For the past decade and a half, the European Union (EU) has been faced with numerous crises. The list is long: the Eurozone debt crisis in 2009; Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014; the migration crisis that crested in 2015 (although it remains ongoing); the fallout from Covid-19 beginning in 2020; and finally, Russia’s full scale second invasion of Ukraine, starting last year on February 24. The EU (not unlike the U.S. federal government) thrives on crisis, utilizing the exceptional circumstances to expand their powers while justifying the continued necessity of their supranational structures. However, despite attempts to centralize more authority in Brussels, the nation state remains the key power center in Europe. Indeed, the future of the continent remains with energized sovereign nation states.
For their part, EU elites have sought to harness a decade and a half of crisis to advance toward the goal of “ever closer union.” A recent example this was the unprecedented scale with which the EU issued common bonds in 2020 to respond to the economic impact of the Covid pandemic. Now that this Rubicon has been crossed, you can be sure that EU officials will relentlessly try to push through future expansions of common debt issuance to fund a host of priorities. In fact, it’s already happening: while the initial decision was explained as a temporary, one off plan to respond to an unprecedented pandemic, the EU bureaucracy has since floated ideas about new common debt to fund other priorities, including supporting member states’ green energy plans, before backing off in March.
But these schemes have thus far been dashed on the rocks of the nation state, as countries like Germany, Finland, and the Netherlands have squelched new rounds of common debt for now. However, you can be sure that the EU elites will be back and that we have not heard the last of these plans. The reason of course is that Brussels views these financial decisions primarily through the lens of politics; they are yet another way to force greater EU integration and expand the authority of the bureaucracy, which is why the very same bureaucracy will seek a third, fourth, even twentieth bite at the apple.
At the same time, while the EU has thrived on the recent spate of crisis to raise its profile and even seize new powers, the EU’s performance in responding to each of these crises has been middling at best, undermining Brussels central claim of technocratic competence. Moreover, recent events have underscored the need for and importance of strong nation states, illuminating an alternative and I believe will be the likely path forward for Europe.
Consider the EU’s terrible performance in securing and distributing Covid vaccines. The EU’s failure left Europeans behind other developed nations as the virus raged. By May 1, 2021, for instance, the EU was administering only 34.2 cumulative doses per 100 residents, whereas the U.S. was administering 72.8, the UK 74.3, and Israel 113.9. A year later, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen publicly admitted which was obvious to everyone saying, “We were late in granting authorization. We were too optimistic about mass production. And maybe we also took for granted that the doses ordered would actually arrive on time.”
Another example of the EU’s failure to adequately address a major crisis involves the ongoing arrival of migrants to European shores. Certainly, the on again, off again (but by and large on again), EU agreement with Turkey has for the most part stemmed large scale migration through Turkey to Europe. It is, however, somewhat more akin to protection money than a meeting of the minds, as the EU pays Turkey to protect Europe’s borders. The agreement has broken down in the past and may break down again in the future. Meanwhile, Europe is largely held hostage to the whims of Turkey’s Islamist and authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Putting Turkey aside, Europe’s migrant crisis has hardly abated, merely shifted theaters, with the Central Mediterranean now the key thoroughfare for those seeking to reach the shores of Europe. Italy, a nation squarely on the front lines of the ongoing migrant crisis saw an increase in arrivals in 2022 from 67,477 the year before to 105,129, a 55% increase. The EU has failed time and again to either broker an agreement on how to relieve pressure on countries receiving the bulk of new arrivals, via an agreed upon redistribution scheme or repatriation plan, while also failing to adequately deter migration in the first place. It should be no surprise then that nations like Italy have decided to largely go it alone. For instance, in January, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni signed new agreements with Libyan authorities, including one on cooperation to tamp down migration.
Need further proof of the EU’s inability to tackle key challenges? Look to the case of 5G and security concerns relating to Chinese telecommunications providers and equipment in European networks. In March 2021, the EU Commission issued its EU Toolbox for 5G Security, a set of measures for securing next generation telecommunications networks. The toolbox however is only a set of recommendations, it is up to individual capitals to decide for themselves the laws governing 5G providers and perhaps more importantly, how these laws are to be implemented. Two years after the EU’s toolbox was released, the state of European 5G networks remains a hodgepodge between nations like Sweden which have taken a firm stance against Chinese involvement, and others like Germany and Hungary which are more willing to naively believe they can somehow mitigate the inherent and intractable risks of having companies with ties to the Chinese Communist Party build out your communications network.
More than any other recent crisis, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which began last February, has highlighted the importance of the nation state as a sovereign actor in Europe. Given the huge discrepancy in how Western and Eastern European countries reacted to the news of the invasion (most infamously in German Finance Minister Christian Lindner’s reported belief that Kyiv would fall in hours and his willingness to begin discussions with a Russian puppet government), it’s certain that a European response which depended solely upon the EU would have been fatally hampered by paralysis.
Instead, some individual nation states took near immediate decisions to send whatever aid they could to Ukraine. Bulgarian officials bent over backwards to covertly (covert due to opposition within the nation, including within the governing coalition) provide Ukrainian forces with crucial ammunition and fuel at the onset of the war. Likewise, Poland, which perhaps with the exception of the U.S. (and this could be debated) has done more than any nation to support Ukraine, has consistently been a step ahead of other allies in selflessly providing what is needed. Warsaw’s announcement on Thursday that they will be sending four MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine, the first nation to provide jets is a recent case point. Similarly, in February of this year, Poland was the first nation to deliver Leopard 2 Main Battle Tanks to Ukraine.
This is not to say that the EU has not played a role in supporting Ukraine. EU-wide sanctions against Russia were both swift but, thus far, have been lasting and effective. The EU has also played an important role in forcing Europe away from it’s dependence on Russian energy (here however we still see the power of the nation states in, for instance, the carve outs that Hungary won over the embargo on Russian oil). The EU has also for the first time begun to directly fund lethal weapons purchases by helping to reimburse European nations for the military supplies they donate to Ukraine. The EU reportedly plans to spend €1 billion to help member states purchase replacements for weapons sent to Ukraine.
While countries are undoubtedly grateful for EU funds to help backfill inventories, the decision of what to send Ukraine, how much, and how quickly remains a decision for individual states. The fact remains unchanged that, to paraphrase Stalin’s famous quip about the pope, the EU itself has no tanks or fighters to send.
In fact, Russia’s ongoing genocidal war against Ukraine has underscored the absurdity of discussions which have been going on for years over “EU Strategic Autonomy.” I have long argued against U.S. support for EU plans to construct its own defense apparatus for a host of reasons, not least because it was extremely unlikely to ever actually result in any real military capabilities. The new security reality in Europe has reinforced the underappreciated importance of NATO for deterring Russia, and the reality that transatlantic security must have active engagement and investment from both sides of the Atlantic to be credible.
Not many years ago, I can recall hearing some colleagues in Finland telling me they believed the EU’s Mutual Defense Clause—Article 42.7 in the Treaty of Lisbon—was a sufficient security guarantee for the nation. Yet, less than three months after Putin’s launched full scale war in Ukraine, both Finland and Sweden reversed decades of policy and applied for NATO membership with near universal public and political support.
What is clear to Finns and Swedes is also clear to the rest of Europe and as well as the Kremlin, only NATO with an engaged United States has the strength to deter Russia. Recent hand wringing about the continued purpose of NATO and the desire in Brussels and Paris for an independent EU defense capability now seems foolish. While some corners of the Elysée Palace and the European Quarter in Brussels may continue to keep the rhetorical flame alive, an EU defense infrastructure separate from NATO is dead, and the Atlantic alliance is more relevant and necessary than ever.
Nation states in Europe still matter, because they remain the main power centers within Europe and are nearly always more capable of decisive and effective action than the EU. While Brussels elites will still try to consolidate more power in the corridors of the EU, I suspect the crises of the last 15 years have underscored the importance of strong nation states, accountable to their citizens for decisions both good and bad. It is this dynamic that will keep these states in the forefront of European affairs and arrest the drive toward EU centralization.