Europe is at war again. Citizens all over the continent are losing faith in the European Union, which has failed to tackle either the Ukraine crisis or the Greek economic debacle.
Last Christmas, all seemed well with the European world. The European Union (EU’s) tortuous struggle with the Euro-crisis seemed over, its recalcitrant “problem kids”—the states of southern Europe—seemed on the mend, its churches were packed to the rafters and its coffers overflowing, after the heady consumer frenzy that marks the annual celebration of the birth of the Lord. Over succulent duck and good wine, Europeans fervently thanked the just and fair Messiah for guiding them back to a sunny path and away from the most recent plague to afflict them in the form of a five-year long financial crisis. As long as one believed, faith, it seemed, held the answers. United Europe once again seemed like an unusually successful experiment.
The continent that saw itself as the abode of power, morals and money, had once ruled the world, but had subsequently destroyed and discredited itself permanently by engaging in two catastrophic wars and by lighting the fires of fascism and genocide on its soil.
But gradually and from among the ashes, the wreckage, the shame and the horror had emerged six righteous entities (France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg), holding a pennant aloft to show the others the way towards resurrection. The small group eventually swelled into a proud community of 28 sovereign nations, united by history, agreements and fervent solidarity.
Last December, it seemed as though 500 million free-spending and mostly creditworthy citizens representing the largest global Single Market were right back on top of the world to enjoy resurgence of growth, prosperity, liberalism, progress, peace, freedom and—human rights, while urging, with a sense of innate morality, other less blessed regions in the world to implement the last more effectively themselves.
But the season to be jolly has ended. It is spring 2015 and—nothing is as it was anymore.
Europe is at war again. Flanked by the US-led NATO and Russia rattling their sabres, the EU and its scruffy foster child Ukraine are caught in the middle.
Europeans have been forced to recognize that their interests are being represented neither by the one side nor the other and that the EU itself has no instruments of power to assert their rights. One EU member-state is broke while politicians, institutions, ministers, commissioners, chancellors and presidents have been squabbling like spoilt toddlers over a shovel in a sandpit. The Greek crisis has exposed the EU’s mistakes, weaknesses and inherent fault-lines.
Ukraine and Greece: two crisis zones with global dimensions and highly combustible potential, but the European Union has passed neither test and its citizens have now taken note of both the failures.
Hardly a day goes by without demonstrations and protests in one European capital or another. Sometimes there are 5,000 marchers; at others, the numbers exceed 50,000. Demonstrators have been clashing with others holding different views leading to frequent and massive scuffles. It has become obvious that political discourse in Europe has moved to its streets and is being conducted—much like on social networking sites—primarily through hate, offensive tirades and relentless abuse.
Violence, too, is unfolding on the fringes of these massive rallies: burning cars, pelted stones, shattered window panes, masked protesters and injured policemen.
Many protests are aimed at the “Islamization of the Christian West”, against foreigners and refugees, against everyone who is poorer, different and anxious to gain entry into the European paradise.
But rapidly and increasingly, the unrests are also marked by starkly social and ideological aspects; many demonstrators are railing against the growing chasm between Europe’s rich and poor, massive unemployment, the power of big money, banks and hedge funds. In other words, Europe is seeing the resurrection of the erstwhile enemy of the 1970s and 80s: a brand of neo-liberal capitalism that bears the stamp of the US and one which has always been doggedly determined to establish and consolidate its hold over the entire world.
Dissatisfaction is manifesting itself even at polling booths outside of Greece. Analysts note that anti-EU parties are on the verge of taking political centrestage with comfortable majorities in France, UK, Denmark, Sweden, Poland, Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Netherlands—and of late, even in Germany. Opponents of a united Europe are winning mandates and gaining in strength, with many strong factions already enjoying the right to determine matters within the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
Some want far-reaching reforms and a restructuring of the European institution, others want the EU to be dismantled altogether or to persuade their own countries to exit the Union. Left wing and neo-fascist forces are at work and joining hands against the idea of a united Europe. Soothsayers, both professional and hobbyist, are painting bleak future landscapes: the imminent end of the European Union, or at least that of the Euro.
Though European wordsmiths believe that the “dirty word” was long relegated to the hoary annals of the evidence room, nationalism is booming all over again.
Rage in the northern European states is focused primarily on the “lazybones” of the South, while the wrath of the southern Mediterranean countries is, in turn, trained upon Germany and its Chancellor. Talk of “The Fourth Reich’” has been frequently peppering popular banter on talk shows, while Angela Merkel wearing a Hitler moustache is a recurring image in the work of cartoonists. Bitter animosity is poisoning neighbourly relations. Merkel is responsible for our misery, say the southerners. So what else can be the inevitable fallout other than the demise of solidarity and brotherhood?
The idea of Europe was born to overcome the consequences of the terrible war. But 70 years on, there is fierce bargaining between the victorious and the vanquished. It is all about “reparations”—all over again.
Indeed, the EU crisis has been simmering for years. But this spring, it has finally breached the floodgates with dramatic force and proved that the foundation upon which this peoples’ union was built has not withstood the strains of the previous years. The political basis of a united Europe was a solid consensus over treading a moderate middle path, irrespective of whether one called oneself Conservative, Christian, Social Democrat, Workers’, Liberal or Green. It is this consensus that the Euro crisis gradually fragmented and has now completely destroyed.
It is now obvious that even the moral high ground adopted by the EU is not enough to justify the latent arrogance with which the EU projects itself as the guardian of the true values of mankind, in other parts of the world. The zeal with which the EU is protecting and defending its own sanctum sanctorum of prosperity against the outside world and the speed with which its citizens and governments seem willing to give up the free societies they created, is daunting and worrisome.
France is discussing the reintroduction of the death penalty. Germany is mulling over streamlined electronic surveillance of its citizens, the very surveillance which it just yesterday would have denounced as the destruction of democracy. Calls are growing for more police, more draconian criminal laws and a speedier expatriation of unwanted foreigners.
It is patently clear that Europe has not moved towards greater unity but has, instead, drifted apart into two entities—the rich north and the poor south, whose interests are so diametrically opposed to each other that there is hardly any room for lasting compromise or even joint trade any more.
Meanwhile and less perceptibly, another erstwhile strength of the EU lies shattered by the crisis both in the north and south: consensus among all EU members over individual decisions. Thus, the “Big Powers” among the 28 EU states have been negotiating independently—first in Moscow with Vladimir Putin and then with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsripras at the recent EU summit in Brussels.
They had no mandate, and the murmurs of protest from the other EU member-states could hardly be ignored. These actions, too, will have far-reaching consequences.
Finally, it has become more than obvious that the European Union lacks a clear, geopolitical perspective which defines its role and philosophy in the arena of global relations. International geopolitics is, today, offering great chances to self-confident players. But the EU is not among them.
For, whenever the going gets tough, the EU’s decisions are still determined by the thought patterns prevalent during the Cold War era. It is thus that with astounding naivete, Brussels fanned the conflict in Ukraine and engineered a change in the power structure in that country, without bothering to negotiate with Russia, the country that was disadvantaged the most by its manipulation of Ukraine’s politics.
By neglecting to engage Russia, just like in the conflict between northern and southern European countries, the EU thus brought upon a clash of interests between itself and the US-led NATO. One that can hardly be overcome through temporary compromises.
Russia is situated in Europe. Therefore, lasting security for European countries is inconceivable without it. But instead of representing European interests including those of Russia, the EU has behaved like a servile foot soldier for the US-dominated West. A terrible mistake, one that is bound to misfire badly.
Efforts are currently on to save whatever can be rescued. Clearly, Greece will be helped out of bankruptcy, because Brussels sees “Grexit” (Greece’s threatened exit from the EU) as an ominous sign of the disintegration of the EU and fears it far more than the imposition of fresh billion-Euro burdens on the European taxpayer to pull Athens out of the quagmire.
Europeans have now realized that their Continent is, in reality, a fairweather Union. But the climate over the previous decades was so balmy and replete with wellness that it was easy for Brussels’ bureaucracy to convince even the most sceptical among its citizens through soul-stirring speeches replete with flowery verbosity, at functions commemorating the continent’s shared history.
And given the protection of the NATO in addition, it was la dolce vita all the way. But that good life has now grown flabby, lethargic, flaccid in thought and unwilling to change.
It took Pope Francis of all people, to finally hold a mirror up to the Continent and the Union and reflect an ugly face.
“Europe seems to give the impression of being somewhat elderly and haggard, feeling less and less a protagonist in a world which frequently regards it with aloofness, mistrust and even, at times, suspicion,” he said in an address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg late last year. “As a result, the great ideas which once inspired Europe seem to have lost their attraction, only to be replaced by the bureaucratic technicalities of its institutions. Together with this, we encounter certain rather selfish lifestyles, marked by an opulence which is no longer sustainable and frequently indifferent to the world around us, and especially to the poorest of the poor.”
Among those present, nobody disagreed with the Pontiff.
Translated from German by Swarajya Foreign Affairs Editor Padma Rao Sundarji