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The Fragile Future of the EU: How a Surge in Right-Wing Extremism Threatens European Unity and Progress

A commentary from Arne Mielken, Managing Director of Customs Manager Ltd., on the outcome of the European elections 2024: The beginning of the End for the EU?



The 2024 European Parliament elections have signaled a significant political shift, with a notable surge in support for right-wing and extreme-right parties across several key member states, including Germany, France, and Austria. This trend poses substantial challenges for the European Union, potentially weakening its decision-making capabilities and undermining the effectiveness and advantages of EU laws and the Customs Union.


Erosion of EU Cohesion

One of the most profound implications of the rise in right-wing extremism is the potential erosion of EU cohesion. The German Alternative for Germany (AfD), for example, advocates for a radical restructuring of the EU, favoring a loose confederation of sovereign states over the current integrated framework. This approach directly challenges the foundational principles of the EU, which emphasize unity and collective action. If parties like the AfD gain more influence, the push towards decentralization could destabilize the Brussels-based institutions and administrations that are critical for cohesive policy implementation across the union.


Impact on the Customs Union

The Customs Union is one of the EU's cornerstone achievements, facilitating seamless trade across member states by eliminating customs duties and border checks. The proposed reforms, such as the EU Customs Data Hub and the European Customs Agency, aim to modernize and streamline these processes further. However, with the growing skepticism from right-wing factions, these initiatives face increased scrutiny. The resistance to centralized EU control and bureaucracy could stall or derail these reforms, leading to a fragmented customs landscape. This fragmentation could reintroduce trade barriers, increase administrative burdens, and diminish the competitive advantages that the Customs Union currently provides.




Who loses?

A big group of losers in the 2024 European Parliament elections may be businesses that trade across Europe. These enterprises rely heavily on the seamless operations facilitated by the EU's single market and Customs Union, which eliminate border checks and reduce administrative burdens. The rise of right-wing and extremist parties threatens to disrupt this harmony by pushing for a decentralization of EU structures and reintroducing trade barriers. This shift could lead to increased costs, delays, and complexities in cross-border trade, undermining the competitive edge that businesses have enjoyed within the integrated European market. The uncertainty and potential fragmentation could stifle growth, innovation, and economic stability, making it much harder for businesses to operate efficiently across the continent.


Setback for Environmental and Social Legislation

The EU has been at the forefront of global efforts to combat climate change and promote sustainable development, with policies like the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM), deforestation laws, and forced labor regulations. However, right-wing and extremist parties often prioritize national sovereignty and economic freedom over collective environmental and social responsibility. As a result, these critical legislative initiatives could face significant delays or dilution. The potential rollback of these policies not only jeopardizes the EU’s leadership in global environmental governance but also threatens the long-term sustainability and ethical standards within the Union.


But no CBAM and no deforestation law = good for business, right?

Certainly, a possible modification of policies like the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) and EU deforestation laws might initially appear to benefit businesses by reducing red tape and lowering compliance costs. However, this short-term gain comes with significant long-term risks and costs. Climate change, exacerbated by unchecked industrial practices, can lead to catastrophic events such as flooding and forest fires, which directly threaten supply chains, property, and the very infrastructure businesses depend on. When entire warehouses are inundated or goods are destroyed by spreading wildfires, the immediate savings from deregulation pale in comparison to the immense financial losses and operational disruptions caused by environmental disasters. Therefore, while deregulation might seem advantageous initially, the broader and more severe consequences of failing to address climate change and environmental degradation underscore the critical importance of maintaining robust EU environmental policies.


Uncertainty in Future Governance

The upcoming regional elections in Germany and the looming national elections in France add to the uncertainty surrounding the future of the EU. The increasing influence of right-wing parties raises the specter of a Europe less committed to integration and more focused on national interests. This shift could fundamentally alter the EU's trajectory, making it less effective in addressing transnational challenges and more prone to internal divisions.


The Frightening Prospect of EU Disintegration

For the first time in many Europeans' lifetimes, the question of the EU's continued existence is not merely theoretical but a tangible concern. The potential disintegration of the EU would have far-reaching consequences, from economic turmoil due to the breakdown of the single market and customs union to geopolitical instability as Europe loses its collective voice on the global stage. The EU's role in maintaining peace, stability, and prosperity in Europe cannot be overstated, and its dissolution would be a profoundly destabilizing event. Surely we are not there yet, but where the wheels to the endgame put in motion with these elections?


No Passion for EU, no passion for Democracy?

The call for action and the call to stand up for democracy were not answered sufficiently loudly by EU citizens to express strong support for the continuation of the European Union. Increasingly, voters seem to favor a return to more autocratic, less democratic structures based on national preference. This sentiment raises a critical question: If voters do not back the EU, should we give up on it and reinstate borders as many on the far right advocate? The motto "Vive la France first" and "Deutschland zuerst" appears to resonate more today than ever.


Are we doomed to succumb to nationalist rhetoric?

Succumbing to this nationalist rhetoric ignores the profound benefits the EU has provided over decades, from economic stability and growth to peace and cooperation. The EU was built on the ashes of a war-torn continent, designed to prevent the horrors of the past from reoccurring. Reintroducing borders and abandoning the EU's democratic and cooperative principles risks not only economic decline but also the fragmentation and isolation that historically led to conflict.


Time to give up on EU?

Giving up on the EU would be a grave mistake, a surrender to short-sighted populism at the expense of long-term prosperity and stability. Instead of yielding to nationalist pressures, it is crucial to address the legitimate concerns of citizens while reinforcing the value of unity and collaboration. The answer lies not in dismantling the EU but in reforming and strengthening it to better serve its people. Democracy and cooperation are worth fighting for, and the future of Europe depends on our collective resolve to uphold these ideals against the tide of rising extremism.


Conclusion

The surge of right-wing and extremist parties in the 2024 European Parliament elections marks a pivotal moment for the EU. The challenges posed by these political forces threaten to weaken the union’s decision-making processes, disrupt the effectiveness of its laws and policies, and compromise the advantages provided by the Customs Union. As Europe faces this critical juncture, the commitment to unity and collective action will be crucial in navigating the uncertainties ahead. The prospect of a fragmented or even disbanded EU is a stark reminder of the importance of preserving the principles and institutions that have underpinned European stability and cooperation for decades.


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