For thousands of years, European nations have been waging war with each other. Despite these adverse circumstances and initial skepticism, during the middle of the last century, the EU was created, bringing peace and prosperity to the previously distraught continent. For the past decade, however, the European institutions have been experiencing increasing mistrust among its member states because of its apparent inability to cope with urgent challenges and to provide answers to questions of great importance to European citizens. In order to preserve the EU for future generations and safeguard its achievements, it is essential to act now: by introducing reforms and addressing the concerns of Europeans, the EU will not only be spared from destructive developments, but saved from its fatal decay.
At the beginning of the 21st century, a united Europe was nothing more than a vision. A utopia begotten by intellectuals and artists, many of whom would not be allowed to witness its finalized state during their lifetime. Not only did it take a very long time, but also two world wars, bringing unspeakable misery to Europe and the world, before the European nations came to the conclusion that cooperation was an inevitable necessity and that a peaceful coexistence would benefit all. The aim was to prevent further military confrontations by tying up the nations to each other with treaties, agreements, and economic dependence.
When giving a speech at the University of Zürich in 1946, the prominent former British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, for the first time, proposed the formation of ‘a kind of United States of Europe,’ causing a sensation and sparking debates in Western Europe about how such a political construct could be implemented. The debates finally cumulated in the presentation of the so-called Schuman Plan, which was intended to counteract possible future conflicts between the former rivals France and Germany. The plan assured the joint output of coal and steel in the two countries, to be placed within the framework of a strong, supranational structure. Aligning mutual interests by linking the two countries economically was considered to be an effective means to rule out further confrontations between the neighbors. This collaboration later morphed into the European Union as we know it, heralding a time of prosperity for many of its citizens and making the Schuman Plan a major milestone in the history of European unification.
Do we personally, in our everyday lives, really benefit from this rather abstract political construct?
First and foremost, Western Europeans have lived in peace for the last 75 years, the longest period since the Roman times, giving rise to the first generation of Europeans in two thousand years who have not known war. Moreover, the benefits the EU offers its citizens are numerous: ranging from high environmental and food production standards to free movement in between the European countries. Additionally, and more interestingly for students: uniform academic credits and an absence of roaming charges and many others. Pan-European parties emerged, as well as a European Song Contest and mutual sports events. In 2018 alone, the Erasmus program enabled more than 850.000 young adults to study, train, and volunteer abroad, helping them in their professional and personal development by encouraging friendships and dialogues across borders. All these benefits align with the greater aim to create a European identity and thus a unified Europe.
Despite all the privileges the EU came along with, there are still serious deficiencies and threats to its existence. In many situations during recent decades, the EU member states have not been able to find common ground when facing urgent problems. The latest example was the refusal of several countries in 2014 to accept refugees from Syria and other war-torn countries, preventing their redistribution within Europe and spawning refugee camps in Italy and Greece, which are still a melting pot of despair and poverty . Not only are they denied basic human rights such as free movement, expulsion and security, but also are actively prevented from reaching European soil by a strict border control enforced by the recently formed organization called Frontex. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which are trying to help shipwrecked refugees on the Mediterranean by operating sea rescue at their own costs, are hindered: their ships are confiscated and mooring in a safe port is often denied by local authorities . By these measures, lives are deliberately put on the line while the drowning of thousands of vulnerable people at the gates of Europe is tacitly accepted, turning the Mediterranean into a graveyard and an everlasting symbol of shame to European humanitarian politics .
Besides undermining its core values, this inaction and apathy also make any utterance of concern about human rights violations and injustice in other countries sound implausible and the EU seem hypocritical. Considering further the fact that four of the ten largest economies in the world are members of the EU and that all members agreed to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), one may wonder whether the core values upon which the EU is based play just a minor role in shaping European politics, as compared to financial interests and economic dependencies. In times of crisis, the EU failed to demonstrate solidarity and consensus, betraying its foundational goal, and undermining numerous supranational achievements.
Furthermore, in many Eastern European countries, the rule of law is increasingly undermined by authoritarian leaders. Since their gain of freedom in the 1990s after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, illiberal sympathies have been present in a major part of the population, while informal institutions have become more influential. This is not very surprising, given that the post-communist countries were forced to form new governmental and social structures under conditions including ruined governmental institutions, economic chaos, and frayed social safety systems. Having experienced life in totalitarian systems has undoubtedly shaped these people, and while at first glance democratic institutions and a form of market economy appeared solidly established, patronal cores and systemic corruption remain to this day, brewing under the surface.
These structures also favored the rise of authoritarian leaders such as Victor Orbán (Hungary) and Jarosław Kaczyński (Poland), who both managed to form conservative illiberal democracies and to gradually undermine democratic achievements by, for example, openly proclaiming homophobia, restricting free speech, and forming opinions by spreading state propaganda . These developments are deeply worrying, as they oppose the idea of a united and liberal Europe and represent a major drawback to cooperative and collaborative efforts between the member states.
Instead of growing together, the EU is struggling to find consensus on urgent matters, sewing dominating skepticism and mistrust towards its institutions. Along with Brexit, plenty of groups have formed all over Europe, demanding to leave the Union. Such groups have even found space to be represented in the European Parliament by the far-right group “Identity and Democracy”. From within the EU, this conglomerate of nationalistic, populistic, and eurosceptic politicians tries to destructively reshape the EU by pushing for patriotic and nationalistic solutions, thereby sabotaging fruitful collaboration and partnerships between the member states.
In spite of all the evidence and warning signals, the European Union struggles to condemn these illiberal and anti-European tendencies openly. With toleration of such developments, instead of punishment, the EU will in the long run fail to preserve its integrity. It risks falling apart, only to find itself back in rivalry, isolationism, and aggressive nationalism, as was the case a century past.
Responding to these challenges needs to entail an uprising of the silent, pro-European majority and the creation of new, liberal coalitions. This essential reformation of EU institutions brings a more transparent decision-making process and achieves binding agreements between the member states. Besides, to preserve the idea of the EU, a return to the founding values is crucial, as well action by those of us in opposition to the populistic and narrow-minded pursuits of right-wing, revisionist, and inhumane politics all around Europe. Therefore, we should all stand up for the values we believe in and for the achievements we want to preserve. As Sir Winston Churchill would phrase it: “Let Europe arise!”.
Update: While this article was being written, the biggest refugee camp Moria (Greece) has caught fire whereupon their 13.000 inhabitants had to flee and are now homeless. Meanwhile, the European nations are not capable of finding a common agreement on granting asylum to these people in high need, haggling over every single refugee, and violating their humanitarian obligations.
Donations can be made at: https://donate.helprefugees.org/campaigns/moria-emergency/