Openly criticising Germany, until now the motor of integration, for its behaviour in Europe used to be taboo, but the sense of imminent peril demands plain speaking. Europe faces a strange and, to many, frightening landscape. More trouble lies ahead because no adjustment mechanisms or exit path exist for the chronically weak members of the eurozone. And any sovereign defaults could poison the well of European togetherness for a generation or more.
The financial crisis frightened national governments into a frantic defence of their own vital interests. Various attempts at devising a credible common response, by bailouts and new kinds of regulation, have followed but have not dispelled the danger. The hardest decision still lies ahead: whether to forge a fiscal or "transfer" union based on the eurozone. That would mean taking a core element of state sovereignty away from national capitals — a huge step towards the end of independent nationhood for them. No wonder loud groans are being heard, and may soon grow louder.
Meanwhile, the EU presses on setting up the European diplomatic service which it wants to make the largest in the world, with up to 8,000 staff in Brussels and abroad: so much for the argument that the Lisbon Treaty, which authorised it, would be a mere tidying-up exercise. Baroness Ashton, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, sidesteps the glaring differences among the so-called Big Three — France, Germany and Britain — with a joking reference to Henry Kissinger's legendary "Europe question", which was: "If I want to call Europe, what number should I call?" Her line is that the world can now call her number, and hear her voice saying: "Welcome to Europe! Press one for the French position, two for the German position, three for the UK..."
But the singularly unfunny fact is that others have long since learned to press those buttons, playing on the EU's well-known internal splits with devastating results. The most worrying case in point is Russia's systematic bullying of its nearest neighbours over the past ten years in a concerted effort to achieve its desired "sphere of privileged interest", using energy cutoffs, import embargoes, bulk buy-ups of state assets in other countries, and various kinds of threats.
Russian leaders were emboldened to break new bounds in August 2008 when they sent some 30,000 troops into South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the would-be breakaway parts of Georgia, in what independent analysts have shown to have been a premeditated use of overwhelming military force. Russia violated international law as well as an agreement with the EU many times over, by declaring its recognition of the two regions' independence from Tbilisi, occupying Georgian land and continuing to deny access even to EU peacekeepers.
Two aspects of that "August war" especially cast shame on the EU: that it failed to act on many urgent pleas from the Georgians to internationalise the dispute and prevent war before Russia sent in its army, as Tbilisi had warned it would; and that afterwards its leaders have lacked the courage to confront the Russians with the need to live up to their clear legal obligations to withdraw and co-operate with the legitimate Georgian and international authorities. Instead, at Germany's insistence, the EU has followed the US in "resetting" the relationship, but without significant impact.
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