What's Happened to Europe?

News Abroad
tags: EU

Tom Clifford is an Irish journalist, currently based in China. He has written for Japan Times, Irish Independent, the South China Morning Post, Gulf News, the Prague Post and many other publications. He covered the Georgian War in 2008. 

A hundred years on, time to stumble again. 

The misunderstandings this time do not involve Belgium’s neutrality or Britain’s commitment to France. Though, as in 1914, events in Belgium and France could be pivotal.

Here’s a date to mark for your diaries. April 2017. That month could see Britain hold an in/out referendum on membership of the European Union and France could be set for a National Front president. Yes, the path to hell is paved with “good intentions.” Journalists are not prophets, else we would be racetrack bookmakers securing our fortunes. And while lessons can be gleaned from the past, historians too should be reluctant to offer predictions. It is difficult enough to understand what has happened without delving into the realms of what might be.

 But April 2017 is a date fraught with danger that could yet live in infamy.

It has come about by a potent cocktail of one part jingoism (Britain discussing an EU exit), two-parts xenophobia (the resurgence of the Far Right, especially in France), shaken with a large dash of internal division.

Well, the EU is a 28-member organization, even with Britain leaving and France giving the National Front candidate a home in the Elysee Palace, there are still 26 states to carry it forward, the optimists might say. But signs of paralysis are already apparent as seen by a weak and muddled repsonse to Vladimir Putin, the UK seeking to curtail the free movement of labor and a general sense the best is past. Taken together, they give the impression the EU is there for the taking or at least that it is less than the sum of its parts. Even within the EU, there are deeply disturbing indicators of a lack of leadership. Hungary’s government, with its onus on nationalism, looks increasingly and unapologetically out of step with what the EU should stand for. Which is, apart from easier trade, exactly what? The difficulty in answering that question goes to the heart of the matter.   

 The trade bloc that negotiates together, stays together, is a simple rule of economics. Appearing weak to the rest of the world may be a temporary blip, but Germany’s Bundesbank, with its emphasis on austerity, requires sacrificing growth prospects that the Bank of England and the US Fed Reserve would baulk at.   This, coupled with the notion that at some future date labor may not be able to go where the jobs are or else the UK walks, suggests that the EU will limp into the future rather than stride.

 The EU evolved from an accord (the steel and coal pact) designed to ensure Germany’s strength could never again be turned against France. A lovers’ embrace stemming from a noble idea but an idea whose basic fragility will become apparent if Britain leaves the EU and Germany has to deal with a nationalist France whose possible president, Marine le Pen, ridicules much of what the EU stands for, including the belief that for all its faults it stands for ultimately a better future. There is a palpable sense of drift. Le Pen may not win the presidency but it will seem to be within her grasp for the next decade or so. 

No leader of a major political party in Britain is actively advocating withdrawal from the EU. The British public have consitently backed EU membership in every opinion poll. But in April 2017 such a scenario may be a real possibility (British Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to hold a referendum if the Conservatives win the 2015 election, probably in April) bolstered by a belief that the EU’s best days are behind it and if Britain is to leave, might as well make it sooner rather than later. The “get-it-over-and-done-with’’ school of thought is gaining traction. 

The virus of nationalism has never been eradicated from European politics but its potency has been much diminished. This is cause for celebration in the centenary year of industrial-scale carnage on European fields. History does not, cannot by definition, repeat itself, but there are cycles in time that can resemble a previous era and the sense of impending crisis, of dangers not being addressed, even fully acknowledged, brings to mind how Europe must have seemed a century ago.

Europe is no longer an imperial power, for the first time in 500 years it does not control any major tracts of land outiside of the continent. That, too, is something to be celebrated. But it is sliding into a situation where Germany, already the prevailing power, is almost by default, going to be the dominant power, whether the UK stays or leaves.   And that, simply, is not what the EU is meant to deliver. That’s easy to see. What is more difficult to be is confident in the vision thing. People in the US disagree on many things but basically agree on one big thing. People in the EU don’t have the one big thing.  There is a vacuum. Nature abhors a vacuum and a sizeable slab of voters in Britain and France may feel the same way.

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