There is no denying that the European Union and the European project are not in the best shape these days.
The idea of a shared, open and peaceful Europe was always bound in its success to the European states’ ability to not just create a community of economies, but also a community of nations connected by shared values, cultural empathy and respect for one another. From its first steps in 1958 between two countries with a complicated history throughout earlier centuries, it was an obvious necessity that economic ties and incentives would be the lead-in to co-operations beyond the mere economical, in what was essentially a smaller part of the bigger family of nations represented in the UN.
Creating a sense of community and of belonging takes time, especially on the scale of hundreds of millions, and in a group as diverse as that of the European nations. From the regional differences between northern, eastern, western, southern and central Europe, to the political split of Europe during the Cold War and its piecemeal unification afterwards, from a United Kingdom that had (still has) to face its decline from a once great empire, from the special historical and economic role of Germany to Franco’s Spain, from the Greek economic mismanagement in the early days to Lichtenstein and Luxembourg, the reasons for dissent in the community are numerous to say the least.
If it took France, Western Germany and Italy more than 20 years after the end of World War II to stir and re-invigorate their post-totalitarian societies in the ’68 student revolutions, what timeframes are we to expect in the development of more recently established democracies, and how does this affect the relationship of each country with the rest of Europe? Empathy needs time and shared experiences, with the continuous expansion of the EU well into the 2010s, the idea of keeping the EU functional through difficult times seems optimistic at best.
As the financial crisis of 2008/09 hit, each member state had its hands full with the on-going consequences, both economic and political. Tensions started to rise internally and finally found a welcome external outlet with the arrival of larger numbers of refugees in 2015 that, through no fault of their own, became a pawn in European politics.
So, with rising tensions between those following Viktor Orban’s idea of building a fortress, and those subscribing to a more Human Rights based approach to refugees, with differing takes on dealing with Putin’s Russia, and a UK that threatens to not play with the other kids anymore, what are the options?
A solution of the conflicts underlying the current dissent-based state of the EU seems less and less likely as more and more people in each country are pushed off the political centre, pressuring established governments to take less and less dialogue-based stances. Diplomacy and empathy are in high demand, yet of questionable supply.
The European project always was, and will continue to be, a voluntary one; the economic and geopolitical benefits of being part of EU are there for the taking. Any community and any coalition of states is only as strong as the commitment of its members to the community, so maybe — just maybe — it is time to think about strengthening the community by reducing its size.
If the UK wants to vanish into global obscurity by leaving the EU, fine. If Viktor Orban and his cronies dreaming of homogenising Europe want to build a wall and shoot and everyone coming close to it, state sovereignty reigns supreme. But if the EU takes Human Rights seriously, a split of paths is inevitable and necessary. Good luck big guy.
Above all else, if European politicians want to have even the slightest bit of impact and go back to the good-old ‘leading by example’ in terms of long-term politics and projects, the Europe of the future needs to stay operational internally; it needs to retain and develop its single voice.
The big tasks and challenges determining the course of humanity in the foreseeable future are climate change, the inherent crisis of capitalism and the transition to post-growth economies. In comparison to the scale of these crises, squabbling about taking care of fellow human beings and not being distracted by destabilising efforts like those of Putin’s Russia are petty, insignificant and, quite frankly, laughable.
If keeping Europe afloat means changing it from a flock of those who want to share economic wealth, without the duties of a community, to a coalition of those following shared values and long-term solutions of problems we all face (economic or not), so be it.
Call it the shedding of excess weight, if you must.
Moritz Borchardt is a Director of GPPW – and occasionally frustrated with the current public discourse in mainstream media. Occasionally.
Cover image: Thijs ter Haar under a Attribution Generic 2.0 creative commons license