Europe at the edge of an abyss – the UK wants to leave the EU; populism is on the rise across the entire continent, rising unemployment and continued political instability in the Eastern European regions – the list is seemingly endless.
Please note that I am also speaking of Europe and not just the European Union for the values that we share are not constrained by the borders of the EU. But what are these values that we share? The right of free movement that derives from Schengen, equal rights for all citizens before European law, and most of all social values as the EU is built upon solidarity – just to name a few of them. Jean-Claude Juncker has begun to develop the “European Pillar of Social Rights” defining the rights of Europeans in addition to the Human Rights proving his awareness of the difficulties that arising in the Union and his desire to establish something for next generation of Europeans: social and economic rights.
The threat of populism
The success of populism in Europe is probably the greatest threat to democracy but also to the sole existence of the Union. The fact that populism tends to be quite common in democracies does nothing to improve the situation. But what even is populism and what is it caused by? This monster threatening to devour the EU?
It is difficult to find the reasons for populism as there is a general lack of a common definition. The political scientist Cas Mudde defines populism as a “thin ideology” where the pure people and the corrupt elite represent the only two sides. Jan-Werner Müller adds that populists claiming they are the only ones representing the people and all others are illegitimate representatives cannot be forgotten.
Reasons for populist movements have been interpreted as the delayed response to modernisation – in regards to Europe to the transformations that have happened due to economic globalisation. Another reason for the success of populism is the continued negative portrayal of populist parties in the media, thwarting the effort to provide neutral insight.
Looking at populism on a global scale, it has also proven to be on the rise in America. In the U.S. the gap between rich and poor, educated and not educated has always been bigger than in Europe and it continues to grow further, thus cementing populism’s belief of the “pure people” vs. the “corrupt” elite. While Trump himself cannot necessarily be defined as a populist according to Obama but rather as a xenophobic his election as U.S. president proves the rising support for populism.
We cannot deny China’s rise in the Eastern Asia anymore, have they become the most powerful nation of the developing world. China’s astonishing economic growth in recent years as well as its efforts to increase their active diplomacy and stabilizing their energy policies, China has begun to gain more influence in East Asia. With Trump controlling the U.S. in the West and China and Russia in the East, we are enclosed by potential superpowers. We must prove to stay loyal to our roots as Europeans, show our strengths and ultimately conquer our weaknesses to become a global player and not just a pawn. This is our chance, our opportunity, our need to grow together as one in Europe, to become a force to be reckoned with.
Going global means also questioning the sustainability of the euro. The benefits of the euro on a global scale include the euro area being considered more popular for third countries to come for business reasons further encouraging trade and investment. But we must also be aware of the difficulties a common currency brings. Not only are the different growth rates of the European economies not accounted for but have also led to the need for bailouts in some Member States. Originally meant as political project, the euro was supposed to bring affluence to the European states and further integration in political and economic areas but have ultimately brought stagnation and even worse consequences thus leading to even more division in Europe. The high unemployment rates that have developed after the financial crisis have stayed continuously high and led to unrest among citizens, prompting them to vote for radical right or left parties. Without reforms of the EU’s fiscal policies that finally bring shared prosperity for a longer and more stable period, the euro cannot survive. Europe has to be stronger. Without increasing solidarity, the euro will become a failed project.
United in diversity
We, the Europeans, need to unite. To become united in diversity. Diversity is our greatest weakness but also our greatest strength. Weakness because of communication issues, resistance to change and the inability to want to understand each other. Weaknesses because of the culture clashes and conflicting histories of countries across our continent. Strength because of increased adaptability, variety of viewpoints, more effective execution of tasks and because nowhere else in the world has a project like the European Union been this successful. Strengths because our continent is rich of different languages and cultures, represented in things such as architecture, art and cuisine. What makes us different from all the other nations in the world is that despite our differences we are united in diversity. United despite our diversity.
The power to change, to become more stable lies with us, the youth of Europe. Are we not the generation that grew up never knowing war? Are we not the generation that has only ever known one currency? Are we not the generation that never had to undergo tedious border controls? Are we not the generation that grew up with so many liberties – such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion – without ever having had to fight for them? We have taken all those things and much more for granted. We do not even know what is at stake if we do not start acting now.
“Nothing comes from nothing”
Now the time has come for us to work to uphold these values. All those things have become natural to us and we cannot imagine living without them thus, we need to work together as one to keep them in place. Because we have never known a different Europe, we have become used to all those things just being there without ever having had to put in any effort, never having to work for it, we are not doing anything. But we have to do something to uphold the EU’s achievements. We are a new generation. While the generation of our parents has created the EU, it is our duty now to develop this project to make it more sustainable. Nihil fit ex nihilo. Latin for “nothing comes from nothing” meaning without any effort, you will not get anything in return. I find this extremely true in regards to the EU.
The European Union is a two-way street. It does not just work one way with us getting all the benefits. It is the result of hard work and our willingness to invest into such a project. We are built upon the basic principle of solidarity. It is commitment that two sides make: The Member State and the European Union, both ends need to uphold their part of the bargain. We cannot expect the EU to step in for whenever it gets difficult for us as a Member State but not do anything in return. An example being the on-going refugee crisis. It is a crisis that affects the entire EU, some Member States more than others, but we are not working together to solve it. Countries like Hungary that have gone as far as building a fence around its borders to keep refugees out while countries like Germany, Austria and Sweden are taking in and working on the integration of refugees constantly. We need to all work together instead of trying to only do what benefits us as a Member State best. We cannot overcome a crisis of this extent otherwise. It is our duty to work together because otherwise we cannot uphold our core value: solidarity.
Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek. – Barack Obama
How you may ask? I am not calling you to arms but I am calling you to action. Become active in your European citizenship. Use all the possibilities you are given. Promote European values. Go vote. Join an organisation that stands for these values like the Union of European Federalists. Check out “Why Europe?” on Facebook. There are many possibilities. Start small.
It is easy to keep on criticising the faults of the Union and it is more difficult to act in order to begin a change. But we cannot wait any longer for someone to save us for we must save ourselves. Nobody but us can bring the change we need.
Because, who, if not us is going to step up for our values? Who, if not us is going to stand for a stronger, more united Europe? The future of Europe lies in our hands. It is as much our burden as it is our responsibility to save Europe from falling apart. Let’s start now. For our future depends on what we do now.