The 28-member bloc is in disarray, beset by crises, member governments are squabbling, people are angry and disenchanted, leaders are mostly querulous and hesitant — and sometimes outrageously odious.
This isn’t just the opinion of just any EU watcher or EU insider; it’s the point of view of Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive body.
“The European Union is not in a good state,” Juncker told the European Parliament in his first-ever “State of Europe” address this week. “There is not enough Europe in this Union. And there is not enough union in this Union.”
Unusually for a politician, Juncker did not mince his words during his hour-long speech to the 700 plus EU parliamentarians. It was time, he said for honesty.
And he was certainly honest, refreshingly so. In fact, frighteningly so. Like most people, I’ve become used to untruthful politicians, men and women to whom lying comes naturally, automatically.
This is especially true for anyone in an official position who is asked to comment on his/her country’s political future, economic prospects or social challenges.
Market turmoil, economy in danger? China’s leaders don’t seem to think so. At a conference in Dalian last week, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was adamant that Chinese markets were stable and potential systemic financial risks have been forestalled. Recent troubles were just due to “rumour mongers” and other nasties.
India, meanwhile, is talking up its shining economic future and readiness to overtake China despite evidence that the economy is in desperate need of reform and growth.
Politicians in the US still brag that their country is a “superpower” despite evidence that no one believes it any more.
And at a recent seminar in Brussels, a Pakistani diplomat waxed lyrical about the country’s respectful treatment of women and efforts to empower them while people looked on in disbelief.
Of course everybody takes such blatant hyperbole with a huge chunk of salt. We roll our eyes, shut off the TV, shout obscenities at the liars.
Which is why Juncker’s speech took many by surprise. Yes, there were some hecklers from the Far Right in the European assembly but mostly the intervention — long and rambling at times — prompted respect for its brutal assessment of 21st century Europe — and Juncker’s recipe for changing things.
The Commission chief was especially honest in his references to Europe’s refugee crisis and governments’ response to it.
At a time when many EU leaders continue to waiver on Europe’s responsibilities towards the hundreds of thousands of refugees seeking shelter in Europe, Juncker made clear that Europe had a moral obligation to help those fleeing war, terror and oppression.
“We Europeans should remember that Europe is a continent where nearly everyone has at one time been a refugee. Our common history has been marked by millions of Europeans fleeing from religious or political persecution from war, dictatorship or oppression,” Juncker underlined.
It is a theme that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has dwelt on repeatedly over the last few weeks. Germany’s welcome of refugees may be rooted in its history but it certainly puts other EU leaders — especially in Britain and in Central and Eastern European countries — to shame.
And it looks likely that while many countries have more or less grudgingly accepted more newcomers on their territories, Juncker and Merkel’s calls for compulsory quotas for the resettlement of refugees in the 28 countries will continue to run into opposition from Britain, Hungary, the Czech Republic and others.
Meanwhile, following a moment of unusual silence, Europe’s Far Right groups have once again found their poisonous voice. The Netherlands’ leading Muslim-hater Geert Wilder has warned that the refugees represent an “Islamic invasion” of Europe.
In France, Wilder’s counterpart Marine Le Pen has decided that “99 per cent” of the refugees coming to Europe are men who are making the journey for economic reasons. She made the statement as television images should pictures of joyful children arriving in Germany.
Juncker — like Merkel — has warned against distinguishing between Jews, Christians and Muslims, saying there is “no religion, no belief, no philosophy when it comes to refugees”.
There were also tough words on Greece and the need for economic reform to bring back confidence in the economy and among Greeks.
And he voiced support for a “fair deal for Britain” as the country prepares to hold its referendum on EU membership before the end of 2017.
Finally, Juncker urged EU states to be united in trying to shore up Ukraine while also engaging with Russia.
EU governments’ response to Euro troubles in Greece and the refugee crisis has indeed spotlighted a disunited, squabbling Europe. Yes, the EU is the world’s most successful — and inspirational — example of deep regional integration, with a single currency shared by 19 countries, and 26 nations agreeing to scrap their national borders through the “Schengen” agreement.
But Greece almost brought about the unraveling of the Eurozone. And the mass cross-border movement of refugees is threatening the Schengen pact. On foreign and security policy, divisions among the 28 countries are ever-visible.
While the world watches closely and with concern, the EU will have to tread carefully in the coming months to preserve its many achievements and strive for more.