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 After Brexit the EU is once again in the eye of the storm. That said, we should not forget that the European Union is just an organisation and as such it has and probably will always have strengths and weaknesses. What is far more worrying is the general loss of momentum of the idea and process of European integration, which once was seen as a noble project but in the last ten-fifteen years seems to have lost any appeal to European hearts and minds. A lot of explanations have been proposed but we claim that two are crucial: the relentless rise of neoliberalism and the errors of Europe’s political classes.

 

Figures sometimes are truly telling. Since 2004 the EU economy has grown by a modest 1%. Reports show that inequality and poverty have risen as well. Youth unemployment has reached appalling figures such as 65.1% in Calabria, 56.8% in Andalucía, and 55.9% in Sicily, all of which are regions worldwide famous for tourism and heritage. It should then be no surprise that French youth of Northern African origins might be attracted by radical Islam, or unemployed Southern Italians join the units of the highly profitable criminal organisation, the ‘ndrangheta. The uncertainty and fear boosted by neoliberalism (the ‘liquid world’ described by Bauman) subtly trigger xenophobia, racism, and nationalism, and particularly where the seeds had long remained dormant. Wealthier countries (Sweden, Denmark, The Netherlands, Britain – as we have witnessed after the referendum) are not immune. With the partial exception of Greece, where Golden Dawn’s far right has won parliamentary seats since 2012, the other Southern European countries have somewhat resisted the ‘right-wing wave’. This can be explained by the importance of family savings (which in countries like Italy are a real form of ‘welfare state’) and the role played by local and civic institutions. Movements such as Italy’s Five Star or Spain’s Podemos have re-invigorated local democratic politics, which has strong roots in Italy’s civic tradition. Yet Italy is also home to rising xenophobia, and we wonder what could happen if large banks such as Unicredit collapsed in the coming months. If we move to Eastern Europe we meet some countries which are often labelled as ‘success stories’, but their realities on the ground are quite different. In the same period (2004-14), Slovakia has grown by 3.9% and Poland by 3.8%. Yet the numbers conceal a reality which also comprises unemployment, low levels of innovation, and high dependence on Western capital and trade. Poland’s poorer regions in the East tend to support the populist ‘Law and Justice’ Party of Duda and Kaczynski, while right-wing populist leaders have reached power in countries such as Bulgaria, Romania, and of course Hungary.

 

Flickr/ Konrad Lembcke

 

Europe’s challenges, however, are both East and West. The post-referendum convulsions have exposed the fragility of a political class that for too long has remained Eton- and Oxford- centric and does not represent the high complexity and variety of British society. Well-established parties, especially on the moderate left (French Socialists, but also Spain’s PSOE and Germany’s SPD), have long been unable to express new vision and leadership. Their platforms oscillate between Jeremy Corbyn’s proposals for re-nationalisations to Emmanuel Macron (France’s Minister of the Economy, he has formally become independent but holds a key position in a Socialist government)’s neoliberal ideas. Such uncertainties, which are boosted by the necessity to cope with the ever faster pace of economic and social life, are often reflected in the increasing role played by ‘Grand coalitions’, which are becoming a ‘new normal’ in many EU countries. ‘Grand coalitions’ made sense in the age of the Great Depression and World War Two, or in countries with severe social and cultural divides such as Belgium. In the latest decade they have taken roots in Germany (2005-09 and again since 2013) and Italy (since 2013, after a ‘technocratic’ experiment), while many other states are experiencing other forms of coalition (see Greece, the UK in 2010-15, Austria) or even minority governments (in Denmark or Ireland). After two elections in seven months, Spain is then still unable to form a government; the two main traditional parties, the Socialists and the People’s Party, have altogether garnered a mere 50.7% of the overall votes. ‘Grand coalitions’ have become an easy short-term fix to the rise of new forces on the left and especially on the right, but they tend to defend the status quo and confirm the myth (which has more than a grain of truth) of political classes’ increasing lack of accountability. Nationalists have thus an easy game in capturing people’s fears. Can Europe keep accepting Hungary’s Prime Minister Orban’s rejection of liberalism? Can Europe tolerate the rise of parties with paramilitary wings such as Hungary’s Jobbik? Or do we have to wait the possible rise of Mrs Le Pen to the French presidency – a fact that would mean the end of European integration as we know it?

 

In order to avoid a general collapse, we reckon the EU should act fast. Some countries should proceed with further integration and organise a core with clearly defined federal competences, leaving a door open to others who might want to join later. The spirit of the ‘ever closer union’ would thus be revitalised. At the same time, the EU needs stronger legitimacy, and new EU elections should be organised soon, with a large campaign, a clear political mandate to each European party, and a strong link between the elections and the composition of the Commission, which should become a real EU government, even if at the start limited in scope. The EU should then gain citizens’ trust by enacting strong measures to tackle unemployment and poverty, and get rid of the straitjacket of the Stability Pact. A Keynesian program should instead be adopted, including large programs of workers’ exchanges across EU countries. Such exchanges would enhance the pro-European spirit and expose EU citizens to different cultures within the Union. Those countries which do not respect EU values should then be sanctioned. To return to Hungary’s case, strengthening the country’s sense of community and civicness is a commendable aim, but proposing its transformation into an ‘illiberal democracy’ (which in many senses is a contradiction in terms) goes against basic EU values.

 

The programs sketched above might sound ambitious, but there is little time to wait. Europe has to survive in a global age in which competition is tough and new powers are gaining ground. An EU of populist, nationalist parties will likely combine neoliberalism and nationalist rhetoric, in a kind of toxic blend which also reminds us of Trump’s electoral campaign. Leaving Europe in the hands of the Orbans or Marine Le Pen would not be kind to us and the future generations – to say the least. 

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