In a recent article in Foreign Policy, the Brussels-based journalist Gareth Harding argues that “the European Union was built on the myth that we are one people with one common destiny”. In his view, “[w]e are now discovering that regional and national differences are not dissolving and that Europeans think and act very differently from one another.”
Harding goes on to argue that “[m]ost Europeans have little idea what the EU stands for in the world, what binds its people together, where it has come from in the past, and where it is going in the future. After more than 60 years of EU integration, 200,000 pages of legislation, and a hefty (and still growing) stack of treaties, we have succeeded in building a European Union without Europeans.” He quotes the Dutch writer Geert Mak: “There is no European people. There is not a single language, but dozens of them…. And, above all: in Europe there is very little in the way of a shared historical experience.” For Harding, “[t]his gets to the heart of the matter. People need stories in order to grasp the inexplicable, to cope with their fate. The individual nation, with its common language and shared imagery, can always forge those personal experiences into one great, cohesive story. But Europe cannot do that.”
He is particularly pessimistic about the future of Europe. In Harding’s view, current doubts about the future of the euro illustrate a broader breakdown of Europe’s dreams of a united future. His conclusion is that “[r]ather than bringing the European Union closer to its citizens, the currency has widened the gap between rulers and ruled. Instead of ushering in a new era of prosperity, the euro has condemned millions of Europeans to decades of penury. And far from bringing together the peoples of Europe, it is on the verge of tearing them apart.”
Harding is right to argue that the economic and political challenges facing Europe are very serious. Everyone who is even remotely interested in international affairs is fully aware of that. Yes, the Eurozone’s travails are real and serious; and yes, over the past few months the tensions among EU leaders have often been palpable. Their unwillingness or inability to act effectively and concertedly in response to the economic crisis have made matters worse, and have led a series of analysts and practitioners to express doubt about the future of the euro and, more broadly, the EU.
But importantly, there is another side to this story. To argue, as Harding does, that the EU and the Soviet Union or the former Yugoslavia share similarities such as “resentment toward political elites in the capital, bruised national identities, and the desire for self-determination in ‘the provinces’” is to ignore the systematic political oppression and perpetual economic crisis that were the everyday reality of millions of people in those countries. That combination of political and economic misery motivated many of those millions of people to seek freedom, the protection of national identities and a better economic future exactly by joining (or attempting to join) the European Union.
Since the start of the project of European integration, the countries involved in that project have experienced an unprecedented era of peace and (for all its problems and limitations) cooperation. The EU certainly deserves at least some credit for that, just as it deserves at least some credit for the rapid democratic transitions in Central and Eastern Europe, and for Serbia’s and Croatia’s decision to move towards a new chapter in their relationship after the violent breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990’s. The prospect of being able to join the EU was a powerful incentive in both Belgrade and Zagreb as they emerged from those conflicts.
As to the critique that “the European Union was built on the myth that we are one people with one common destiny,” one can only reply: so too were the nation-states that are taken for granted today.
Again, this is not to say that all is well within the European Union; it is not. The EU leaders are probably going to have to act much faster and more boldly in the coming months if they are to avoid an even deeper crisis. Even as I write this piece, fresh doubts are being expressed about the economic situation of Greece. Whispers of a default and/or departure from the euro are becoming more than just whispers—and they are accompanied by growing concerns about a potential ‘domino effect’ in the Eurozone. Nationalist rhetoric and the politics of blaming foreigners (including citizens of other EU states) are becoming more prominent than they have been in a long time in several European countries.
The challenges facing the EU are serious, but there is no reason why they should be seen as insurmountable obstacles. At the end of the day, the difficulties associated with the kind of bold action required in order to address the EU’s problems are nothing compared to the immense political, economic and social problems that all Europeans—indeed, the world at large—would have to face if the euro (or, according to the even more pessimistic scenario of some analysts, the entire EU) were to collapse.