21 June 2018

A new crisis in the EU?

Europa in crisis?

Due to increasing dissatisfaction in Europe over the migration policy, President of the European Council Donald Tusk is touring various European capitals, hoping to get all EU countries to come to an agreement. On top of that, there will be an additional EU summit on this important issue in the upcoming weekend. Is the European unity under threat due to the division over the migration policy? Will there be a new crisis in the EU, after the eurozone crisis, the earlier refugee crisis and the Brexit?

Despite all that, Utrecht University researchers Femke van Esch (Associate Professor of European integration) and Hans Vollaard (European disintegration and euroscepsis) are still optimistic about the future of Europe: “I actually consider the European Union to be one big crisis,” Hans Vollaard says, “because a crisis means that you are in a situation in which you don't know the answer, but want to take a step forward.”

Maybe the advent of this new government in Italy can be the push Europe needs to really get to work on better and fairer migration policies.


The arrival of a new, eurosceptic Italian government seemed to threaten the European unity again. Associate Professor of European integration Femke van Esch expects that in the short term, it is especially the migration issue that will become a problem. She believes that the political change in Italy will result in new policy, and is optimistic about the future of Europe.

“Historically speaking, the Italians are quite pro-European,” Femke van Esch says, “and even though the Five Star Movement was originally sceptic about the EU and against the euro, they have since altered their course somewhat. Now that they are in the government, they want to keep the euro. But you can't just say that, there are obligations attached to that. They have also said at the same time that they don't want to reduce budget deficits and thus the debt burden, or reduce them less. These are two things that don't line up.”

Still, Femke van Esch does not think the economic politics of Italy will become the main problem. She believes the refugee issue will become a much more important matter. “Specifically: the Lega party's stance on migration. Italy's decision to not let the refugees on the Aquarius enter any Italian port has already resulted in a fierce discussion. They were eventually taken in by Spain and the French president was among those who expressed their outrage on Italy.”


“The Italian government has (like other Italian governments) indicated that part of the problem is in the European law on this issue. The first country that people enter has to take care of the registration and processing of all asylum applications. In fact, it's also illegal to travel further into Europe and this has since become impossible because some countries have closed their borders for that purpose - deviating from the original European policy in the process. For instance, the French border is now closed as well. I think Italy is correct in their indication that this is unfair policy. By factually closing the borders ourselves like we are doing now, our problems can shift.

That can go in two directions. On the one hand, it can result in big conflicts over European law. On the other hand, I think many people agree that those rules are unfair and do not work. For a long time already, there has been pressure to change that. Maybe the advent of this new government in Italy can be the push Europe needs to really get to work on better and fairer migration policies.”

If we all thought alike, we wouldn't need the EU.
Vluchtelingen Europa
I actually consider the European Union to be one big crisis.


Hans Vollaard researches European disintegration and euroscepsis. His book European Disintegration: A search for explanations will soon be published. Does he expect a new crisis? “I actually consider the European Union to be one big crisis. Because a crisis means that you are in a situation in which you don't know the answer, but want to take a step forward. The EU is actually a kind of experiment in which we still try to take care of things with more and more member states, whether it's about the environment, migration or security in Europe. It's an experiment that is sometimes very difficult and in which we've been asking ourselves from the beginning: ‘Can't we do that better by ourselves, or with another form of organisation?’ It's often messy and a lot of fuss, but messy in a fascinating way. Because we are still doing this voluntarily and peacefully, and we haven't always seen that in the history of the world.”

Hans Vollaard says the following about Italy: “Many voters there are currently disappointed in the European Union. They initially thought that their own politicians and government were no good and they set all hope on Europe, but especially the younger generation has started to wonder whether or not the EU really makes a difference. Both on the migration issue and the economy. That's the issue. But I don't expect an Ital-exit similar to Brexit. The Italians may be grumpy, but it's more dire outside the European Union. The Brits think they can manage on their own, but that doesn't apply to the Italians. They are part of the Schengen Treaty and they have the euro, so leaving the EU would be far more expensive for Italy than for the United Kingdom.”


“But European disintegration is actually occurring,” Hans Vollaard says, “but what I mean with that is that countries, companies and people are withdrawing from the European Union. That can be done by leaving as a country, like the United Kingdom, but I honestly don't expect that other countries will do that. You do see other forms. There are countries, such as Italy appears to be doing, that say: ‘We will no longer cooperate with this migration policy, we want to contribute less to the European budget or we want to return jurisdictions of Brussels to the national level.’ These are other ways of pulling out of the European Union. But that doesn't mean the EU is falling apart. There are also countries that say: ‘So that means we need more European unity.’”

Femke van Esch agrees: “The European Union is a group project,” she says, “and we have a lot of comments to make when there's trouble or when there are conflicts. But that's exactly what the EU was meant for: enabling us to argue, but still remain seated at the same table. Being able to sort out our differences of opinion with words. That all kinds of leaders don't agree with each other is the norm. If we all thought alike, we wouldn't need the EU. So yes, there will be a mess, but there may very well be a favourable outcome for Europe's policies in the long term.”

Relevant publications

Femke van Esch (2017), The nature of the European leadership crisis and how to solve it European Political Science, 16 (1): 34-47.

Hans Vollaard (2018), European Disintegration: A search for explanations