Negative Attitudes

Powerful, Afflicted Europe

europa on her bull_effect
Battered maybe, but Europa is still riding her bull.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Europe is dealing with pressure from home and abroad, and a lack of respect from Washington and Beijing. The E.U.’s achievements in dealing with huge crises should be recognized.

  • Facts


    • The pope said this year that there is a “general perception of tiredness and aging” in Europe.
    • Europe was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012.
    • Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, published a book in 2013 entitled “The Chained Giant: Europe’s Last Chance.”
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So this is what European success stories look like: a telephone conference, a tweet, and a press statement.

It took the eurogroup a mere nine lines to tell Greece that it has done everything to satisfy its partners and would be given further financial aid. The message could not have been more sober – but this agreement is actually quite spectacular.

Just two weeks ago it looked like the worst would happen. The Greek and German finance ministers were facing off, a “Grexit” loomed. Would Hellas end up in the arms of Vladimir Putin?

It was the end of the European Union as we knew it.

Now, the Greeks are back in order, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has approved the deal and the European Union will survive. It’s a massive success.

But was there champagne? No, not even a beer. 

Why is it so hard for the European Union to accept its own successes? Why is it always the same pattern, first  in the euro crisis and now with Russia — first come the doomsday prophecies and then, when the E.U. comes to an agreement, there is not even a sense of relief.

Apparently, self-assertion is not part of the European Union’s portfolio.

It begs the question:Who is communicating this repeatedly negative narrative about the European Union?

The main source and the main city is Brussels. Ironically, it is here that many talk down the successes of the European Union. In the backrooms of the expensive restaurants, think tanks and MP offices there is consistent bad talk about all the good things that make up the European Union, a kind of Brussels blues.

When an official senior MP was questioned in Brussels recently about why the European Union was discussed so negatively, his answer was: “Because it is so negative.”

When one of the most senior representatives of the European union was asked whether the E.U. was doing badly, he responded, “Bad is a euphemism in this case!”

Anyone wanting to delve a bit deeper into Brussels’ depression should know some facts.

The E.U.’s per capita income is lower than that in the United States but almost three times as high as that of Russia. Life expectancy in the E.U. is 81 years, which is two years more than in the U.S. and eleven years more than in Russia. 

The E.U. is under massive internal political pressure because it is moving closer together and experiencing growing pains.

And the pressure from outside is even more severe. The Islamic State is raging; Mr. Putin is testing how far he can go using political tricks and armed forces.

The E.U. is an evolving world power. It is maybe even experiencing its third renaissance after the Treaty of Rome (1957) and the phase between introducing the euro and the eastward expansion (2002/2004).

Powerless, old and used-up – that is the picture that the rest of the world has of Europe.

American professors and Chinese communists are of the same opinion. Even the Pope recently joined in bashing the euro. In Europe, there is a “general perception of tiredness and aging”, he said. This is what the pope told the European Parliament. Did any of the delegates protest? No, quite the opposite.

Even French bestselling author Michel Houellebecq’s most recent novel was read in this way. It tells the story of an Islamic theocracy about to take over a Europe that was expecting such a takeover. It was difficult for Brussels to understand the solidarity of Europe’s leaders after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo as part of our European momentum.

Apparently, self-assertion is not part of the European Union’s portfolio.

There are obvious explanations for this negativity. History is partly to blame. The European Union was founded on the ruins of two World Wars. The loss of its colonies added to the trauma. Depleted and defeated world powers were clinging on to one another – this is one way to read the story of European integration.

Two years have passed since the E.U. experienced one of its greatest moments, in Oslo, when it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Another explanation is the attitude of the others. “Fuck the E.U.,” uttered by European State Secretary Victoria Nuland, has become the dictum in Washington. This applies to the euro crisis as well as the Ukraine.

In Beijing too, the political elite is showing its disdain quite openly. Mr. Putin, too, is making fun of “Gayropa.” Sometimes this kind of talk is economically motivated and sometimes politically. In any case, it is easy to decipher.

Two years have passed since the E.U. experienced one of its greatest moments. It was in Oslo, when the continent was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. One shouldn’t take this award too seriously but it was an important gesture back then.

It reminded everyone what the European Union had achieved over the past five decades: peace and democracy, security and stability. But it was also a reminder that the European union must not lose itself in the small details of its crisis management.

One person in Oslo was not in the mood to party back then. Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, was sitting at the bar of the Oslo Grand Hotel with a gloomy expression on his face the night before the awards.

He painted a dark picture of European politics – its lack of courage and clarity, disintegration and surfeit of national egos.

A few months after the award ceremony, Mr. Schulz published a book called “The Chained Giant: Europe’s Last Chance.” It starts with the sentence: “For the first time since the war, the demise of the European Union is actually a realistic scenario.”

For a book, this may not be a bad beginning, but could one imagine a French or British politician writing the same sentence about his country?

It is undeniable that the E.U. is in one of the biggest crises in its history. This is true at an institutional level, with the bailout funds and the European banking supervision. Both of these developments would have been unthinkable five years ago. It is especially true as far as the substance of national politics is concerned.

Europe is still a force to be reckoned with. But out of all places, this message has not yet been received in Brussels, the heart of the union.


This is an abridged version of a piece that appeared in Die Zeit newspaper. To contact the authors:

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