Two world wars in the space of 20 years left the post-1945 generation disillusioned, yet not in despair. It was a generation of practical and pragmatic idealists, with a vision of a continent rising from the ashes, eager to sharply change course. In the new Europe, economics and a mixture of liberal and social democratic values replaced power politics, domestically and internationally. Yet in recent years, and in 2017 particularly, this vision has come to be hanging by a thread. What began in the previous year with the Brexit referendum has continued with the unabated rise of an extreme version of far-right nationalism that has been successful at the ballot box in most elections across the continent. In the case of Austria, of all places, the ultra-right ended up running the country.
In the aftermath of World War II, gradually and methodically, what began as a few modest trade agreements turned into one massive free trade zone founded on four pillars: The free movement of goods, services, capital, and labor. With the collapse of the communist bloc toward the end of the 20th century, an opportunity presented itself to extend the united European dream all the way from the Mediterranean Sea to the borders of Russia. It looked like an open road toward the United States of Europe. Not quite. Cracks started to show as the EU expanded — too quickly, without ensuring that its fundamental values were shared by the critical mass of its population, that its political institutions were robust enough to cope with competing ideas, or that its economy was growing at a steady pace in line with demands for job creation and standard of living expectations.
The European project of a diverse social, economic and political union seemed to have reached completion, until it dared to move into writing a constitution, and suggested a single political institution that would have more power than the member states’ governments. When that constitution was rejected and replaced by the Lisbon Treaty, coinciding with the economic crisis of 2008, the journey to “an ever-closer union” became considerably bumpier. It became apparent that the vision of those at the heart of the EU and its founders, especially Germany and France, of removing all barriers between member states, was not shared by many of the others. With the introduction of a common currency, the euro, it became clear that the continent was divided, between those who were willing to share their monetary policies in the belief that the sum would be greater than its parts, those who didn’t meet the criteria to join the eurozone, and those who were reluctant to accept a move that they perceived as compromising their sovereignty.
As Europe enters 2018, it waves goodbye to one of its most turbulent years. Brexit was without a shadow of a doubt a body blow for the entire EU concept. The UK’s decision to leave, taken for all the wrong reasons by one of the most powerful countries in the Union, consumed much of the time and energy not only of the UK but also of the EU, which must now contend with a double crisis — one in the domestic arena within several member states, and the other impacting the union as whole — each with similar origins and feeding into one another. Consequently, the EU is fighting for its life, soul and long-term survival.
The vision for a united Europe has come to be hanging by a thread thanks to Brexit and an increase in support of far-right ideologies at the ballot box.
Three competing views on Europe can be identified. There is the German-French view, which is determined that the EU should press on, full steam ahead, with reinforcing the foundations of the European project. In September, the newly elected president of France, Emmanuel Macron, set out in a courageous speech his vision of common EU policies on defense, tax and immigration, and for the establishment of European universities, among other initiatives to bring Europe closer together. And, in a symbolic act, he promised to have “Ode to Joy,” the EU anthem, played at the Paris Olympics in 2024.
The diametrically opposite approach, as represented by Brexit, suggests abandoning the EU, but thus far with hardly any idea of the alternative arrangements and the nature of relations with the remaining 27 member states. Then there is the view held mainly by those countries that have joined since 1995, which perceives the EU almost solely as an economic tool, with integration coming a distant second. These latter states don’t necessarily share common values on issues such as human rights or good governance.
Europe’s economies have shown healthy signs of recovery in 2017, although unemployment, despite being slightly below its 2013 peak, still remains high and hasn’t recovered from the worldwide recession that started nearly a decade ago. This hits young jobseekers particularly hard: They are twice as likely to face unemployment in competition with more experienced workers. And this is one explanation for the increase in support of far-right ideologies and their worrying success at the ballot box. This resurfacing of repulsive xenophobic attitudes is being exploited, and at times encouraged, by unscrupulous politicians.
While the EU has been a phenomenal success in bringing economic prosperity and peace to most of its citizens, at the same time it has failed to instil in them a shared identity, a sense of mutual responsibility and a commonality of values. In 2018, it will be the unquestionable task of all decent politicians and European citizens to unwaveringly promote these ideals before it is too late.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg