Q. “The European union is the new sick man of Europe.” critically evaluate. [UPSC- 2013]

Q. “The European union is the new sick man of Europe.” critically evaluate. [UPSC-  2013]


The term “sick man of Europe” was historically used to refer to the declining Ottoman Empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries. However, recently this phrase is used to describe the European Union (EU) due to the challenges it has faced in recent years which has undermined its stability and coherence. Following are the challenges that the European Union faces presently. ©

Economic Challenges:

a) Eurozone Crisis:

  • The Eurozone crisis, which began in 2009, revealed weaknesses in the EU’s economic integration. High levels of public debt, sluggish growth, and persistent unemployment in some member states have raised concerns about the long-term viability of the Eurozone.
  • Despite efforts to implement reforms, structural issues such as rigid labor markets and fiscal imbalances continue to hinder economic recovery in certain countries.

b) Economic Disparities:

  • Significant economic disparities exist among member states, leading to tensions and inequality within the EU. Countries like Greece, Spain, and Italy have faced severe economic hardships, while wealthier nations like Germany have grown stronger, exacerbating divisions within the Union.
  • These disparities not only strain the EU’s cohesion but also contribute to social unrest and political discontent.

c) Brexit Impact:

  • The withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU has had economic consequences for both parties. The loss of a major contributor to the EU budget and disruptions to trade relations have further strained the Union’s economic stability.
  • The Brexit process has demonstrated the challenges of maintaining unity and consensus among member states, highlighting the complexities of disentangling a country from the EU framework.

Political Fragmentation:

a) Rising Populism:

  • The rise of populist and nationalist movements across Europe has challenged the EU’s commitment to integration. Parties critical of EU policies have gained support in several member states, causing political divisions and weakening the Union’s ability to implement collective decisions.
  • These movements often fuel Euroscepticism and advocate for policies that undermine the principles of European integration, thereby weakening the EU’s political cohesion.

b) Lack of Solidarity:

  • The EU’s response to crises, such as the migration crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, has exposed divisions and a lack of solidarity among member states. Disagreements over burden-sharing, migration policies, and fiscal responses have strained the Union’s cohesion and hindered effective decision-making.
  • The uneven distribution of responsibility in managing migration flows and the debates surrounding the distribution of financial aid during the pandemic have underscored the challenges of maintaining solidarity within the EU.

Institutional Challenges:

a) Democratic Deficit:

  • Critics argue that the EU suffers from a democratic deficit, as decision-making power is perceived to be concentrated in unelected institutions such as the European Commission.
  • The perceived lack of accountability and transparency in the EU’s decision-making processes has fuelled public skepticism and contributed to the perception of the EU as detached from the concerns of its citizens.

b) Governance Challenges:

  • The complexity of EU governance, with multiple layers of decision-making involving member states, the European Commission, and the European Parliament, can lead to bureaucratic inefficiencies and slow policy implementation.
  • This complexity hinders the EU’s ability to respond swiftly and effectively to emerging challenges and undermines its overall effectiveness.

External Pressure:

a) Geopolitical Challenges:

  • The EU faces external challenges that impact its stability and influence. The rise of geopolitical tensions, such as strained relations with Russia, a more assertive China, and uncertainties surrounding the future of transatlantic relations, creates additional pressure on the EU’s ability to assert itself and pursue its strategic interests.

b) External Migration Pressure:

  • The EU’s geographical position and its commitment to upholding human rights and international obligations on migration have made it a destination for migrants and asylum seekers.
  • The management of migration flows and the lack of a unified approach among member states have put significant strain on the EU’s capacity to handle the challenges posed by migration effectively.

              However, despite its challenges, the EU remains a vital and influential player in Europe. Following are the strengths of the European Union which defy the claim of it being the “new sick-man of Europe”.

Economic Resilience:

a) Recovery and Reforms:

  • The EU has demonstrated resilience in responding to economic crises. Initiatives like the EU Recovery Plan, Next Generation EU, and the European Central Bank’s interventions have aimed to stabilise economies, support recovery, and foster long-term growth.

b) Economic Integration:

  • The EU’s single market, free movement of goods and services, and common regulations continue to provide benefits for member states.
  • The Euro, despite its challenges, remains the second most widely held global reserve currency, indicating confidence in the Union’s economic stability.

Political Cohesion:

a) Institutional Framework:

  • The EU’s institutional structure, including the European Commission, European Parliament, and Council of the EU, provides a platform for member states to collaborate and address common challenges.
  • The EU’s ability to negotiate agreements on complex issues demonstrates its political resilience and capacity for collective decision-making.

b) Enlargement and Integration:

  • The EU’s enlargement process has increased its reach and influence. The accession of Central and Eastern European countries has brought stability and integration to the region, expanding the Union’s sphere of influence and reinforcing its significance.

External Aspects:

a) Global Influence:

  • The EU remains a significant global actor, representing the largest single market and a major trade partner for many countries.
  • It plays a crucial role in international affairs, climate change mitigation, and promoting human rights. The EU’s regulatory standards and the ability to shape global norms indicate its continued relevance.

b) Strategic Importance:

  • The EU’s geopolitical position and economic strength give it strategic importance in shaping global affairs.
  • The Union’s ability to negotiate trade agreements, such as the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement, underscores its resilience and capacity for global engagement.

Enhanced Cooperation:

a) Strengthened Defence Cooperation:

  • The EU’s establishment of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the European Defence Fund demonstrates a commitment to enhancing defence capabilities and strengthening security cooperation among member states.

b) Climate Change Leadership:

  • The EU has taken significant steps in combatting climate change, including setting ambitious emission reduction targets, promoting renewable energy, and spearheading global climate agreements like the Paris Agreement.

              While the European Union faces challenges, it is incorrect to label it as the new “sick man of Europe.” Economic disparities, political divisions, and external challenges exist everywhere. The EU has demonstrated resilience in responding to crises, maintaining economic stability, and exerting global influence. Understanding the complexities and dynamics at play is crucial to evaluating the EU’s current situation accurately. ©

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