Brussels has fallen

By José Ignacio Torreblanca, February 26, 2015



José Ignacio Torreblanca, head of the Reinvention of Europe programme at European Council on Foreign Relations questions whether or not the existence of the European Union can be guaranteed given that half the continent remains entangled in semantic games over whether they are signing up to a programme or an interim agreement – and the other half question whether the project makes any sense at all.

Can you imagine reading that headline in the daily press? That it seems unlikely does not mean it is impossible. At the end of the day, all empires fall. And the European Union is undoubtedly an empire: postmodern, peaceful, and law-based, but ultimately, an empire. It is precisely because of its unique nature that we should expect its fall to be different to that of other empires – that is to say, we should abandon the idea of the Huns parading down the Rue de la Loi in Brussels.

In fact, if you think about it, most empires have fallen from within rather than from outside. And here is where it gets interesting: their downfall has usually come about because of internal divisions between elites, territories, or social groups and, at the same time, because of their inability to adapt their economic models to the challenges of the future.Europe has reason to be concerned because it is simultaneously facing existential threats from the outside and from within. Externally, it is up against, on the one hand, the jihadists who are attempting to lure Europe through any means possible into a conflict in which they hope to defeat Europe in the full view of the whole world. On the other, it is confronted with a nuclear power that has decided to break all the rules of the European order and to build the sphere of influence that it wants, even if it involves tearing off territory from other states.

Despite the differences between the two threats, both present a similar dilemma for Europe: refraining from action is impossible, but the success of intervention cannot be guaranteed.Europe could somewhat more successfully navigate all of these conflicts, from Libya to Ukraine, if both its hands were not tied behind its back. One hand is tied by its inadequate military capabilities, which are more in keeping with its postmodern character than with the challenges posed by its neighbours: we have already been in Libya’s deserts and Ukraine’s icy fields and we do not want to go back there. And the other hand is tied because Europeans (both the leaders and the public) still do not seem to have understood the nature of what is at stake.

In fact, many Europeans prefer to remain locked in debate over whether the cause of Greece’s problems is austerity politics or the incompetence of successive Greek politicians. And then there are those, like Nigel Farage’s adherents in the United Kingdom, Marine Le Pen’s followers in France, or the partisans of Alternative for Germany, who are thinking about whether or not it would be better to put an end to the whole thing.

The headline may seem alarmist, but while Europe’s eastern and southern borders fray, half the continent remains entangled in semantic games over whether they are signing up to a programme or an interim agreement – and the other half question whether the project makes any sense at all. At the rate we are going, when the barbarians reach Brussels, there will be nobody there to meet them.


José Ignacio Torreblanca is the head of the Reinvention of Europe programme at ECFR, the head of ECFR’s Madrid Office, and a senior policy fellow at ECFR.  He is a professor of political science at the National University of Distance Education (UNED) in Madrid, where he teaches “The Political System of the European Union”. He has also been a Fulbright Scholar, a lecturer at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and a researcher at the European University Institute in Florence.  Since 2008 he has written a weekly column on international affairs in the printed edition of El País, Spain’s most highly circulated daily newspaper. He is also the author of El País’s Café Steiner blog. In May 2014 he joined El País’s Editorial Council.  In May 2011 Foreign Policy en español ranked him amongst the ten most influential new intellectuals in Spain and Latin-America.

Article courtesy of European Council on Foreign RelationsThis article was originally published in Spanish on 19 February in EL PAÍS.

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