In the first decade of the 21st Century, Europe found itself in the eye of a perfect storm.
Globalisation had slowly filtered its way into the continent’s industrial heartlands, obliterating jobs in places that hadn’t known economic privation since the end of the Second World War.
At the same time, economic migrants from Eastern Europe were appearing in towns and cities throughout Western Europe, as the initial restrictions on free movement of people, included in the Treaty of Nice for the comfort of skeptical voters, expired.
Voters began to make a link between their declining living standards and the EU, as embodied in the free movement of people rules that allowed Poles and Slovkaks live in the same neighbourhoods as they did.
Then, in 2008, the Eurozone debt crisis hit, even deeper economic contraction ensued, and the countries of the European Union divided into 2 camps.
On the one side were the apparently rogue states, who had run up unsustainable public debt, and who now couldn’t borrow any more, forcing them to borrow from their more prudent neighbours, who in returned demanded painful fiscal reforms.
On the other side were the apparently more prudent nations, who had lived within their means, and who were now un impressed with having to bail out their seemingly profligate neighbours.
Every couple of weeks, the leaders of the member states seem to be facing down a new crisis, and the value of the currency plummeted as investors readily speculated that the Euro would not be a part of Europe’s future.
The credibility of the European Unions institutions, particularly the European Central Bank and European Commission, sank to new lows, as both struggled to explain they did not have the legal remit to make the decisions the media demanded of them, and finding a solution to the crisis was the responsibility of elected politicians, not bureaucrats and central bankers.
Gradually, as painful reforms were implemented, and risk adverse investors ran out of alternatives to sovereign debt, the crisis abated, and the Euro began to recover its poise and value.
The political fallout was more sustained, however. Both left and right wing governments were unceremoniously removed from power by angry electorates, pathing the way for further discord as their successors failed to live up to their grandiose pre-electoral promises.
Most notably, the European Parliament elections of May 2014 returned the largest ever quotient of aggressively anti-EU MEPs.
In particular, both France and the United Kingdom returned a majority of hard right and anti-EU MEPs (from the Front Nationale and UKIP respectively) while the Italian populist party, the 5 Star Movement, who advocate Italy’s withdrawal from the EU, and are led by television comic Beppe Grillo, also significantly increased its presence in the parliament.
Even Germany, ever the bedrock of the European ideal, managed to return a neo-Nazi MEP.
While euroscepticism had always been present in the European Parliament, it had never previously been regarded as a threat to the political mainstream. This European Parliament elections of 2014 changed that, and now Europe’s latest batch of political leaders, most of whom have no personal recollection of horrors of Europe’s military history, were tested on their commitment to Schuman’s ideals.
The results were not encouraging. First out of the traps was the French President Francois Hollande, whose Socialist Party had replaced the centre-right government of Nicholas Sarkosy in 2012. At the time of the European Parliament elections, Hollande’s popularity was at an all time low, after spending the 2 years since his election failing to deliver a series of spectacular pre-election promises.
In a televised address in the aftermath of the election, Hollande gushed with typical hubris:
“I am a European, my duty is to reform France and to change the direction of Europe.”
He elaborated on what he meant by “changing” Europe.
“This cannot continue. Europe has to be simple, clear, to be effective where it is needed and to withdraw from where it is not necessary.”
Hollande’s sentiments were echoed around Europe by other political leaders, but his intervention had a significance all of his own.
Firstly, Hollande’s comments have to viewed in the context of his startling fall in popularity, and his party’s abysmal performance in the European Parliament elections. Hollande’s political difficulties had nothing to do with the European Union, and everything to do with his mismanagement of both the French economy and the expectations of French voters.
Secondly, Hollande is the leader of one the Unions largest economies, and founding members, and of a nation that has probably suffered more than any other from military conflict. It is the same nation from which Robert Schuman derived his ideal of European co-operation, having seen at first hand the potential for destruction in the absence of that co-operation.
Hollande’s lurch into anti-EU populism, in an obvious attempt to shore up his political future, is a perfect example the primary threat to the future of the European Union, namely that Europe’s current political class, both Europhile and Euroskeptic alike, are not imbued with the historical significance of European unity, and instead regard the European Union as a convenient scapegoat on which to project the political failings of the respective nation states.
If the leader of France can so readily engage in self-interest, at the expense of a political project that quite literally saves lives, many of which would probably have been French, what hope is there for the continuing existence of the European Union?