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The unity of a nation or the international unity amongst many nations, such as within the EU, are generally built around certain sentiments, whether religious, linguistic, or cultural. The vast continent of the Soviet Union was united based on an anti-exploitation sentiment among the peasantry against the rich.
This sentiment fuelled the Bolshevik Revolution and established a strong communist state. However, toward the end of the Cold War, after the proletariat’s dream of justice and equality had for many years turned into an oppressive regime, Marx and Lenin’s socialist ideals were no longer able to unify the nation. Consequently, the Soviet Union broke up into many nations united around linguistic, religious, ethnic and geographical sentiments. Is it too farfetched to consider that something similar could happen in Europe?
Countries which internally have but little socio-economic disparity have traditionally shown rapid economic growth. Examples of this are the Scandinavian countries. Norway, for example, is one of the most equitable nations in the world, but in the current economic climate, economic inequality is increasing even in Norway, and even more so in the rest of Europe.
Instead of a lessening in income disparities and widespread economic development, countries and people are getting increasingly polarised between haves and have-nots. Dreams of social cohesion and peace are not enough to maintain economic and social stability in Europe. In order to maintain peace, relative prosperity has to be widespread among the countries of the Union.
There are also problems on the political front. As the Union has increased in size from its original six member countries to 28, the distance between the political decision makers in Brussels to the people on the streets of Sweden, Portugal, Ireland, Romania and Italy has increased.
As the economic crisis has intensified, there is a growing perception among people in the various member nations that the EU Parliament is less responsive to people’s interests and instead increasingly beholden to the interests of corporate lobbyists. In the words of anti-poverty campaigner John Hilary,
“Having spent much of the past 15 years fighting for fairer policies within the European Union, I now have a profound distrust of its institutions. Bitter experience has taught me just how great is the democratic deficit at the heart of the European programme. The EU’s supreme policymaking forum, the Council of Ministers, meets in camera without any form of external oversight. The powerful but unelected European Commission closely follows the steer given to it by the tens of thousands of corporate lobbyists who operate within the Brussels bubble. The European Parliament (EP) remains a toothless wonder, even after the recent Lisbon Treaty reforms.”
The EU struggles with deeper and more complex problems than mere historical tensions and incompatibilities between market and social forces. These fundamental problems are systemic and inherent in the original, political architecture of the EU and the market economy it serves.
In 1985, the disintegration of the countries behind the Iron Curtain was thought of as unthinkable. Yet by the early 1990s, the unthinkable had been declared inevitable. The eastern European leap from the ‘unthinkable’ to the ‘inevitable’ makes this watershed historical moment an important backdrop in our attempt to contemplate the future history of Europe.
Indeed, the disintegration of the European Union was unthinkable just a few years ago, but today, due to the economic crisis sweeping all over Europe, this has, according to many experts, become a real possibility.
The European economic crisis has demonstrated that the risk of a disintegrated EU is not just a rhetorical device by nervous politicians to enforce austerity measures. The problems currently facing the EU are real, and they are not solely economic. Europe’s political system is also facing opposition by the people whose futures it was created to protect. Statistics show that political engagement and public trust in the EU has never been lower. Fears that the Eurozone might enter into a new recession are real. This triggers a number of fundamental questions about the future of both the EU itself, and the Euro, the union’s currency. The European economy seems to be in a deep and, perhaps, fundamental crisis. Economists, politicians and common people alike are therefore asking themselves: how strong is the economic and political foundation the Eurozone is built upon?
Election participation in the Eurozone is at its lowest in history, prompting many to further question the real motives of the political decision makers and how democratic and sound their decision-making processes are? The financial crisis has sharply reduced the life expectancy of governments and inspired new populist parties in opposition to the EU. The public mood has become a quiet chorus of pessimism and anger.
The Future of Europe survey funded by the European Commission and published in April of 2012, showed that most people agree that the EU is a decent place to live, but the lack of confidence in the economic performance of the Union and its capacity to play a major role in global politics is increasing. More than six out of ten Europeans are now convinced that the lives of those who are children today will be more difficult than the lives of people of their own generation.
Even more alarming, almost 90 percent of Europeans see a big gap between what the public wants and what their governments do. Only a third of Europeans feel that their vote counts in the EU and only 18 percent of Italians and 15 percent of Greeks feel that their vote counts even in their own countries.
What will happen to the EU if poorer states such as Portugal, Italy, Spain and Greece quit the Euro, cut their losses and chart a new economic path with different economic policies? As the Soviet experience demonstrated, not only the lack of reform, but, more importantly, a series of misguided reforms from the center itself can also lead to disintegration of an economic union or a country. In times of crisis, politicians are in search of a ‘silver bullet’ to solve all problems.
But when the problems are more systemic than the superficial solutions contained in the proposed bail-out reforms, these sudden measures can easily become the cause of further problems.
In other words, it is not only possible that the EU will disintegrate from the periphery, as it already has started to do, but it could even disintegrate from within the center itself. Yes, some economists have even predicted that Germany, the heart of the union, could, because of its close tie to the Euro, be a substantial cause of an eventual collapse.
How to Create Lasting Unity in Europe?
In order to create lasting unity in Europe, the economic and political foundation needs to be based on lasting values, such as combining both political and economic democracy. At the moment the political democracy is autocratic and bureaucratic and this needs to change. In this regard, we agree with Diem25’s strategy to democratize the EU.
Most importantly, the EU needs to democratize and decentralize economically. This means that poorer countries in the periphery needs to, first of all, receive investments to develop sustainable industries, so that they can compete better in the market and raise the wages of its workforce. Second, there needs to be a long term, European-wide policy change to decentralize the economy of all of Europe, so that regions and nations with close ties can prosper and become more self-sufficient. This will revitalize the local economies in all of Europe while still maintaining cultural and political union. Third, agriculture in Europe needs to divest from being primarily meat- and milk-based to growing more fruits and vegetables, while creating a long-term plan to switch to organic growing methods. Fourth, a large-scale green investment program needs to transform Europe into an area becoming self-sufficient in green energy. Fifth, a long-term plan to transform EUs corporations into cooperatives will transform the industry and technology sectors into a dynamic economy creating more equality and prosperity. Cementing these large-scale macro-economic changes will be the unifying bonds through the common culture and values of the European enlightenment, which must extend to giving not only humans basic rights but also nature.