How different the mood was twenty five years ago, when the Maastricht Treaty made Europe into the European Union and the euro into the ultimate symbol of fraternity that would hold the continent together. Today, nothing is left of the euphoria that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall. Europe is being dragged along in a populist revolt against anything and everything from ‘outside’. Where the European Union was intended to transcend polarisation and conflict, instead it has led to a seemingly unbridgeable division between two swathes of society.
Naturally, everything is clearer with hindsight. The euro was embraced through rose-coloured glasses and lacked crucial economic underpinnings. The extension of the club in 2004 and subsequent years to the former Eastern bloc not only made it ungovernable, but also put conservative and homogeneous populations from Eastern Europe on a collision course with a liberal and pluralistic West. As if that weren’t enough, add the conflict with Russia in and outside Ukraine, the refugee crisis and terrorism from the Middle East , not to mention Brexit.
The powerlessness in Brussels can be captured by the adage that crises ultimately make Europe stronger. But after Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States, blind faith will not suffice. All over Europe, independent populist movements have sprung up that reflect a need for more cohesion, for a world in which people can embrace their own identity once more and no longer feel left behind economically.
Such a reaction against the prevailing ideology is not peculiar to this day and age. It is also not surprising, since our hyperglobalist world demands a great deal of personal self-reliance. Social security is being pared back to bolster the efficiency of the private sector, while people from far afield are seen to be benefiting from, but not adapting to, what was once ‘our’ culture. Faced with the speed of these changes and the unfair distribution of benefits and burdens, public support for the system quickly tapers off. And this situation will hardly improve as populations age and the willingness to adapt drops further still.
Europe is hyperglobalism itself, on a continental scale. And that was exactly the idea. What started with a community of six countries trying to oversee the production of armaments – and thereby avoid another catastrophe like the Second World War – developed into a community of twenty eight member states whose economies have grown increasingly intertwined. First the Schengen Treaty put paid to the physical barriers; then the Maastricht Treaty tore down the economic ones.
The logical continuation would have been a full-fledged political union, had the Netherlands and France not trashed this plan by voting against the European constitution. As a result, Europe is now drifting along aimlessly, while the continent is being battered by crises on all sides. In this chaos we seem to have reached a tipping point, where pro-federal forces are losing out to the reactionary zeitgeist.
The danger now is that the dissatisfaction which has been building up over the years will break its banks and tear with full force across the continent, leading us from one to the other extreme: from a united Europe that insures against destruction and war within, to a Europe closed off behind national borders and in denial about the dangers from outside. It is through strength in numbers that Europe has remained relevant in a world where everything has become larger. If the continent does not wish to be swallowed up from the outside, it must close ranks internally.
A good start would be to take a long, hard look at its economic foundations. Europe has long operated as a neoliberal bogeyman, forcing reforms for the member states that were unpopular at home and that member states were unable to enact. Following the social revolution of the sixties and the economic stasis of the seventies and early eighties, it seemed inevitable by the late eighties that globalisation, individualisation and the free market would be the new norm. But as the continent embraced this fate with open arms, so Europe came to epitomise an image of humankind as unflaggingly self-reliant.
Man as worker
With this image in mind, Europe forged ahead catering to the needs of man as consumer, while man as worker had to fend for himself. For the former, borders were thrown open and trade agreements drawn up so that more, and more advanced, products could be flogged at ever lower prices. The latter, meanwhile, was left footing the bill. For those hoping to compete, lifelong learning and continual innovation have become necessities, even as wages remain stagnant and (hidden) unemployment lurks constantly just around the corner.
If Europe aims to stay connected with its citizens, it must make a greater effort to prioritise man as worker and mutual solidarity over market efficiency. This could, in principle, be a task for the European Union. Given the obvious cultural aspect to the current anti-European sentiment, readiness to transfer sovereignty to Brussels will not be overly high. It is therefore time to change courses and return to the member states those powers that conflict with this new wave of economic protectionism.
Smaller common denominator
Such a step backwards is without precedent, but the discontent has been simmering for so long that democratic majorities are now emerging in favour of the annihilation of European cooperation as we know it. The longer it takes to bring a more social Europe into being, the longer the European Union will remain under pressure. For its own protection, it must shift gears away from economic integration and focus instead on a smaller common denominator, such as the peaceful coexistence of peoples and the protection of values that underpin our civilisation: democracy, the rule of law and individual freedoms.
With Brexit, Europe chose to maintain the integrity of the internal market and thereby put the Union at grave risk. Britain may be peculiar, but it’s no exception. In France and Italy, too, anti-European sentiment is rampant. Societies go through their progressive and regressive phases. Rather than continuing to play for all or nothing and thus risk more ‘exits’, the continent must accept that European cooperation is temporarily on the wane, and strive to keep afloat that which really makes it Europe. Only by letting go now, may it flourish again in the future.
Michel Brouwers is a commentator and writes about politics, economics and society. Read more of his work at www.michelbrouwers.com