by Nicolas Maximilian Oster
Europe is in free fall. At least that’s what pundits commenting on European affairs would have you believe these days. They cite an economy trudging from one recession to the next, a welfare system being suffocated by an aging population, a political union overburdened by the Bruxellois bureaucracy, and a cultural heritage being compromised by an immigration policy that has run amuck. Indeed, by all accounts, Europe finds itself on a trajectory of protracted and inexorable political, economic and social decline – a slow-motion disaster unfolding before our eyes.
Of course, in light of staggering sovereign debts, unemployment figures four times greater than during the Great Depression, an irredentist Russian regime threatening to revise Europe’s eastern frontier, and a growing sense that Islamist terror is penetrating deep into the heart of the civilized world, the security of Europe’s future must not be taken for granted. Indeed, anybody who wants to be taken seriously in analyzing the current state of Europe must entertain a healthy amount of Euroskepticism. After all, the first step to solving a problem is recognizing that one exists.
However, more recently the Euroskeptic lens seems to have devolved into a self-serving end by bluntly subsuming any and all negative developments under the mantra of European decline. Euroskeptics are becoming obtuse to the distinctions between trends and isolated events – between Europe’s systemic challenges and projections of foreign phenomena. It is thereby compromising its merit as a device to constructively diagnose and debate the exigencies of the present situation.
An article recently published by the Daily Telegraph’s long-time Brussels correspondent, Bruno Waterfield, exemplifies the sort of whitewashing that Euroskeptics have resorted to in advancing the ‘End-of-Europe’ narrative. Waterfield’s argument promotes the idea that British aversion to European integration – once the exception – has now spilled over to the continent and rooted itself in many traditional strongholds of pro-European sentiments. The article refers to a study that compared levels of “trust in the EU” across ten member states in 2007 versus 2013. The findings reveal a significant and universal decline of trust in the EU over the six-year time frame. These results are used to substantiate the author’s overdrawn claim that “the European dream is dying, state by state.”
Ignoring the fact that the methodology used to collect the data is far from clear, the article’s main vice is its failure to consider the other, more telling variables and parallel truths about the European mentality. For example, the latest Eurobarometer, a public survey conducted biannually on behalf of the European Commission, showed that in all EU member states (bar Slovenia), the amount of people who believed that their country should remain a member of the EU outnumbered those who believed otherwise. There was also a generally optimistic outlook on the future of the EU in the overwhelming majority of member states, with only three of the overall 28 countries being home to a more generally pessimistic population. Furthermore, the outcome of the poll attested a decidedly positive inclination in all member states toward the idea of a common EU policy on matters such as immigration, energy, defense and security, foreign policy and the monetary union.
The Eurobarometer survey did not shy away from asking questions to which the overall response was far more negative. Indeed, the response to the question of whether things are currently headed in the right or the wrong direction in the EU revealed a popular belief that Europe must alter its present course. But the point here is that the European public’s acknowledgment of the continent’s multiplex problems and deficits is not tantamount to an abandonment of the European cause. While the current state of affairs in Europe may be met with disapproval, cynicism and perhaps even mistrustfulness, Europeans have not forsaken the fundamental principle of European Union.
Ironically, no country better exemplifies this attitude of putative anti-Europeanism than the U.K. According to a poll jointly conducted by Demos&Pi and La Repubblica across multiple EU member states, only 28 percent of British citizens had confidence in the EU. However, in another survey conducted in tandem, the market research firm YouGOV reported 45 percent of the U.K. population would currently vote to stay part of the EU, compared to 35 percent who would opt out. YouGOV noted that the 10-percentage point margin was “the largest IN lead since our records began.”
What in Britain appears to be an inherent contradiction is actually the basis for a broader and more profound assessment of the current European condition. People readily acknowledge that Europe has sidetracked – perhaps even derailed, but they tend to view the current mismanagement of the EU and its member states as a self-inflicted imposition, implying that it can (and will eventually) be lifted.
By neglecting these concurrent factors, Waterfield essentially infers the unraveling of Europe by isolating a single and not particularly meaningful variable, in order to substantiate a narrative of European decline. At best, the article is thereby decontextualizing the findings of the survey. At worst, the article is guilty of divulging populist discourse by making a sweeping conclusion based on largely conjectural praxes.
The New York Times recently published an op-ed by Arthur C. Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute, in which he touches on a range of challenges facing Europe. The issue with the article is not so much that the arguments are unfounded; on the contrary, the author’s dialectics are blemished by tendentious language, suggesting a harbored contempt for the continent he belittlingly refers to as ‘Grandma Europe.’ These shibboleths are typical of the manner in which Europe’s insufficiencies are almost routinely hyperbolized and regrettably lends growing legitimacy to less coherent lines of argument that utilize the same rhetoric.
The overarching sense of impending doom and irremediable malaise – personified so aptly by the image of an aging grandmother – has monopolized the debate on Europe to an extent where self-proclaimed pundits employ bar-room clichés about Europe’s relentless deterioration with near impunity. By treating European decline as a foregone conclusion one is effectively precipitating its realization by slanting the discourse toward an unavoidable outcome.
This matter would pose less of a disturbance were it not the unsettling reminder of history that deluded perceptions and inane utterances have facilitated a European catastrophe before. As Ward Wilson perceptively remarked in an article for Foreign Policy magazine on the centenary of the outbreak of WWI, the discourse of the years leading up to 1914 was suffused with a stifling sense of pessimism that echoes our time. People invoked Europe’s collapse in a feverish, almost perverted display of self-abandonment that Christopher Clark poignantly described in his landmark publication “The Sleepwalkers.” This state of semi-consciousness paved the way for Europe to descend into the most cataclysmic event of the 20th century and we would be remiss to let history repeat itself.