EU: The Gloom Is Descending

With members selling Euro-skepticism, Austria’s Parliamentarians hope to re-engage citizens with humanist values

News | Christian Cummins | December 2010 / January 2011

"Fear is gaining ground" read the headline I caught over the shoulder of my neighbor on the Strasbourg tram. On its way to the European Parliament, we rolled passed a gloomy park. A solitary tree had lost all its leaves but for the very bottom branches and, in the wet morning breeze, even those were dropping off fast into a yellow pile. It was the only spot of brightness on this forlorn morning.

Although already 9a.m., it was as dark as dawn and the tree seemed a symbol of a Europe where hope is dripping away into depression.

Inside the Parliament they were fiercely debating the budget – and Ireland’s debt-crisis was dominating the talk. The Celtic Tiger had danced too closely with the City and had been reduced to a kitten. Now, humiliated and bitter, it had gone cap in hand to the EU for a $90 billion rescue package from European tax-payers that will see Ireland cede, critics fear, important parts of its financial sovereignty. No one seemed happy with the solution and the debate was filled with mutual recriminations and grave concerns about the implications of Ireland’s fate. Already the next domino, Portugal, was threatening to fall and everyone was wondering how many crises Europe could absorb.

SPÖ MEP Hannes Swoboda says that Europe is in a "double crisis" – an economic one and one of legitimacy.

"We failed to compliment the economic and monetary union with a political union," Swoboda said. "That includes of course economic policies. That was a mistake and we are seeing that now."

European national governments have been able to set their own economic agendas, even if that meant Ireland was allowed to build its growth too tightly around the property market. This apparent economic folly has had a direct impact on its European partners, and Swoboda believes there should have been some mechanism to prevent such risky national decision, and hopes to set one up to prevent it in the future. Greens MEP Ulrike Lunacek agrees, calling for more power for the European Parliament and not less.

But a call for more, not less, European control is going to be a problem in the voting booths of a Europe, where member state governments sell a disingenuous message that Brussels is the problem and they are the solution.

The next few months will be incredibly important for Europe, Lunacek says.  "We will be able to see if Europe can "do things together" and implement "meaningful regulations  for the banks, the markets and economic crisis." But there doesn’t seem to be a feeling among young people that the solution to their future economic security will be found in such debates as here in Strasbourg.

"They don’t see the added value of the European Union," Lunacek admits.

The young people who are losing their jobs in Ireland, for example, are not looking to move to more stable parts of this European job market of some 500 million citizens. Instead they are emigrating to places like Australia, Canada or New Zealand. In these past weeks the TV news has been awash with Irish mothers crying over dodgy Skype-connections and blaming, rather than the risk-taking Irish bankers, the intransigence of the European common currency. New Zealand is a tiny economy of four million people. You can’t get further away from Europe. True, the Kiwis might speak the same language as the Irish, but the migrations are a damning comment on faith in the European project.

This has been a dramatic, even traumatic year for the EU. I had dinner with Cornelia Primosch, the ORF’s television EU correspondent, in one of the vaulted cubby-hole restaurants that dot Strasbourg’s gingerbread streets. She only started her post in January and was soon dealing with the near collapse of Greece’s economy in spring and the new era of EU intervention. The bloc has never seemed busier and yet rarely has it been less popular.

This might please the curmudgeonly Washington Post columnist George Will, who has long been prophesying Europe’s downfall. Europe, he insists "remains a continent of distinct and unaffectionate peoples. There is no ‘European people’ united by common mores."

So is that true? Are we a band of mutually suspicious frogs, rosbifs, Piefke and Ösis, plus whatever demeaning moniker you want to choose for the dozen new eastern EU nationalities? It’s true that many on the American right bitterly hope that a continent they see as spoiled and profligate gets its comeuppance for those long-lunches, prolonged holidays and short working hours; there are certainly enough depressing episodes to suggest that Will has a point.

The budget session I watched that day was spiced up by a British MEP Godfrey Bloom, from the anti-European group called the UK Independence Party, saying "Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer" as German MEP Martin Schulz was making a speech. Bloom, who thinks climate change is a myth and that it is a folly to employ women "of a child-bearing age" in business, has the look and manner of a provincial pub landlord. You can only shake your head and despair at the juvenile imbecility of it all.

He stalked out of the chamber that day shrugging his shoulders like a stupid school-boy. Mad, you might say, but the episode adds to the general sense of depression.

Europe is sick, as is the USA. But it seems Europeans lack that innate US sense of self-belief that they can overcome the problems, and that is why EU politics is so interesting at the moment. Ulrike Lunacek hopes that Europeans will believe in the project again. She hopes that leaders will be able to communicate to their voters that the solution for young Europeans is common European economic policies "but better ones and different ones than in the past." For her, that means better social and ecological standards. She’s calling for a "Green New Deal" – investing in a new era where Europe could possibly lead the world in a period of ecological technology. And she hopes the EU can re-engage its citizens by prominently incorporating the social and humanist values that make people "proud to be European."

Europe’s sense of depression is understandable and will surely take more than wind-mills to restore citizens’ confidence. This monthly pilgrimage from Brussels to Strasbourg – a 200 million euro-per-year carbon-intensive PR folly in an age when the EU is preaching climate awareness and fiscal responsibility. Swoboda says it is also imperative that European politicians engage the public in a dialogue about what they are doing and why they feel it is important for Europeans’ well-fare. The age of the cold, faceless bureaucrat has to come to an end.

But one thing is for sure; once the moaning and groaning is over, we have to hope Europe as a project succeeds. With China rapidly returning to its logical role of a major world power and India surging ahead, it’s naïve to think any of our individual European national governments will have much sway in future global debates. Europe was side-lined at the Copenhagen climate summit last year, for example, because it couldn’t speak with a single compelling voice.

Without a strong Europe we will soon be living, to paraphrase Hannes Swoboda,  in a region that has to accept world decisions rather than help make those decisions. We’ll be a nostalgic continent of past glories. And that’s a fate we should all hope to avoid.

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