The Struggle for Europe

100 years after the end of the war to end all wars, there is a new battle for Europe taking place. Few seriously expect a major conflagration on the continent again. However, there is no ignoring the fact that the social and political fabric of Europe has not been so strained since the early 1930s and the continent has not been as divided since the fall of the Berlin Wall – between rich northern countries and indebted southern states and between those that want greater European integration and those that want to roll it back.

On the western edge of the continent, Britain appears to be dying to leave the European Union, while on the southern and eastern flanks poor migrants from Africa and brave protestors from the Ukraine are, literally, dying to get in.

In between, European electorates have never been as disillusioned by the EU and parties that represent the polar opposite of the European ideal that Ukrainians are fighting for and African migrants are dreaming of are set to be the big winners in May’s elections to the European Parliament.

So there is a real struggle for Europe’s soul taking place – and one which will have enormous consequences not just for the old continent but for the United States, the world economy, the stability of countries on the EU’s southern and eastern flanks and the attractiveness of multinationalism and the democratic, free-market system Europe and America share.

For the past three months thousands of protestors have been camped out in sub-zero conditions in Kiev’s Maidan square and occupying government buildings across Ukraine. Some of these protestors are members of far-right and anarchist groups. But the vast majority want greater democracy in their country and for Ukraine to align itself with the European Union rather than Russia. They wave EU flags, cheer visits by EU officials and have put their lives on the line to defend European values. Last week, dozens paid the ultimate price for their bravery.

Watching events in Ukraine unfold from the cosy calm of Brussels, I have felt an odd mix of pride, shame and complete befuddlement.

Pride because, for all its problems, Europe – and the prospect of EU membership – is still a dream for many. “The people who fought and died on the Maidan [the main square in Kiev] are idealists,” one Ukrainian told EUObserver. “Nobody believed that Ukraine is a country of people who are ready to die for ideals. Who in Europe would be willing to do this?”

Compared to most of the rest of the world, Europe is still a continent that is rich, free, fair, green and peaceful. The European Union has helped it become this relative oasis of calm in a world of conflict – for which it quite rightly won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012. And it is an organisation that other regions of the world – notably Africa, southern South America and southeast Asia – are busy making carbon copies of. No surprise then that half a dozen countries are queuing up to join the EU and tens of thousands of Africans are willing to risk their lives to make it to its shores.

Along with pride though I feel ashamed at how the European Union has effectively betrayed Ukraine. Because, despite the former Soviet Republic being a European, free-market democracy – the three basic preconditions for joining the EU – eventual membership of the Brussels-based club has never been hinted at. Like Churchill and Roosevelt in the Ukrainian resort of Yalta 70 years ago, western leaders have effectively sacrificed large swathes of eastern European to Moscow in the interest of stability. No wonder ordinary Ukrainians are scathing about the EU’s lack of help. 71-year old engineer Stepan told EUObserver: “They don’t care about us. They didn’t care about us when the Soviets were carting us off to Siberia in meat wagons and they don’t care about us now.” And no wonder US Under-Secretary of State Victoria Nuland told her ambassador in Kiev “Fuck the EU” when Brussels’ role was mentioned.

Just as the EU risks losing Ukraine, so it risks losing its most glittering prize in the region – Turkey. This strategically, economically and politically important part-European, part-Asian country has been knocking on the EU’s door for over half a century. Almost exactly ten years ago, the European Commission gave the green light to start membership negotiations after Turkey made a number of far-reaching reforms that qualified it for EU entry. But due to Greek intransigence and backsliding from several key countries like France and Germany, membership talks have advanced at a snail’s pace.

As in Ukraine, politics abhors a vacuum and the absence of a clear prospect of EU membership has resulted in Ankara back-peddling on some of its reforms – especially concerning press freedoms – and effectively giving up hope of joining the Union in the future. The Turkish public also feels betrayed by the EU and support for joining the bloc has fallen from about 70% a decade ago to around 40% now.

The EU lacks growth, people and raw power. Turkey has all these in abundance. Its economy is growing at around 4% a year – compared to the EU’s 1% – its population of almost 80 million is rising steadily while many European countries are running out of workers. And while the Union frets about how to convert its soft into hard power and play a more muscular role in the Middle East and Black Sea basin, Turkey has almost half a million men and women in uniform and is probably the most influential player in the south-east Mediterranean.

So you would think it would be clearly in the EU’s interests to integrate Turkey, Ukraine and the small countries of former Yugoslavia into the EU as fast as possible. Yet that would be to underestimate the strategic shortsightedness and anaemic ambition of the current crop of EU leaders.

Enlargement of the EU has been the Union’s biggest success story to date, helping anchor democracy and prosperity in southern and eastern Europe after long periods of dictatorship. Almost exactly a decade ago – on May 1, 2004 – Cyprus, Malta and eight former communist countries of central and east Europe joined the EU. At the time, there were doubts that these countries – in the words of former French President Jacques Chirac – “lacked a European reflex.” But go to Prague – as I did last week – and you are in a city that is as unmistakably European as Paris (and a good deal cleaner and more orderly than Brussels). Witness how Poland and the Baltic countries have been the strongest advocates of Ukraine – and a democratic Belarus – and you see how wrong it was to question their European values – as some western European leaders did before they joined. And look at the heroic efforts tiny Malta has made in welcoming north African migrants as most older EU countries have refused to accept their share of asylum seekers or simply sent them back to their home countries.

Of course enlargement has its opponents. France and several other EU founding member states have never really supported it. And public opinion has turned against the further expansion of the Union – especially in countries like Germany and Austria. But EU leaders have not helped by unanimously backing the membership of central and eastern European countries, Turkey and the half a dozen former Yugoslav states and then doing almost nothing to sell it to their electorates. In fact, as the economic crisis has deepened some have used enlargement – and the EU’s core principle of the free movement of people – as a convenient scapegoat.

Take Britain – which was one of only three countries to let in workers from the new EU member states when they joined in 2004. Despite the benefits this has brought to the British economy, the present government – backed by an openly xenophobic section of the press – has refused to offer the same rights to recent newcomers Bulgaria and Rumania.

So in the interests of political expediency – in the British case an attempt by the Tory government to outflank the anti-EU UK Independence Party – some European countries have not only ignored the key principles the EU was built on (like freedom of movement) but have pursued policies that run contrary to the values which underpin the EU project (like equality and solidarity.)

And so to befuddlement. Thousands of people have been waving EU flags in Kiev. Voluntarily. The only time you see this sort of behaviour in EU countries is at dwindling demonstrations of EU federalists and Ryder Cup golf matches between the United States and Europe. In fact, you see more flags being burned than waved in the EU these days as demonstrators in Athens and other recession-hit countries vent their anger at the EU.

Euroskepticism used to be a British disease that also infected the Danish body politic. It has now spread across the European Union and barely a country is not affected – whether rich or poor, north or south. Public support for the EU project is haemorrhaging across the continent – most notably in southern countries that have been hardest hit by the recession and the austerity measures that were supposed to lift them out of it. As in the last great economic downturn in the 1930s, extremist parties are reaping the rewards.

In May’s European Parliament elections, the National Front – the xenophobic, anti-euro party led by Martine Le Pen – is expected to send the most MEPs to Brussels and Strasbourg. And in a recent poll, a third of French voters said they sympathised with the party’s aims. In Britain, UKIP are polling around 20% and a large chunk of the ruling Conservative party is openly hostile to the EU. In Italy, the 5-star party of comedian Beppe Grillo is likely to bag one in five seats and could emerge as the country’s biggest force. In Greece, the far-left anti-austerity Syriza party is expected to be the biggest vote-winner. And in Austria, Euroskeptic populists could take up to 30% of the vote.

Even more disturbing is the level of support for parties who either ape the fascist parties of the 1930s or adopt policies that openly racist, anti-Islam or extreme nationalist. The Jobbik party in Hungary – which won 16% of the vote in the last elections – carries out anti-Roma clean-up operations and its leaders has called for Jews to be screened for security risk. Members of Greece’s Golden Dawn party, which attracts 10% of voters, greet each other with the Hitler salute and six MPs were recently imprisoned – and the party banned – after one of its thugs killed an anti-fascist singer. Remember, this is mainland Europe in 2014 – 70 years after we were meant to have laid the ghosts of fascism to rest and ushered in a new era of tolerance, cooperation and togetherness.

Growing support for extremist parties is having a knock-on effect on governments in power – who feel duty bound to take a more hardline stance against asylum seekers, illegal immigrants and even perfectly-legal EU migrants. Last month, 28 people, including 10 children, died when a Greek coastguard crew allegedly towed a boat full of migrants back towards Turkey – in flagrant contradiction of international law. Switzerland, which is not an EU member but is inside the Schengen free movement zone, recently passed a referendum setting quotas on immigrants. And in the UK, the Conservative government – backed by a hate campaign in papers like the Daily Mail – has sought to stigmatise Bulgarians and Rumanians legally coming in search of work in Britain.

So the values that were meant to define Europe, and are still a precondition for entry into the EU club – peace, democracy, free markets, the rule of law, prosperity, diversity and solidarity – are being flouted, threatened or openly challenged by states that are already in the club. It is no exaggeration to say that this is a struggle for Europe’s soul. Win this battle and the EU will remain a haven of peace, stability and prosperity. Lose it and we risk becoming a marginal player on the world stage, a crumbling old people’s home unable to maintain the upkeep on its once grand edifice. No wonder German Chancellor Angela Merkel says Europe is “facing its toughest hour since World War Two.”

The EU was founded after World War II to banish the spectre of war from the European continent forever. It has only partly succeeded. While its members have kept the peace – no mean achievement for a continent that perfected the art of bloodletting – the European Union’s fringes have been anything but peaceful. In the last 25 years alone there have been wars in Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Chechnya, ex-Yugoslavia and most recently Georgia after the fall of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The prospect of EU membership, which has been promised to the Western Balkan countries, has helped keep that volatile region relatively peaceful. But if Ukraine descends into civil war – which is not unthinkable – will the EU have the will and the means to do anything to stop it?

The rule of law is a precondition to join the EU but some states – such as Belgium and France – are much better at calling for new legislation than adhering to the laws that have already been passed. In others – notably Bulgaria, Romania – corruption is rampant while in Italy the mafia makes a mockery of justice in the southern half of the country. And let’s not forget that the roots of the Euro crisis lie in the decision by France and Germany to rip up the Growth and Stability Pact – the rulebook underpinning the single currency – which gave the green light to countries like Greece and Italy to go on a spending spree they could not afford.

Democracy. All EU member states are democracies. But some countries trust their people less – and are less and less inclined to consult them. Italy now has its third unelected leader in a row. In Greece a democratically elected prime minister, George Papandreou, was described as a ‘madman’ by fellow leader Nicolas Sarkozy after threatening to hold a referendum on an EU bailout package. Several days later he was forced to make way for a technocrat banker. “It would be tragic and fatal if we were to lose democracy on the road to saving the Euro and to more integration,” said the president of the German constitutional court in 2012.

The EU has always been an elite project with a distrust for its people. Ireland, for example, was the only country to vote on the Union’s latest treaty in 2008. Its people said no but as this was the wrong answer for Brussels they were asked to vote again. The second time round they said yes. The economic crisis has boosted the EU’s powers and increased its tendency to rule by committee. Decisions on levels of taxation and national budgets – which, for me, lie at the heart of national sovereignty – now have to be vetted by unelected officials in Brussels before they can be agreed by national parliaments. And from Ireland to Cyprus bailout packages have been imposed on independent countries by a so-called troika of officials from the European Commission, IMF and European Central Bank. No wonder after a harsh bailout package was foisted on Ireland, its Central Bank Governor, Patrick Honohan, said: “Politicians are normally thought to be running a country. That’s what was taken away.”

The Euro, in the words of European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, was meant to be a “protective shield against the crisis.” Some shield. Italy’s GDP has dropped by 7% and industrial production has fallen by 20% since the start of the crisis. A quarter of Spaniards and Greeks – and over half the countries’ youngsters – are without work. In Portugal the situation is so desperate that hundreds of thousands have emigrated to former colonies in Brazil, Mozambique and Angola. And in Spain 300,000 young graduates have left their country in search of jobs – which is why many young Europeans refer to themselves as the ‘lost generation.’

In terms of prosperity, most EU states are still rich compared to the rest of the world. But there is a growing feeling that Europe is living beyond its means and that the ‘cradle to grave’ welfare system that Europeans are so proud of can no longer be sustained with feeble growth, ballooning healthcare and pension bills and fewer workers sustaining ever-greater number of non-workers. As Chancellor Merkel is keen to repeat, how can a continent that has 7% of the population and 25% of its wealth afford 50% of its welfare spending?

If there ever was a European dream, it was based on a sense of solidarity among fellow members of the 28-nation club. Try telling that to the French – who railed against mythical Polish plumbers stealing their jobs during the debate on the EU constitution. Or the Germans, Slovaks or Finns who have had to be dragged kicking and screaming to offer a lifeline to Greece. Or the northern European states that refuse to accept refugees and asylum seekers washing ashore on the beaches of Spain, Malta, and Italy.

Instead of borders being erased – the great dream of the Schengen Treaty – they seem to be coming back in fashion. France recently set up frontier controls on its border with Italy in order to prevent a ‘flood’ of migrants from the north African countries it went to war to liberate. And Germany and Britain are plotting ways of making it next to impossible for EU nationals to claim benefits in their countries – in flagrant contradiction of European law.

So the EU is facing challenges to its values, its legitimacy and the very way of life of its people. It is engaged in a struggle between those who favour an ever closer union of peoples and countries – a kind of United States of Europe with an EU army, government and economic union – and those who question the EU’s most basic values and seek to return to a Europe of sovereign states with their own currencies, jealously-guarded borders and severe limits on the freedom of Europeans to move and live in other states.

The former path is the logical consequence of the euro. As Europe has discovered in the last five years, you simply cannot have a single currency without economic, fiscal and political union. The problem is most Europeans are opposed to giving greater powers to Brussels and states that profess to support political union – like France – refuse to accept its decisions when they run counter to the policies of its elected politicians. So the dream of a United States of Europe first uttered by Victor Hugo and backed by Winston Churchill, may come to pass. But it will come at the price of even less public legitimacy and the splintering of the Union into a hardcore Eurozone group of states and those, like Britain, Denmark and Sweden, who will remain half in, half out.

The further the EU goes down this route, the greater the support will be for the latter option – let’s call it the British road. This will preserve some nations’ currencies and sovereignty in some areas like border control, taxation and welfare rules. But it will diminish their clout on the world stage and attractiveness as markets.

It would be nice to think there was a third way where, instead of navel-gazing at home and posturing abroad, the EU would concentrate on its real value-added – opening up markets, expanding the area of peace and prosperity to its poorer, less stable neighbours, connecting Europeans through more efficient transport, energy and research projects and trying to engage with them in an open, honest debate about where the bloc should be going. But you can’t wind back the clock 20 years to before the Maastricht Treaty was signed. There are two competing visions of Europe and they are engaged in a struggle for its soul. This battle will continue for years, with huge consequences for the United States and the rest of the world.

Speech to Missouri University, 27 February 2014

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