By Max Gevers
In the European Union we have known unprecedented wealth and prosperity for more than a generation. Despite the recent financial crisis and hardships, we have never had it so good, never had so much security.
Is this unduly optimistic or are we, in the immortal words of Gustav Stresemann, German foreign minister in 1928, ‘dancing on a volcano’? The EU has been a stunning economic and political success. Still, despite that success, there are broad currents of suspicion and resentment against European integration and our post war values since the economic crisis and especially the refugee crisis. That is the paradox.
The issues at stake are economic, political and humanitarian.
The economy confronts unprecedented difficulties. Politically, we face a host of doubts, conflicts of attitude, many uncertainties internationally and humanitarian dilemmas. Our democracy and welfare models are being challenged, with serious risks to our way of life. We are ambiguous about European institutions and are witnessing serious erosion of popular support for them. We prefer fast and shallow explanations and ignore facts. We are reluctant to deal with adversity and want different things from the institutions we have. Nationalism, chauvinism and anxieties have increased in the wake of the economic crisis and humanitarian problems. The solution lies in keeping the frogs from jumping out of the wheelbarrow: more European integration, not less.
Economically, the EU is seeing a sluggish recovery after a prolonged recession. The EU has, institutionally, avoided fundamental problems and experienced only manageable social unrest. The Eurozone remains fragile; the middle class especially is suffering. The effects of poverty have been mitigated, but poverty itself has certainly not been eradicated; subsistence levels still exist, especially in southern Europe. Income inequality in Europe is at times huge, though not as immense as in the US. This was lucidly pointed out by Thomas Piketty in his remarkable book, ‘Capital in the XXI Century’ with a thorough historical and statistical analysis. Piketty warned against political polarisation and upheaval, given the sometimes outrageous inequality in income, wealth and ownership of capital.
The EU is facing the seemingly insurmountable problem of getting an inert economy properly going again, and dealing with the near-bankruptcy of some of its members, living on borrowed money, dragging their feet at adapting national institutions and policies. Europe is getting out of the crisis at an excruciatingly slow pace, some members faster than others. In the European Union, we take survival and a wealthy lifestyle for granted, including on borrowed money which we may not be able to pay back. The ‘divide’ in the EU, between north and south and east and west is becoming more pronounced. As long as interests rates are low that is risky if still manageable. The policies of the European Central Bank are having an effect, if unevenly. Northern Europeans balk at those policies as they face some of the Southern problems themselves, in their pension funds! The ECB’s actions are hampered by lack of political consolidation to strengthen its financial stimuli, i.e. political follow up measures, necessary but extremely unpopular and for which the ECB has repeatedly asked. That and more economic innovation is what is needed.
Politically, there is much turmoil: migratory trends from Africa, a refugee crisis in the Middle East, terrorism, severely unruly behaviour by Turkey, increasingly assertive and negative behaviour of Russia. All this has shown the vulnerabilities and the strengths of the EU, striving to maintain its core values. The problems are not exceptional. Turkey’s attitude of the last few years is a serious step back from its modernising drive. Russia, powerful, internally looking backward, is unconstructively exploiting weaknesses of others and mostly interested in clientelism and power politics. That is not new or odd but certainly irritating. Russia is showing its military might in Syria and by its invasion and occupation of parts of Ukraine. It will not back down from its present policies, unless Mr Putin feels that international reactions are hurting too severely, cannot be countered, and internally Russian society starts to object. Both are unlikely. Deeper political cooperation within the EU and consultations with NATO allies are required.
This is all the more called for as the EU is faced with a huge refugee problem, a direct result of the Syrian civil war, which started as a popular uprising against a dictatorial regime which did not hesitate to massively butcher its own population, using gas and extensive bombing of civilians etc. The active involvement of Russia in Syria, its only client state in the Middle East, led to even more deliberate butchery on a massive scale. The tragedy will only end if Mr Assad can be forced out of Syria. That can come about if Russia’s balance of interests shifts. Without Russian support, Mr Assad would not survive for long. All this is happening in a highly volatile region, already poisoned by IS which was created in the vacuum left in Iraq after the US had left, and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and brutal treatment of its inhabitants.
Another rift in the EU is over Turkey and the perspective of its ever closer integration in the EU. To actively deal with the refugees, Europe needs Turkey; the agreement with Turkey must be upheld vigorously. Turkey also needs Europe, so a balance of interests exists. Mr Erdogan is behaving increasingly erratically, losing his bearings, promoting his personality cult, subduing democratically functioning institutions and playing his power games, massacring Kurds instead of having a serious political dialogue with them. It is almost a Greek tragedy: when Mr Erdogan came to power in 2003, there was an upbeat atmosphere and great promise of reforms and proper negotiations with the EU. Now he seems to have gone berserk and Turkey’s future political course is unpredictable. The EU must keep long term perspectives in focus and Turkey actively engaged; there can speedily be a post Mr Erdogan situation now that Mr Davutoglu with his restraining influence has gone. In short, we must continue dealing with Turkey, including negotiations to enter the EU. Unfortunately, Europe has already vacillated too long with its negotiations, holding out promises, whilst at the same time keeping Turkey at bay for years on an exceedingly long leash. Mr Erdogan, not unreasonably, is fed up with it, but has become his own biggest obstacle for progress, including the fading Turkish economic miracle.
The problem of refugees is causing a root and branch onslaught on the principles and humanitarian values the EU stands for. The burden of the refugees must be shared by all European partners. The European Commission is trying to do so yet facing opposition in many European countries, which prefer disproportionality in practice. It has glaringly exposed rifts in humanitarian values and a lack of solidarity between European partners, exacerbated by the migratory crisis from North Africa, a different problem to be dealt with by sending migrants back, assisting the Libyan government striving for stability in Libya, and cooperating with the Libyan coast guard.
At a minimum there is a serious risk of negatively influencing popular support for the EU. Internally, the EU has not properly adjusted to its expansion in 2004. There is a severe discrepancy in attitude between western and eastern members, something refugees and migrants are acutely aware of! Worse, the refugee problem has exposed some gory characteristics of xenophobia, racism and intolerance. A common positive attitude is sorely lacking. External problems are aggravating an existing if still containable sense of national exclusivity which has propelled extreme rightist tendencies in the EU. Politics appear to be discredited; underbelly sentiments strive; redemption is not in sight.
Simply said, the EU is psychologically far from stable; many applying some moral gloss over scarcity of shared humanitarian values. We have gone beyond the original prophylactic elements of the Treaty of Rome of 1957, ‘no more war between Germany and France’, but the EU now seems at risk of damaging itself, inexorably and without many Europeans realising it. Can we solve the European problems politically and deal with all these aspects with the institutions intact as they operate at present in the light of contrite spirits and resentment felt in a number of countries?
Yes we can. We need not be on a course of falling apart into old fashioned nation states. A Brexit is looming, although hopefully the UK will not turn backward in time. Certain changes to European institutions and working habits may have to be made, with the UK as an engaged full partner. The EU must be improved, not fragmented, by looking at its shortcomings: institutional ones and psychologically within member states, the lack of empathy by some towards refugees, the rise of nationalism, racism and xenophobia.
Unfortunately, there is an absence of enlightened, powerful leaders to take us forward with the political intelligence to overcome the problems unscathed. Our politicians seem to suffer from a serious lack of credibility which confounds the immensely complicated difficulties. There are no easy solutions at hand. Still, the problems must be addressed, without shying away from thinking ‘outside the box’, maybe upsetting some sacred beliefs.
If further erosion of public support is to be countered, the European Council might have to look very seriously at some of the workings of European institutions, for example the European Court of Human Rights, in order to be able to come up with the powerful policies we need. This is a risky course of action we may have to face if we want to sustain our core moral values in the long term. The EU Commission, too, has to understand that coercing EU members into applying unpopular measures by castigating them through fines, and being soft on others, may exacerbate national dilemmas, creates popular resentment and not solve underlying problems.
What is necessary is working hard towards consensus and pro-activity by the EU Commission, more intense communication between EU institutions and the population, intensive cooperation of national governments, even if arm twisting may occasionally be necessary and, ferociously, further alignment and integration.
Max Gevers is a retired diplomat living in Cyprus