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.
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
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.”
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.