63. Which Way is Europe Turning?

As chance would have it, I happened to be climbing Rome’s Spanish Steps on a beautiful clear day in March 1957 as the Treaty of Rome was being signed just on top of The Steps by the leaders of six European nations involved. There was little security and not much coverage of an event which I casually dismissed at the time as just another effort by Europeans to get their act together. I did remember reading Jean Monnet’s impassioned words on the need for the warring European States to get together: “There will be no peace in Europe if the States rebuild themselves on the basis of national sovereignty, with its implications of prestige politics and economic protection,” he declared. “The countries of Europe are not strong enough individually to be able to guarantee prosperity and social development for their peoples. The States of Europe must therefore form a federation or a European entity that would make them into a common economic unit.”1

Since then, and in part because of the creation of the European Union, there have been no wars between any of the major European nations, and much has been changed by their successful economic cooperation. Monetary union and freer movement for all have been most impressive. I could not have had any idea two generations ago about the impact the Treaty of Rome would have. Even from the air, the continent today looks very different. Every spring thousands upon thousands of farmed acres of Southern England are covered by the unfamiliar but brilliant yellow rapeseed flowers. Their oil is subsidized by the EU to produce ever larger surpluses of vegetable oil!

In the Mediterranean areas, thousands of small private olive groves with their fantastically sculpted trees, some of them dating back to the Middle Ages, are no longer being harvested or looked after. That is another side of the story. The bureaucrats in Brussels decided that olives were keeping millions of farmers in poverty. The olive trees so passionately tended for by successive generations were labor intensive and produced minimal incomes. So the social engineers decided that their only way out was to put them slowly but steadily out of business by subsidizing and encouraging the development of huge tracts of olive trees that could be harvested by machines and then have those olives processed by new high-tech presses.

Small wonder that today 40% of the European Commission’s expenditure is on agriculture. Its intrusiveness into the lives of those living from the land is enormous and the cause of much rural resentment is not shared by the urban population. Much has succeeded in different sectors of the European economy, but since the global crisis of 2008, the living standards of the Mediterranean countries has suffered. There have been damaging levels of youth unemployment, nasty austerity programs, growing economic inequality, banking sector corruption and growing resentment against the bloated bureaucratic administrations in Brussels and Strasbourg. These problems have all gone to fuel a rising tide of right-wing populist opposition.

When Pope Francis urges that the members of the European Union rediscover the convictions and core values of their founders, we know that fundamental issues are at stake. Indeed many of the voters have become tired of shallow calls for unity. They are irritated by the political acrimony from those aloof leaders in the European Parliament who seriously lack charisma. How to attract young idealists to represent their countries in the Parliament remains unanswered. An increasing number of citizens appear more united in their Euroscepticism and the desire to quit the Union than in supporting any efforts for change or reform.

The populists in France, Greece, Holland, Italy and the UK have been effective in fomenting discontent but less successful in presenting constructive solutions. Minority groups in the UK, including Scotland, are told by the populists to look at how well smaller European States like Norway and Switzerland, who have not joined the union, have done. Mark Reckless, the newly elected member of the UK Independence Party in the British Parliament, had written that “We can govern ourselves better than 27 other countries can do it for us. That is the positive and optimistic case for Britain leaving the EU and becoming an independent country trading with Europe but governing ourselves.”2 Indeed, various polls in the UK indicate that a plurality favor a British exit from the European Union. This has placed an opportunistic prime minister, David Cameron, in a corner, because he himself strongly supports a central role for Britain in the EU and recognizes that the proposed referendum to exit would be detrimental not only politically but also economically if it were approved.

English opposition to the EU is one of fundamental refusal to accept political, judicial and economic integration into the continent. The English want to protect their national sovereignty. The French opposition, spearheaded by Marie Le Pen and the Front National, does not see that the European Union is protecting them from a race to the bottom in which their wages and their employee benefits are being steadily reduced. They are opposed to the free-market capitalism they believe is being enforced on Europe by the United States. They want the “good life” with long holidays and not an American-style dog-eat-dog competition with 2 weeks holidays per year, weak health insurance protection, gated communities for the rich and ever growing inequality. Only 40% of the French people now believe membership in the EU is a good thing (down from 60% just three years ago.)

Beyond the populist protesters and demagogues, the more serious critics attack the economic short-termism of both Strasbourg and Brussels. The Guardian has written editorially that the EU leadership “must redefine its role and ambitions in a globalized, interconnected and more complex world.”3 There is a sense that there are no EU commissioners willing or able to take on controversial issues or to tackle monetary, fiscal or structural problems. “Everywhere, politicians have spent energy spinning stories so they can hang on to power, rather than solving problems,” wrote Hugo Dixon of The New York Times.4

In an effort to lift the national economies out of their depressive mood and to counter the rising populist tide, the European Commission is coming up with a modestly ambitious investment program. Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, announced a three-year 300-billion Euro ($375 billion) investment package in November saying it was to be seen as a “watering can” which could nurture the EU back to growth. “We are offering hope to millions of Europeans disillusioned after years of stagnation.” The Economist, however, mocked this as the proposal of an alchemist who was trying to use magical thinking.5

There can be no doubt that there is currently a growing sense of unease about the state of democratic politics in the EU. Timothy Garton Ash observed that “I have never known a time when there was so much pessimism about the future of the EU among those who have been its ardent supporters.”6 The division between the populist groups in Europe and the more traditionalist parties is large, but I do not think it is powerful enough to lead to a break up. Most Europeans want a continuation of peace on their continent, a respect for human dignity and fundamental rights for all, as well as an end to austerity.

The EU needs to demonstrate direction, vitality and vision before it can put an end to the inroads being made by populist demagogues. While big changes are under way in the extension of on-line shopping, the growth of internet politics via the social media and the equalization of women and men’s pay, no radical moves by the administrators in Brussels are currently in the planning stage for modernization of the Union itself.

Perhaps it should consider ways of reforming its structure:

Most of the eight dramatic proposals above have been suggested in greater detail in the blogs I have written over the past 18 months. I believe that to avoid a break-up or a breakdown of the European Community it is essential that populist demagoguery should be shown for what it is: negative, without a program, nostalgic for a past which never existed and yearning for certainties in a technology driven world which is adventurous, experimental and in many ways unknown.


1Jean Monnet, Speech to the French National Liberation Committee, 5 August 1943

2Mark Reckless, “Europe: should we stay or go?” The Observer, January 19, 2014

3“The Pope’s Message,” The Guardian Editorial Page, November 27, 2014, p.42

4Hugo Dixon, “How to counter Europe’s rising populism,” The New York Times, November 24, 2014

5Charlemagne, “Europe’s great alchemist,” The Economist, November 29, 2014, p.38

6Timothy Garton Ash, “Let a new generation speak up for Europe,” The Guardian, December 8, 2014, p.27