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Rescuing Europe

The EU has turned 60, but despite the successes, pessimism has taken hold. Can the union survive the politics of fear?

Claudi Pérez
European Council building in Brussels.
European Council building in Brussels.DELMI ÁLVAREZ

There are at least three surprising things about the European district of Brussels, the neighborhood which is home to the EU institutions despite the miserable weather that would justify a mass migration to warmer climates.

One of them is the Babylonian chatter – it is a rich and diverse landscape inhabited by people with different accents and looks, hailing from all corners of Europe: from Helsinki to Cádiz and from Saint Petersburg to Messina.

Pessimism has taken root and on its vines have grown the grapes of wrath of the Great Recession

The second surprising thing is the constant bustle of cranes and building work; it is tempting to draw the obvious metaphor: Europe is under construction, real and allegorically, and this frenzy of bulldozers perfectly encapsulates the state of permanent transition of the confused political project that is the European Union.

The last item is more sinister: security forces armed to the teeth protect the headquarters of the European Commission 24 hours a day. Military vehicles are parked in front of the Council, and police officers are constantly checking transit hubs – it is an ever-present reminder of the terrorist attacks that hit the capital 20 months ago now. This scar has yet to heal, and not only in Brussels: a militarized world with police tanks, military uniforms, bulletproof vests and machine guns is with us every day. Because today, fear is one of Europe’s driving forces.

Fear has permitted a state of economic exception since the fall of Lehman Brothers: the rhetoric about exceptional times has allowed the passage of austerity decrees and reforms with hardly any protests – in a continent known for kicking up a fuss. This fear is also reflected in other areas: in beefed-up police numbers that have been deployed without any resistance, in the state of terrorist emergency in France that has been in place for two years now.

Uncertainty, insecurity, terror explain phenomena as diverse as Brexit and the rise of nationalism and the ultra right

It is also visible in the tendency to link immigrants with insecurity, a trend that, sadly, is taking root across Europe. Anyone looking for an example of weakness in Europe need look no further than the wall between Hungary and Serbia, or the fences in the Spanish cities of Ceuta and Melilla on the northern coast of Africa, or the walls in Greece, Cyprus and Bulgaria. Fear, in the end, has entered European politics like a Trojan horse and opened the doors to populism, just as Georg von Wallwitz explains in the essay Mr Smith and paradise and José María Lasalle in his fantastic book Against populism.

Uncertainty, insecurity, fear and the correlating job instability, indignation and anger at the economic elites explain phenomena as diverse as Brexit and the rise of nationalism and the far right, which recently fell just short of governing several large European countries. Fear as a driving force: the German sociologist Ulrich Beck said that Europe owed its integration more to fear than to common projects. The European Union is many things, but it is also “a space for governing risks,” says Daniel Innerarity, author of the monumental Democracy in Europe.

And yet pessimism is too easy: the intellectual glamour of pessimism blankets all analysis, but perhaps the situation today is not so terrifying. The EU has just turned 60. It has grown from six founding countries to 28: Europe and its rule of law has swallowed up former fascist dictatorships and dozens of former Communist countries, which now settle their disputes at boring and peaceful summits. Pessimism has taken root and on its vines have grown the grapes of wrath of the Great Recession. But the club has shown remarkable ability to adapt and can boast of a sole currency that has saved many match points and €35,000 of income per person, reasonably well divided thanks to the welfare state’s social contract.

In the middle of the crisis, this socioeconomic mattress softened the blow, but it is a sagging mattress that is every day more uneven. Inequality goes up and you have a cocktail glass where 20% of the population accumulates 80% of the wealth. Charles Dickens, Heinrich Heine, Emile Zola, Stendhal, Honoré de Balzac and Victor Hugo understood that societies cannot allow such wretched inequality; John Stuart Mill, Alfred Marshall and John M. Keynes made this known among economists. Thomas Piketty and Branko Milanovic have reignited this debate; perhaps today’s authors will give shape to this story. Ultimately, the economy is a mirror and at the same time an expression of the times: the current crisis, the failed post-mortem of Thatcherism, has allowed an increase in inequality. This is fertile ground for populism to spread its roots.

A militarized world with police tanks, military uniforms, bulletproof vests and machine guns is with us every day

“Too little, too late” has been Europe’s approach during the crisis to combat this and other problems. “The crisis management by the eurozone will be studied as one of the greatest mistakes of economic policy,” says analyst Jean Pisani-Ferry. And yet, on the verge of the abyss, Europe has shown its resistance to vertigo. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the magic words in 2011 (“If the euro falls, Europe falls”) and the crisis evaded one of its most difficult stages: the president of the European Central Bank (ECB), Mario Draghi, cast the “we will do everything necessary” spell in 2012 and the speculators fled like rabbits. The apocalypse always defrauds its prophets: the ECB arrived late, but since then it has not taken its foot off the accelerator; the fiscal policy inflicted an exaggerated punishment, but it has ended the back-breaking austerity of Europe’s darkest years. Confidence returned triumphantly one night in May when the far-right leader Marine Le Pen came out onto her balcony in Paris and acknowledged defeat: Europe is the nice surprise of the world in 2017.

Europe has come out of a state of absolute and imprudent self-complacency. In 2008, the European Commission under José Manuel Durão Barroso published the book EMU@10 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the euro: it was the story of a “resounding success” as the euro became the “stabilizing pole for Europe and the global economy.” But just like in a Greek tragedy, this hubris angered the gods: the dramas in Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Cyprus and Spain dragged Europe into a brutal crisis – one that will stay with us for years and that explains the pendulum swing back to today’s overwhelming pessimism.

This legacy has left a formidable bouquet of internal and external threats: Europe needs to be “refounded” – in the words of French President Emmanuel Macron – if it is to survive at least 60 years more of these challenges. Europe has survived the crisis by a hair’s breadth. But is it ready for the next hurricane? No. Is the EU ready for the next problem in the tinderbox of unrest in the Middle East? No. Will Vladímir Putin or Donald Trump become less aggressive? Don’t even ask. GDP has increased at the fastest rate in a decade: is it enough to maintain social cohesion? No. Has the EU been able to reduce the North-South divide? Nope. Has the danger of the far right dissipated following the French, German and Dutch elections? Hardly.

No, no, don’t ask, neither, not likely: this is the attitude that proves that Europe today is a story of survival, more than it is a story of success.

Fear has entered European politics like a Trojan horse and opened the doors to populism

The EU, paraphrasing the philosopher Karl Popper, is a process of social engineering done by parts: the engineers who designed it left it incomplete, knowing that its inadequacies would come to light and lead to new measures. That moment has arrived. “It is in the sun, not the rain, when we must repair the roof of our house,” said the leader of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde.

The eurozone continues to require adjustment measures and last-resort bailout options from Frankfurt. But the future of the eurozone, at heart, depends on the prosperity of the south: on whether the south can grow and whether the north is willing to invest in it to bring Europe back into alignment.

Franz Reichelt, the French tailor, fell to his death after jumping from the Eiffel tower in 1912 with a loose parachute suit, convinced that his invention would save thousands of pilots. Before making his leap, he paused for 40 seconds. When he at last jumped into the void, a gust of air twisted the material around his body: he fell like a stone. The 40 seconds that Reichelt spent vacillating are an amendment to impetuous action, as Ian McEwan explains in Nutshell. The fact that he jumped in the end, however, paved the way for modern parachuting.

Europe is now immersed in its own 40 seconds of contemplation. It should use them to mend its parachute and pass the imperative reforms it never got round to making. And, with the fixed parachute, await the next crisis. Which will no doubt come. And when it has to jump again, two things could happen: either the parachute opens or the euro ends, like Reichelt, smashing its head on the cold pavement of Paris.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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