen border-free zone in the context of Europe’s refugee crisis, the most straightforward way is to complete the half-hearted European integration of migration and border control policies. The Commission has pushed in this direction by advocating a fully-fledged relocation scheme for asylum seekers within Europe and a new EU border and coastguard force. These guards may intervene even without a host country’s consent. In a similar vein, the EU has moved towards a more integrated economic Union to save the Euro and deal with highly indebted Eurozone member states. Greece, in particular, was compelled to subscribe to tough austerity measures, should it wish to stay in the Eurozone.
Many European citizens and their political leaders have accepted only reluctantly, if at all, this push for more European unification. Nationalistic and Eurosceptic parties are on the rise, in particular in the states exposed to the consequences of austerity measures and the ill-functioning European migration regime.
This all reflects that the dynamics of European integration have changed. The EU is no longer moving forward by its power of attraction. Its threats of exclusion have taken a similarly important place. In retrospect, former periods of European integration seemed easy. The EU has always been an elite-driven project but the population was by and large ready to follow. Despite occasional disputes (think of Margaret Thatcher’s ‘I want my money back’), the EU’s added value was widely uncontested. This was particularly true in the former ‘wannabe’ member states of Central and Eastern Europe. After the implosion of the Soviet empire, they accepted far-reaching and difficult adaptation processes due to the attractiveness of the idea of a united Europe.
This period seems to have gone for good. Now the threat of disintegration has become a central tool to enforce EU solutions – but also to fight against them. David Cameron’s EU referendum can be seen as a blackmailing effort to reverse or at least stop the path towards more ‘Europe’. The problem for the rest of the EU is that they cannot easily give in to such a demand. The functional pressures deriving from the economic or migration crisis require more, not less, EU competences and solutions.
The threats of EU interior ministers via-á-vis Greece correspond to a different type of blackmailing. Greece is believed to require closer European scrutiny and control. The opportunities to shirk budgetary discipline in the case of the Eurozone and to weaken the external Schengen border control should be brought close to zero. The logic underlying this action is straightforward. In a crisis situation, the EU is only as strong as its weakest link in the chain. This link therefore needs strengthening, if deemed necessary against its own will.
Therefore the threat to exclude Greece from Schengen has the underlying objective to make Greece accept more EU involvement in the control of the external Schengen border. Yet using threats is like playing with fire. The EU may well have to actually stick to its guns in order to remain credible. In that case, Greece may face negotiations with the EU not so different from those with the UK should the British threat of disintegrating from Europe have to be translated into reality as well.
Florian Trauner is a research professor in European Studies at the Flemish Free University of Brussels (VUB).