By Diego Marani
Diego Marani is a translator at the European Commission, a writer and a journalist
Europe is a continent of deep historical differences, based on geography and religion. But what is on the way to destroy the European project is a new series of economy-based divides. The solution is more integration.
Looking at a map of Europe, the first impression is one of complexity. Compared to many other areas of the world, Europe is thick with differences that the benign embrace of the European Union cannot erase. The shapes of our countries are carved in different colours marking boundaries that it took centuries and innumerable wars to draw and that still today we consider sacred. One of the dogmas of modern international law is indeed the preservation of what we call territorial integrity of one country, a different way to mean borders. To some extent, borders are what keep us together. Only beyond secure borders are we ready to take into consideration the existence of some kind of European common ground and envisage any further progress towards some kind of European unification. Even with this precondition, nationhood remains something to which we want to be able to come back, the only kind of loyalty we truly recognize.
The divisions of Europe are manifold, according to the point of view one takes. The first divide is that of language. Though behind different languages often one finds similar ways of thinking, language is nonetheless a powerful mark of identity and plays an important role in the definition of an individual. This is not a difference we should aim to erase but rather a cultural diversity we should be glad to preserve. Those between North and South are perhaps the most visible and traditional differences in Europe. They are defined by climate more than by human action. They form part of our history. East and West have long been divided by a political border and economic differences are still there to mark what was once the Eastern Block under communist rule. But there are other, less visible though not less profound differences that run through the European continent and, more meaningful, through the European society. Religion has long been a motive of profound divide in Europe. Protestants of many confessions and Catholics do not share the same vision of life, do not have the same approach to the economy, to work, to civic duties, to rights and personal freedom. These differences do not concern only believers. They also shape the mentality of societies in general, so deeply they are rooted in our traditions of thought. Quoting Max Weber, capitalism is a protestant invention; still today countries with a Catholic tradition do not perform in this economic system as well as protestant ones. The notion of state and of its mission is not commonly shared by all Europeans. Here too, we all have different visions of what a state should be and do. To some extent, the nation state is a protestant invention too. The old Catholic ideal was one of universal values and of an international community of Christians that had nothing to do with the notion of fatherland developed by the romantic thought. Also the fundamentally religious concept of sin has a different meaning in catholic and protestant countries. This may seem irrelevant in secular times, but what makes the difference between good and evil is nonetheless a central notion for any civilisation.
All these differences do not necessarily tend to dissolve with the growing integration of Europe. They remain in European society, blurring even more its divisions. Nonetheless, the more Europeans get acquainted with each other, the more they travel and live together, the more they will develop a common ground on which, in the long term, it might be possible to found a more universal set of values. It is therefore reasonable to expect that time will smooth today’s differences in the European society and bring more homogeneity.
But what is today dividing Europe the most is not the ancient and well known inventory of its historic, religious and cultural differences. Rather, the main fracture derives from the uncertainty and indecision about its future.
The European project was born to rebuild Europe on a new basis after the destruction of the Second World War. Resources and markets were put in common in order to avoid any competition among European states that could lead to war again. This pattern of cooperation was effective and produced a greater economic integration. But when it reached its limits it became obsolete. The common market and the sharing of resources were not enough to unite Europe. Living conditions, revenues, interests were still too different. In order to go forward, the European project needed a more decisive jump towards political integration, getting over the old pattern of the nation state. The federalist option that for some time had been seen as a possible way forward, was abandoned when it became clear that the former communist countries would soon join the Union. At that point it was considered that a federalist system would have been inadequate, as it would have put together countries with too great disparities. The target was then set for a deeper integration to be built around two pillars: the common currency and the so called Social Europe package. Those were to be the foundations of a new and enlarged common market, completed with the freedom of movement for goods and people, that in time would have created the conditions for a new federalist phase. But of the two, only the common currency was accomplished. The Social Europe package was sabotaged by the supporters of a more neoliberal economy, thriving globally on speculative finance, that in the European dimension saw in the opening of the eastern bloc new opportunities for cheaper workforce. From this moment onward, the European project has been losing its coherence and living a period of endless stalemate.
Today the inability of governments to give the European project a clear direction opens power vacuums that are occupied by institutions that do not have a political vocation, such as the European Central Bank. The national governments still refuse to give up sovereignty to a federal structure in Brussels but are unable to preserve their own sovereignty against the push of the globalisation of economy and the uncontrollable power of finance markets. Europe must be more competitive but is unable to have a common strategy towards the outside world and to protect its citizens from the consequences of globalisation. The result is an erosion of salaries and an increase of social differences all over Europe, all this for the sake of competitiveness and public debt control: the two dogmas of the liberal economy. These have become the new pillars of the European project and have unleashed a new kind of competition among Member states for cheaper salaries. The delocalisation of industries has become common practice and the migration of workforce has created social tensions all over Europe. Nation states are again in competition, this time not for resources but for salaries and working conditions. New inequalities have spread between south and north, east and west. It is this kind of differences that today are hindering the European project much more than the old cultural and religious ones.
The lesson that can be drawn from all this is that the nation state has become incapable of guaranteeing the preservation of European traditional values as far as employment and social security are concerned. These values were the result of the social struggles that accompanied the industrialization of Europe in the XIX century and shaped our democracies. At the same time, the nation state is unable to modernize but prevents the European Union to develop the capabilities to do so, letting the markets dictate their own law and creating greater inequalities that could lead to the disintegration of the European Union and take Europe backwards.
In conclusion, what is needed today is a new political vision that gives the initiative back to the European institutions. Any argument putting into question their democratic representativeness and their legitimacy is today irrelevant in front of the inanity of national governments in general and their disorderly handling of the financial crisis in particular. Instead, the time has come to put into question the very legitimacy of the nation states themselves and their ability to defend the principles on which they pretend they are founded. The very notion of nation as a natural element has now become highly questionable. Nations do not represent anything original and legitimate but are political inventions at least as artificial as the European Union itself. If both are inventions, we must feel free to entrust our future to the one that gives us more guarantees of prosperity, security and welfare. This is indisputably the European Union. The way forward is to rethink more courageously the European project and engage in a true political union where the interests and aspirations of the whole European society, and not those of national governments, must be our guiding star.