Where is the union headed? (4): A harsh wake-up call

28 May 2010 – Gazeta Wyborcza (Warsaw)

For years, the EU has sought comfort in the politically correct fiction which states that all member states have equal rights. Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev believes that Europe's citizens and political elites will now have to embrace a more hard-nosed language if we are to succeed in defending the European model.

Milada Jędrysik: How serious is the Greek crisis? Could it really result in the disintegration of the eurozone?

It is very serious. It is the first time that the eurozone has been faced with the prospect of the insolvency of a member state. Greece is the first real test for the euro, and it has highlighted a conflict, which is at the heart of the current crisis. The financial markets want to see more integration in the eurozone, but this is in direct contradiction to the political trend in Europe, where public opinion has never been more eurosceptic.

To what extent has Europe been divided by the crisis?

We are no longer dealing with an East-West division, which has now been replaced by a North-South divide. Countries like Estonia and Poland are a lot closer to Germany than Italy or Spain. Populations in northern countries are increasingly opposed to the redistribution of wealth, and they do not want to see Greece rewarded for its behaviour. And the North-South rift is just one of a number of divisive factors. We are also seeing the development of new alliances, with France attempting to occupy an intermediate position among them. Then there is also the divide between the countries of the eurozone and others. So in effect, we now have a two-speed Europe, in spite of the efforts of new EU members and other peripheral countries who fought to prevent this from occurring. Another major division is the one that exists between large and small countries. For ten years, we took comfort in a notion that had the advantage of being politically correct, but which was nonetheless a fiction: we pretended to believe that Germany and Greece had the same rights. Now this is no longer the case, we can no longer ignore the fact that big countries are big, and small countries are small. And finally there is a critically important fourth division that separates countries that are governable from those that are not.

What countries apart from Greece would you include in this category?

Spain, Italy, Bulgaria and Romania... The Eastern Europeans are more willing to tighten their belts, because they had to endure ten years of austerity when they were in the process of joining the EU. But this does not apply to dysfunctional countries with powerful trade unions like Greece and Portugal, where politics is defined in terms of privileges and not by the reality at issue.

Euroscepticism in Northern Europe has been boosted by the perception that the EU has different rules for different members. On 9 May, this was reflected by the punishing defeat inflicted on Chancellor Angela Merkel in the North-Rhine Westphalia regional election by voters who were convinced that she was too indulgent with the Greek government. Much the same thing happened in the March regional elections in the Netherlands where the radical parties campaigned against the redistribution of wealth. The Greek protest is essentially different in as much as it is an anti-colonialist movement against a perceived attempt to transform Greece into a protectorate.

The increasing predominance of these two trends will effectively undermine the basic politically functioning of the EU. And we haven't even touched on the problem of demography: to sustain the European economy we will need a significant influx of immigrant workers, and this is also in direct contradiction to the current trend in immigration policy. In short, yet another dilemma!

If it still remains a possibility, what should politicians be doing to save the European project?

Experts are arguing for greater political and economic integration. But the question is how do we sell this principle in nation states? Initiatives of this kind are almost always punished at election time. Only the governments in the countries that have recently joined the EU have been able to overcome the voter backlash that inevitably results from attempts to strengthen integration.

Because they have something to offer, not just blood, sweat and tears.

That is the main problem. Political platforms are increasingly focused on scaring voters, no one seems to be offering any incentives. The European project is an increasingly marginal issue, and it is treated as such. Even Europe itself is no longer convinced of its own importance. Two years ago the polls showed that people believed that Europe still offered the world's best living conditions, even though they were not convinced that it offered the brightest prospects for the future. And I think this view — that Europe is a present without a future — still prevails. So we should explain to European citizens what they can expect from their lives in the near future. Europeans are fond of their way of living, their civil rights, and also their standard of living. I believe we should make it clear that defending the Union is the best way to defend the European way of life.

So if you want to sustain a lifestyle that includes a decent home, a large car and holidays in exotic countries, then you should support the European Union.

I think we should make it clear. On its own, Germany alone will not be able to defend the German way of life. And this is certainly true of Bulgaria and Romania, for whom the German way of life remains an aspiration. Political debate in the Union should not be solely confined to the discussion of procedure and the transparency of institutions.

We need to see a return to more old-fashioned politics that aims to build confidence and to explain issues to the electorate. And this may yet occur, because there is scope for improvement in the economy, and we are attempting to establish the conditions for this improvement while battling against the tide of public opinion. It's not that voters are wholly opposed to improving the economy, but it is easier to protest against a "plot" orchestrated by the political elite than it is to do something constructive.

The political elites will have to accept that that only way to save the European project is to accept that they will not be able to go it alone. In the 1950s, people trusted the political elites, who were seen to share a common experience with the rest of the population. However, things are different today.

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