European Union: A destiny to shape together

21 November 2013
Público Lisbon

Buffeted by the crisis, the Portuguese are questioning their EU membership, after initially hoping it would bring them so much. But for them, as for other Europeans, the future must lie in the creation of a public space and the development of networks both economic and political.

Europe was, in the beautiful expression of [former prime minister] Mario Soares, the new destiny of a Portugal waking from the tragic dream of a [colonial] empire. With its integration into Europe, the Portuguese have entered an arena of values, democracy and solidarity that is the antithesis of the cynicism of the dictatorship: the promise, in short, of a quality of life that was not limited to economic growth.

The Portuguese are not even asking whether the serious crisis they are going through is a European problem: the prevailing notion is that they bear sole responsibility, or even that they’re the sole guilty party. Responsible, they feel, because they wanted to become European too soon; because to think of themselves as European was their overweening ambition.

They should rather have had to settle for remaining "poor and worthy" for several long and beautiful years more. "Illiterates, if need be", to get about "on the back of a donkey" on roads where death was waiting at every turn. What folly to claim to study, to dine, to travel – in other words, to live as citizens of the prosperous Europe! Despite 27 years having passed since joining, the European destiny should continue to be only a utopia.

Yet it’s the leaders of countries "not yet in such a serious crisis" who are the main culprits for the guilty feeling of the Portuguese; those who declare that the Portuguese, as well as the Spanish and Greeks, are citizens of another Europe. Even after the full integration of Portugal and Spain into the European project, the "south", a generic label, remains a category marking an intra-European division. Today, this north-south split is a serious threat to European unity.

Education, education, education

Despite the growing scepticism of much of the population towards its political parties, Portugal is a strong democracy

Despite the growing scepticism of much of the population towards its political parties, Portugal is a strong democracy. Its literacy rate is 94.8 per cent and it has recorded a strong growth in education, both in secondary education and at university, where between 1991 and 2011 the number of higher education graduates tripled.

The same can be said for doctorates and scientific research. The Portuguese have pushed through their emancipation. A whole generation of Portuguese are using the tools of the information society effectively, and social networks today are a gigantic forum of expression and communication for the middle class: 60 per cent of Portuguese households have access to broadband Internet. All this in a country that has adopted the European social model and that has a good health system, despite the threats posed to it by austerity, as well as a network of modern, though under-utilised, infrastructure.

Today, Europe’s fate is Portugal’s fate. All the member states are facing the same challenge: how to take advantage of the talents of all their citizens and to reforge the bonds of solidarity – the raison d'etre of the European Union.

All studies on the major global trends show that Europe's relative decline is inevitable. However, the European crisis, if nothing is done to stop it, can also usher in an absolute decline, due to well-known factors: an ageing population, a dearth of common policies, delays in technological innovation in leading-edge sectors such as biotechnology and 3D printing, a loosening of ties of solidarity that is threatening the European social system, and the re-nationalisation of the international policies of the major European powers in a world that has become multipolar.

It is all the more absurd in this context, and indicative of the inadequate response to the crisis, that thousands of young people, including Portuguese people, who are crucial to Europe if the continent wants to find a new model of development, are now unemployed and in search of a better future over new horizons.

No zero-sum game

The indicators are known; but the major European problem, which has a political nature, has been obscured. This is the absence of a European public space, the absence of mechanisms for participation in a supranational democracy, which makes it impossible for its citizens to mount a concerted response to the crisis and which explains the ease with which austerity policies are imposed – policies that cause recession and that are not only unpopular but largely ineffective.

The “Indignado” protesters of the various countries are lobbying at a national not European level, as if every crisis had an exclusively national ring-fence

The “Indignado” protesters of the various countries are lobbying at a national not European level, as if every crisis had an exclusively national ring-fence and could be resolved within the context of each separate state. This re-nationalisation of the crisis has another perverse effect. Steadily more impoverished, Europe’s middle classes are jeopardising democracy. They see relations with other countries, within the EU and elsewhere, as if it were all a zero-sum game. This is one of the underlying causes of the perilous ascent of populism and xenophobia.

The Portuguese (and their political parties) must grasp that the only options are pan-European options. It is by creating networks and trans-European movements, in a traditional or innovative mode, by creating the link between political parties and citizens through alternative political proposals, that we can find a way out of the crisis and prevent the absolute decline of the most extraordinary project to emerge from the 20th century.

The European elections of 2014 should be the occasion for the great debate on the future of Europe that the current situation demands, so as to lay down the conditions for the survival and the relevance of the union into the 21st century.

Factual or translation error? Tell us.