European Adventure – The Missing Variable

Cartoon: Jasper Rietman
Cartoon: Jasper Rietman – New York Times, Dec 18, 2013

The Europe we live in today is the worst possible Europe apart from all the other Europes that have been tried from time to time. No European alliance, empire, commonwealth or community has endured forever, but we should want this one to last as long as it can – Timothy Garton Ash 

Politically, the European endeavor appears as fragile as ever. Pockets of populism (extreme-right and extreme-left combined) have been popping out since the collapse of the financial markets in 2007. But the recent results of elections in Sweden, Poland, the United Kingdom, Greece, France, Spain, Denmark and so forth are demonstrating that the European electorate is increasingly voting more extreme than before. In the case of France, the Front National, which was historically a party of opposition has become the “first party of France” to take her President’s words. If populism is becoming attractive, it has created a complex national debate of incomprehension and anger between populist voters and the mainstream rest. National unity, in France, Europe and even in the US, is under attack.

Experts and political analysts have been identifying a series of variables in order to explain the rise of populism such as immigration, terrorism, economic stagnation, high level of unemployment, corruption, cronyism, globalization and Europe. Each variable is highly valid and can explain what motivate Europeans to seek for extreme alternatives. But one core dimension has been missing and is most likely the strongest component: an adventure, a story (for Europeans) and a dream (for Americans).

Loss of Memory/Direction in a Ever-More Globalized World

Globalization has been framed as the foundation of all national turmoils and traumas. For populist movements the word ‘globalization’ is a toolbox with no clear definition for obvious political reason. The concept of globalization should be understood as an acceleration in the degree of interaction and interconnection between humans, capital and goods. To some extent, the physical world is shrinking; the speed in interaction is accelerating [distance-time are disappearing]. A smaller shared space ultimately affects the understanding of one’ space and culture.  In her recent address about the reflection on a common strategy, HR Mogherini framed the question of globalization from a security angle, which contributes to the reflection on the definition of the globalization in this piece. She said that:

Everything that is important to our citizens is influenced by our international environment. And there is actually no distinction, no borders, no line between what happens far away, what happens at our borders, in our region, and what happens inside our European Union. Even these categories are now losing sense. 

‘Losing sense’ is quite a powerful part of her statement. Populist movements are directly responding to this sensation of physical, emotional and ideational feeling of dizziness. In addition, populist movements argue that the European Union is in fact a materialization of globalization and its global forces weakening national unity. Unfortunately, this is not true if one takes a historical look at globalization bringing us back to the 14th century with the Dutch empire. Globalization has roughly emerged at the end of the Dark Ages and pushed the economic and political transition of Europe and North America into the pre-industrial world. Arguing that globalization is the root cause of all national traumas is an absolute fantasy considering the longevity of such phenomenon.

However, one should talk about the speed of globalization and its acceleration in the last 20 years. “We live faster than ever before” writes Svetlana Alexievich “Content ruptures form. Breaks and changes it. There are no borders between fact and fabrication, one flows into the other.” Certainly globalization has become a powerful force highlighting serious limitations and weaknesses of European foundations. If capital and people can travel quicker than ever before [in roughly 12hours a human can be on the other side of the world], and in a less than a second billions of dollars/euros can be wired from one continent to another, such forces can undeniably create serious problems to the slow-moving entity of the nation-state and the EU. These realities of an ever-more globalized world is creating a distortion between immediacy and reflection. Immediacy could be embodied by the current economic model of casino capitalism; while, reflection is in fact the foundation of European political regimes, Democracy/Republic. If casino capitalism is based on economic gamble informed by pseudo-rational thinking as it is more a question of rumors and speculation, democracy is a slow process of introspection, discussion, collaboration and compromise. The discrepancy between casino capitalism and democracy is obvious and stretching the limits of European societies. Here lays the core of the problem in the globalized world of the early 21st century.

Ultimately, when a politician like Marine Le Pen, president of the extreme-right party le Front National, tells a story of national sovereignty, national control through the construction of physical barriers and implementation of protectionism, these narratives attract a confused audience. But the lie is obvious, the building of physical barriers to block invisible forces won’t do a thing in order to solidify national sovereignty and empower cultural exceptionalism. Building physical barriers in order to limit the flow of people is a myth. Millions of Europeans went through the Atlantic Ocean, an ocean, for a better future; are a series of walls around Europe be sufficient to stop refugees to come in. Not a chance.

European Adventure

The story of the European construction is a remarkable story and endeavor. In the rumbles of Europe, visionary leaders and thinkers drove European politicians to follow their visions

Europe
Cartoon: Paul Lachine

in order to avoid another war that could destroy the world. World War two was one of the most vicious global fights with genocides, mass-movement of troops and civilians, arms and technological race and so forth. Over 40 million individuals died in six years leaving Europe as a massive field of destruction. From the agreement of the Treaty of Paris in 1951 to the Treaty of Nice in 2001, the European construction was far from perfect but it was an adventure for greater political, economic, and institutional integration. It was an adventure in order to horizontally expand the Community/Union from six original members into a Union of 28. It was an adventure as European citizens saw the fall of physical borders, from the Berlin War to national borders under the Schengen Agreement. It was an adventure when on June 7 and 10, 1979, European citizens could vote for the first time at a European election for the European Parliament.

It was an adventure as Europeans could finally move within a wide group of states in order to start a career, to start a European life, to study. It was an adventure as the continent saw an unprecedented economic boost bringing struggling states – Germany as one of them – into highly sophisticated and developed economic and industrial levels. It was an adventure in the agreement to share a common currency, the Euro, in order to facilitate commercial and financial transactions at first, and then the flow of people. It was an adventure as the Community/Union demonstrated the world that cooperation at its extreme did not undermine national sovereignty, but rather empowered it.

The Quest for a European Life

Today, the European adventure has become a European set of technicalities. The European adventure, which was at first bold and big, has become a highly technocratic and reductive vision of politics, finance, economics, and culture. Emotionally, European citizens are not opposed to the European Union, but are thrown off by the appeared and perceived distance between them and “Brussels.”populism-400x300

Europeans are in fact in search of meaning, a raison d’être. Unfortunately, this quest for a raison d’être is being hijacked by populist movements selling a past that never was. Populism, either fascist or communist, is attracting audiences – from elder voters to first time voters – because they are selling a ‘mission,’ a purpose to reconstruct a past that never was. Unfortunately, these populisms have no serious political, foreign, economic, fiscal, educational agendas. These populisms are simply selling smoke.

Instead of talking of clash of civilization – in order to identify a mythical clash between Western societies and radical islamic movements, which do not speak for societies with a majority of muslim citizens – experts should be talking of a civilizational depression. Instead of seeking for external enemies, Europeans should be looking within, inside and reflect of this European state of confusion. Europe may be simply dealing with its mid-life crisis. Now it is a matter of avoiding a complete divorce with a supposedly dark and repressive past, the European integration process.

(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Cameron’s Gift to Europeans

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron arrives to pose for a family photo during a European Union leaders summit in Brussels April 23, 2015. European Union leaders who decided last year to halt the rescue of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean will reverse their decision on Thursday at a summit hastily convened after nearly 2,000 people died at sea. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

If reelected, David Cameron, British Prime Minister, promised to organize a referendum on British membership with the European Union (EU). With his reelection in May 2015, David Cameron is now working on the details of the referendum scheduled to eventually take place between autumn 2016 and winter 2017. Initially the government had designed the following question “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?” The response would have been ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. But in early September, the Electoral Commission argued that such question was biased and gave an advantage to the ‘Yes’ camp. Ultimately, a new question was drafted and now read “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” Citizens will have to choose between “Remain a member of the European Union” and “Leave the European Union.”

Aside from political, economic and social considerations, the British referendum on its future inside the European club is an excellent thing for Britain and the other 27 Membereu-referendum-british-eu-flags States. The reason is simple. Since Cameron’s reappointment, the question of the EU has been ever present in European and world press. Cameron is in fact offering a gift to the EU and his 27 partners as for a very long time – or even for the first time in European history – Europeans and their leaders will have to finally reflect on the meaning of a EU membership, the role of the EU, and the concept of Europeanness.

Since the 2007 financial crisis, the EU has become synonymous with oppression, incomprehension, and in short the enemy of national sovereignty and regional diversity. These ideas are not new and have always been shared throughout European history. But the degree of integration occurring right after the Cold War with the first stone laid by the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 created a complex problem for governments. Integration has led to a double process of deepening (institutionally) and widening (enlargement). The degree of integration attained today requires more Europe for more cohesion in economic, financial, fiscal, immigration, security and defense policies. But Member States, for many different reasons, are reticent in moving towards deeper integration.

The United Kingdom, like Denmark, is an interesting Member State as it is neither a founding nor a British anti-EU‘fully integrated’ member considering its opt-out clauses. With the collapse of the financial markets, David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, has driven its country based on highly conservative and ideological policies. He has been focusing on cutting British debt by slashing most of government spending from social policies to defense. In addition, he has sought to attract to the ultra-nationalist base, led by the UKIP party, and one way was to put British membership to EU on the table. As illustrated below, British public opinion is closely divided in either remaining in the Union or leaving it.

Source: The Economist
Source: The Economist

Over the next two years, the press, leaders, and European citizens will have to finally reflect on the EU organized around two questions: what has the EU done for us, Europeans? What can we – Europeans – do for the EU? The first question is historically redundant as Member States are always trying to denigrate the massive contribution of the EU in the quality of life, which includes a ‘perpetual continental peace,’ of its Members and citizens. For instance, Spain, Portugal and Greece all highly beneficed from their membership in terms of development. In a matter of a decade, the standard of living in these countries was considerably increased. Certainly the Eurozone crisis has caused great harm in these countries, but all cannot be blamed on the euro. National governments ought to receive their share of the blame.

The second question is the most interesting of the two, as it will lead to a bottom-up reflection. What can European citizens and countries provide and offer to the EU? Member States and their citizenry ought to finally see how their contributions are necessary in order to grow and shape the EU of the 21st century. Most European citizens complain about the lack of connection between Brussels and themselves. European citizens are not doing enough in order to have their voices been heard when one reflects on the degree of abstention at the latest European elections. Being opposed to specific EU policies is one thing, contributing to European civic life is another. By asking the second question, European citizens will re-discover the sense of togetherness, identity, Europeanness, and the ‘we’ in European.

Source: The Economist.
Source: The Economist.

David Cameron is facing a very tricky battle head, but the history of Britain inside the Union is quite complex. Back in 1967, French President Charles de Gaulle opposed to the inclusion of Britain within the European Economic Community (EEC). His rationale was that de Gaulle “accused Britain of a ‘deep-seated hostility’ towards European construction.” De Gaulle was not totally wrong and understood the complexity of a British inclusion within the Union. Once in, Britain has played an important role in the integration of the common market, defense policy, and foreign policy.

China and the US have expressed their opposition to a Brexit and are worrying about the negative consequences of Britain’s departure from the Union and global markets. In addition, European diplomats, civil servants and the national capitals have all expressed some degree of frustration with London as no clear points of negotiation for reforming the EU-Britain relationship have been sent to Brussels. Aside from broad wishes – limitation of movement of labor and people, greater power for national parliaments, limiting the growth of the single market in favor of Eurozone members, reduction of social benefits for EU nationals – and calling for Treaty change, Brussels has yet to receive very clear and implementable demands. Cameron has his back in the corner and is now managing to survive a very complex domestic debate. Until 2017, the EU will be at the heart of political debate around the world. Politically speaking, David Cameron does not want his legacy to be remembered as the PM whom could not keep Britain in the Union.

(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).