European Disharmony

In Contentious E.U., Alienation and Polarization on the Rise

Germany's Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble in talks with colleauges, and other European officials at a European Union finance ministers meeting in Brussels. Source: Reuters/Francois Lenoir
Germany's Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble in talks with colleauges, and other European officials at a European Union finance ministers meeting in Brussels.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The spirit of harmony that led to the creation of the European Union is woefully missing in the current political debate in Brussels.

  • Facts


    • From 1992 to 2012, the income of E.U. residents rose an average €172 ($230) a year.
    • Britain is mulling to leave the European Union as Serbia pursues membership.
    • Europeans have failed to give Russia a convincing argument for cooperation.
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Anyone who hopes to evaluate the European Union is pursuing an exercise in utopian thinking. It’s already been done by a few old men named Jean Monet, Alcide de Gaspari, Robert Schumann and Konrad Adenauer, when they had a sensational idea following the most successful attempt at European self-destruction to date: The notion that Europeans could choose to either kill each other or refrain from killing each other.

Coal and steel, for example, were too often used as justification for war and could also serve as grounds for peace, provided the players acted in ways that benefited everyone involved. The old men set a process in motion that is far from over, and hopefully will never end. Apparently they had been the modern thinkers of their age. After thousands of years of enmity, European unification became the biggest peace project in the continent’s history.

There was also economic success, which brought Europeans a previously inconceivable level of prosperity and social peace. It supported structurally weak regions and helped cash-strapped members out of acute difficulties. The strong countries, which like to lament their status as “net payers” to improve their standing among clueless voters, have also benefited. The Bertelsmann Foundation recently hired the prestigious Prognos Institute to review the EU’s finances over the last 20 years. Populist complainers won’t like the results:

Between 1992 and 2012, the European single market led to an average annual increase in EU citizens’ income by €172 ($230). All economies have benefited.

It’s hardly surprising that the nations that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet empire want to be members of the Western community. We should be surprised, however, that the existing EU members do not see this as a reason to rejoice. Instead, they nervously wonder: Which country will be at our door next? Do we want to let it in? Is it even ready for that? They are not pleased to see their horizon being expanded in a new direction. The “welcome visitors” mentioned in soap-box oratory quickly turn into “hucksters” who are left standing at the door.

We are experiencing astounding asymmetries. While the original EU member states are aging and exhibiting symptoms – perhaps not of dementia but certainly of exhaustion and melancholy –, young democracies on the fringes are vehemently asking to be admitted to the club. Is it possible that these countries will not only learn from the old members, but that the old in turn can learn from the new members?

The EU isn’t some boring classroom of model students, nor is it a schoolyard where older students keep watch over youngsters while they roughhouse. In fact, it’s a colorful assortment of overachievers and slackers, high flyers and troublemakers, players and nitpickers. Everyone is still a long way from graduation, but they’re getting their act together. The individual members encounter one another at different levels. They can focus on the things that bother them and, when push comes to shove, they somehow remain united. That’s the beauty of voluntary unions. Everything is more than the sum of its parts and no one is obliged to be perfect. Apparently the desire to become a member is more exciting than being one. When asked about the quintessence of his long life as a historian, Gordon A. Craig said: “The stars shine in the dark.” New applicants introduce reforms much more quickly than the existing members, who often sit back and relax, blame their mistakes on “the people in Brussels” and play the strict teacher.

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