In the past forty years, Europe has gone through a turning point at the end of every decade.
The first came at the end of the 1970s when Greece, Spain, and Portugal embraced democracy. This evolved the European project from mechanisms of economic integration to maintain peace in the continent, towards the beginning of the slow “ever closer” union. This coming together of the south with the north and the west breathed life in the European Union as an ideal of enlightened, democratic, rules-based liberalism.
The fall of communism at the end of the 1980s imbued that ideal with immense momentum. Suddenly, Central and Eastern Europe emerged from the dark cloak they were under for decades, and were determined to join the union. Crucially, their determination was not driven merely by aspirations that the West’s wealth will spillover into their countries, but primarily by a collective desire to partake in the project’s ideal.
A decade later, at the end of the 1990s, the Balkans, after having doused its fires, repeatedly emphasised its Europeanness, and its hope to begin the journey towards membership of the Union. Here, the history was more complicated and the levels of socio-economic development far more behind Western Europe’s. And so, the Balkan had to work on itself, before the Union even began to listen carefully. Still, the strong desire that came from that most south eastern corner of the continent, underlined the strength and attractions of the European project’s ideal.
The first decade of the 2000s was a glorious time for the Union. The East and the Centre were gradually absorbing many of the Union’s rules and regulations, and using its generous development funding to effect real improvements in the living standards of their peoples. The pillars at the core of the project, France and Germany, were getting closer, in their positions in many international dossiers, as well as in the cooperation between their administrative structures. Economic growth seemed to be closing the gaps between the economic powerhouses of the north and the traditionally poorer south. And Brussels, the capital of the Union and the seat of its bureaucracy, was expanding its administrative arms and units, and their reach into the social and economic lives of European citizens. A sense of a real Union was taking hold.
Again, the end of the decade came with a new turning point. And this time, it was a crisis, that was dubbed “financial”, yet whose impacts went far beyond the world of finance. The implosions of 2008 and their aftermath of economic dislocation and austerity programmes across different parts of Europe, and especially in the south, laid bare three realities that were buried in the glitter of the years of prosperity. The first was that there remained a colossal difference, not just in wealth, but also in the generators of wealth, between the north west of Europe and the rest. And so, as the austerity began to bite, some of the best educated in the east and the south, moved to the north west. This further entrenched the economic, technological, and competitiveness divide in Europe. Second, the decade since the crisis showed that new technologies that are revolutionising many industries and the entire job market, pose threats to those advanced societies in the north west, let alone to the east and south. And three, the crisis and its aftermath revealed major blur between power and wealth in key parts of Europe. This presented the elite, whether in the capitals of the member states or in Brussels, as either colluded with the financial and industrial power centres or hapless in their face. Either way, as socio-economic conditions worsened and the future looked scarier, fears swelled, and anger rose against the managers of the system.
A key question facing Europe today is: whether the decade since 2008/2009 was lost in putting down the economic fires that the crisis has flamed, without attending to the fears and anger that have been building up? And if yes, will these fears and anger manifest as merely a moment of right-wing ascendancy, a moment of ascribing blame to the elites, the foreigners, the ‘other’? Or will the fears and anger create an energy wave that will shatter what the European project has been about in the past forty years?
This is a major threat to the idea of Europe as it has evolved in the past forty years. Not only are economic pressures and declining living standards still with us; the prospects of European economies are hardly inspiring, in light of the rapid pace of technological change, increasing competitiveness of Asian markets, and the ageing of many European societies. And so, Europe might close its door in front of the migrants, might convince itself that the ‘other’ (especially the Muslims on the opposite shores of the Mediterranean) are the threat. But the fears from what the future will bring will not dissipate, and the anger at the vanishing comforts of the recent past will likely rise. And while today, blaming the elites and the ‘other’ serves as a channel for releasing destructive energy, in the future, acuter fears and stronger anger will likely express themselves as destructive waves that will flow towards the centre.
There is a sense of calm in different European capitals after the May 2019 European Parliament election returned a mixed picture. Many are content that the far right did not come crashing the gates as some had expected. This is a dangerous complacency. The far right has entrenched its place at the Parliament, has won in France and Italy, did very well in Spain – and is effectively ruling in Austria, Italy, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, and on serious rise in Denmark and Britain.
The coming turning point, which if history is any guide, is due, might be devastating to what Europe meant in the past decades.
The writer is author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam, (Yale University Press, 2017).