By Stephen Fidler
Whether the people of the U.K. decide to remain in the European Union or not in the summer referendum, Britain’s
effort to renegotiate its relationship with the bloc that concluded Friday at a summit in Brussels reinforces a trend
toward weakening cohesion among its 28 governments.
If the last few years are a harbinger of the future, the high point of European economic and political integration
is in the past. Europe’s nation states are reasserting themselves, for better or worse.
But even a vote to remain risks setting a precedent. Other governments may want deals of their own or seek to take
advantage of the exceptions the British accord has carved out, like those limiting social-welfare payments to other EU
The British negotiation wasn’t the only evidence at the summit of the eroding coherence of the bloc. The fierce
fight that took place Thursday night over migration emphasizes that no single issue, not even the crisis of Greece and
the euro, has set member states so fiercely at one another’s throats.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel made no attempt to hide her ire at neighboring Austria’s decision to raise barriers
against migrants from the south and limit the numbers of asylum seekers it accepts to 80 a day. That threatens to lead
one country after another to raise barriers at their borders, trapping thousands in Greece.
Other governments blame Ms. Merkel for accelerating the influx of migrants into the EU by welcoming them last
summer, and she is under increasing pressure politically at home too. The sure touch that Germany showed in its
leadership of the euro crisis has been absent in the turmoil over migration. The summit revealed Ms. Merkel increasingly
dependent on mercurial Turkey to slow the flow of people into Europe.
Germany’s leadership of the euro crisis had many critics, but it was an inescapable fact and had a strong internal
logic. A crisis in which German leadership is fitful or absent is one in which the EU’s widely divergent nations–and
more divergent now because there are 28 of them compared with just 15 at the start of 2004–have reasserted themselves.
In some ways, though, the high point of European togetherness appears in retrospect to have been something of a
chimera. Both the euro and the Schengen passport-free border areas, the deepest manifestations of European integration,
look like fair-weather constructions, unable to cope when the storms struck.
From a British perspective, the politicians of Europe wanted the prizes of a common currency and border-free travel
but were unwilling to give up the national sovereignty required to make them work. They willed the ends but not the
means, launching the euro without a common treasury or bank deposit-guarantee fund, for example, and the Schengen area
without a European border force.
Members of the euro and Schengen will probably face more choices over pooling their sovereignty if the two are to
survive in the long-term. In the euro area, anxieties about the banking system have intensified in 2016, in part because
the “banking union” meant to address its weaknesses is a long way from completion. A European border force appears to be
in the making, though that alone will not prevent the re-erection of frontier controls in the face of a further surge of
Some countries may not want or be able to make those commitments. Even France, whose officials depict themselves as
keepers of the flame for eurozone integration, won’t countenance the treaty changes that would shore up the currency–
largely because they expect they would lose the necessary referendum on the matter.
Among some, the dream of closer European unity dies hard. Leaders in the countries of continental Western Europe
saw World War II as the failure of the nation state, and some of their successors still campaign for more integration.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel was the most exercised at the summit about Prime Minister David Cameron’s wish to
have the U.K. excluded from the EU treaty’s commitment to “ever closer union.”
For reasons of necessity and idealism, some countries may need or want to integrate further. For others, domestic
politics will mean that they will never be able to make that commitment.
This week’s summit appeared to be a further nail in the coffin of “ever closer union.” That will be a cause for
regret for some in Brussels and further afield. For others, however, the end of a “one-size-fits-all” approach to the EU
and the development of a more modular union may be the best way to ensure its survival.
(END) Dow Jones Newswires 02-19-161714ET Copyright (c) 2016 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.