Almost 70 years of peace on the European continent between European great powers and the role of the European Union is still on the table. But isn’t it the most obvious argument in defense of the European experiment?
In this current economic and financial climax covered with layers of elections and referendum, the European Union has become once again the focal point of all domestic problems. Extreme rights parties and even some mainstream ones across Europe are, for electoral reasons, calling for less Europe domestically and more national sovereignty. The increasing popularity of these parties offers several interesting observations: first, their reading of history is erroneous and dangerous. Europe has been down this road leading to some of the most violent conflicts in human history; second, the belief that individual nations are better off by themselves than as a group especially in this more than ever globalized world; third, this is the most controversial point, European extreme right wing parties at the end of the day are maybe the most pro-European, considering their similar visions of European identity, culture, religion, the future of the EU and the needed solutions.
These extreme right wing parties are, despite themselves, fostering a common European narrative — one of xenophobia, nationalism, expectionalism, and ignorance — as well as cultivating a very narrow vision of their respective national cultures, all of which have been Europeanized. France has been one of the leading countries with a strong extreme-ring wing party, the Front National, led by Marine Le Pen. Her vision and political/economic platform are simply unrealistic and mostly based on an imagined romanticism of what France used to be. The case of Hungary has been quite interesting as well with the recurring attacks of its prime minister, Viktor Orbán, against the EU. He recently compared European bureaucrats to Soviet apparatchiks. He also claimed that “Hungary will not be a colony [of the EU].”
The gap between European citizens and Brussels is widening and real. The European Parliament does not fulfill its role of direct representation of European citizens. In France, for example, it has become a punishment to become a European Deputy or simply be sent to Strasburg/Brussels. Rachida Dati, a right-wing French politician, has been quite clear on this point several times. From personal experience, European Deputies are not willing to meet with European citizens and researchers unless they can gain something out of it. Solely blaming the Parliament for the lack of interest in European politics would not be fair, but it is a starting point.
Several months ago, the Pew Research Center published an excellent report, European Unity on the Rocks, looking at the state of the Union and, most importantly, the perceptions of the EU by European citizens. The results are quite interesting, and the conclusions are not in favor of the EU. Several charts have been selected from the report and are posted below:
As illustrated by the chart on the views of European unity above, the Euro and the ECB are the areas with the lowest approval rating. One of the reasons for this has been the lack of education and discussion at the national level at the time of the creation and implementation of the Euro. The lack of understanding of the Euro and the role of the ECB has created a sense of fear at national level. The overall perception of the EU — with the exception of Britain, Greece and Czech Republic — is favorable, with a high approval rating of around 60-70%.
This chart is very interesting as it clearly shows the connection made by European citizens that economic integration has made them worse off since the beginning of the crisis. Without going into an economic and fiscal discussion, this chart illustrates the role of national political class blaming their lack of independence – which is true in term of monetary flexibility for the members of the Eurozone – on the EU and ultimately has worsen the economic climax of the country such as Greece or Spain. What about the same political class talking about the benefits that the membership to the EU has provided to Southern European countries — Spain, Italy, and Greece — since their entries into the EU. The level of growth and development has been of unprecedented level in the 1990s and early 2000s and the EU is a considerable reason.
This last chart reveals the gap between Brussels and the other countries. With the exception of Germany, which has a positive change, all the other countries have seen a considerable decline. Once more the blame can be placed on national political classes trying to get elected in a bad economic climax.
At this point, three observations can be laid out. First, if a member state — such as Hungary, Czech Republic, or even Britain — does not feel comfortable any more within the Union, they should simply leave instead of affecting the unity of the Union. Second, the democratic deficit has considerably grown for too long. Maybe it would be time for Brussels to ask European citizens through a common referendum in the 27 Member States one simple question: “with or without the European Union”? The risk of doing so may be great, but the result could be very interesting. Last but not least, Europe was created by de grands hommes, such as Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman, Jacques Delors and others. In recent years, Europe has been lacking such visionary European and national leaders. The Europe of today is a Europe of petits hommes without visions but only short-term political gains.
Yes, the EU has some problems. Yes, European citizens do not cherish Brussels, but do they cherish their own capitals? Yes, the Eurozone is in crisis. Yes, a gap between rich and poor EU Member States is widening. No, the EU will not die. The core idea of the EU, “to make war unthinkable and materially impossible,” is probably its most unifying statement and should be the starting point of any argument by any good leader. The prospect of future peace at the regional level has no price and should be engraved in the mind of each European citizens and leaders. This is a common project, a common experiment, and a common idea. Let’s embrace it once more — maybe not for us but for future generations. Taking peace for granted is probably the most dangerous threat to the European experiment.