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European Union in disarray

S P Seth
The European Union is in disarray. It was probably the most successful regional organization, just short of becoming a political union of some of Europe’s bitter enemies as exemplified by WW11. It seemed that as part of the EU these countries might put all their bitter historical memories behind them to create a community of people creating a successful model of unity in diversity. All this seemed too good to be true. The very fact that all its member states cherished their national identities and were reluctant to surrender their respective sovereign status was indicative of a deep-rooted problem. More the institutional apparatus of the EU, with its headquarters in Brussels, was centralized impinging on national sovereignty, there started to grow disquiet/opposition in some member states.But EU was an economic success story, and some of its relatively poor members gained from generous subsidies doled out to them and even more so with easy and plentiful availability of credit with, virtually no questions asked. And that was until the global financial crisis hit in 2008 and the lenders wanted their money back as they (banks and other over-extended institutions) found themselves on the brink of disaster.But the most indebted European countries, like Greece for instance, had no way of raising all the money they owed. They were subjected to a strict regime of economic austerity or else face possible eviction from EU and economic ruin. Greece has become Europe’s basket case, but Portugal, Spain and even Italy are undergoing economic austerity because of extreme indebtedness.While the national sensitivities of EU members stood in the way of European political integration, such an incomplete EU project, half-pregnant, if you like, made effective solutions to its economic crisis rather hard and that continues to be the case. In the absence of political union, it hasn’t been possible to rationalize and harmonize different fiscal regimes, causing serious tensions among its member states. Germany, for instance, has regarded itself as the model for other EU members when it comes to economic management and prudence. As one commentator has pointed out, “The central problem is that Germany wants everyone to be more German, meaning thrifty, stable and willing to observe rules” basically because it has the economic wherewithal to practice it with higher economic growth and lower unemployment. And this was so, in large measure, because other EU countries enriched Germany by spending on German goods flushed with easy credit lent mostly by German banks, partly contributing to the financial crisis without acknowledging that Germany, EU’s richest economy, has been part of the problem.As Rana Foroohar points out in the New York Review of Books, “The bottom line: economic globalization ran ahead of political globalization, with consequences that now range from Brexit, and the rise of far right parties in France, Greece, Germany and elsewhere…” If the situation were already not complex enough, the influx of refugees from Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East only reinforced the paranoia fostered by extreme right parties in Europe. The referendum in UK to leave EU has legitimized, as if, the populist movements in some members states to quit the organization. The upcoming elections in Germany, France and Holland have made leaving the EU as the rallying point for extreme right parties. With Donald Trump’s election victory and his none-too-subtle encouragement to the break up of EU, the organization has come to be seen by many as the cause of all its problems.

It is important to remember that Trump had invited Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which was at the forefront of the Brexit movement, as a political celebrity at one of his election rallies. And after Trump won the election, he urged the British government to appoint him as Britain’s ambassador to the United States. And to make matters worse, Trump has also disparaged the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization, calling it ‘obsolete’. Lately, though, it has been toned down by his administration to demanding increased defense spending by NATO members; otherwise the US will moderate its commitment for collective defence.

At the same time, the perceived security threat from Russia is not seen as real, though again, at a formal level and to re-emphasize Western solidarity, the new Trump administration is taking to equivocation. Interestingly, when Trump was asked in a television interview about his advocacy of friendship with Putin who is a ‘killer’, Trump retorted that that the US was not so ‘innocent’. By thus drawing moral equation between the two countries, Trump was pilloried even by some on his own side, but such is his ‘appeal’ that nothing sticks from his outrageous comments on women to acknowledging that the US had been responsible for killing people.

While in Europe, a major new research project has found pervasive anxiety among people about the state of affairs. This major study, led by the British-based think-tank, Demos, reportedly focused on Britain, France, Germany, Sweden, Poland and Spain. According to Sophie Gaston, head of international projects at Demos, “Quite a large proportion of citizens in Europe are living in a state of what we describe as acute fear.”

The crisis of fear, she said, was the product of decades of economic, social and technological change. In economic terms, whole communities had stagnated or fallen behind. She added, “Some people just don’t feel comfortable with the changes such as cultural diversity, some people feel there has been too much focus on the rights or privileges of certain groups at the expense of others.”

The resultant populism has some regional variations, but there is an overall sense of pessimism and general anxiety, with France as most concerning. Because: “It [the French case) is the most febrile, pessimistic, fearful mood, it seems the most deep-seated and it is very difficult to see how we could transform things in France… We can’t underestimate the psychological impact of an ongoing state of emergency”, following a succession of terrorist attacks.

Even in Germany, the most successful economic case, many people are fearful of what might be in store. Ms Gaston said that German political leaders interviewed for the study seemed out of touch with the populace, describing their fears as “misplaced hysteria” when in fact citizens had very concrete, specific fears.

The study concluded that while “There is still a majority baseline support for open societies, we just need people who can actually champion them.” And: “Until we see some serious leadership from liberals it will feel as though liberalism is dead [in Europe].” Ms Gaston would rather believe that liberalism is “under siege” [and] it can be resurrected”, a faint hope I would say.

If this is the case with Europe, what might one say about the United States with Trump openly declaring his country’s cherished institutions as corrupt and needing his harsh remedies, that are too painful and dreadful to think.

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