Europe in crisis? Despite everything, its citizens have never had it so good

Europeans have never had it so good. This may sound counterintuitive, at the end of a momentous week when Brexit has been formally triggered, marking for the first time ever a shrinking of the European project. Yet because something seems paradoxical doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

Brexit is a huge loss, the consequences of which are yet to be felt, and can hardly be expected to be positive whichever side of the Channel you live on. But here’s a reminder: Europe is one of the best places to live today. It is a rich part of the world, with high living standards.

Hardly anyone who resides in Europe wants to flee it. On the contrary, many strive to reach it, to settle in it and build a future in it for their children. Likewise, many who live outside of the European Union dream of seeing their country join it one day or, at least, hope it might emulate Europe’s standards and quality of life.

This may all seem obvious, but it bears highlighting at a time when headlines about Brexit have cast a dark shadow. Britain, we are told, is “leaving the EU but not Europe”. That’s a key part of the negotiating stance of Theresa May’s government. It is meant to say: Britain still has things to contribute, so please don’t make the withdrawal agreement too painful.

This is both a plea and a half-veiled threat. But it might also be intended to reassure: we British aren’t drifting off into the chaos and multiple uncertainties of a fast-changing world. The truth is, Europe remains an anchor of stability, prosperity and safety in a volatile global environment – despite all the travails it has recently gone through and is still confronted with.

To reflect on this wider picture, look at recent events in the east of the continent. The very week the EU was celebrating its 60th anniversary with official ceremonies in Rome, young Russians demonstrated in dozens of cities against the corruption of their political leaders. Their calls for transparency and accountability were met with a police crackdown – riot gear, the swinging of truncheons, the rounding-up and imprisoning of protesters.

Meanwhile, in neighbouring Belarus, a country that has known dictatorship for over 20 years, crowds outraged by legislation aimed at taxing the unemployed waged their own battle against arbitrary rule. There, also, dozens were locked up.

It is easy to take what we have for granted. It has become easy to criticise the European project for its many insufficiencies and its repeated unpreparedness when crises arise. But it is perhaps harder to step back and take stock of what the EU has accomplished and what many, outside the region, continue to admire and yearn for.

Reading about Russia, a quote from one of the demonstrators struck me: “We just want to live like normal, modern people in the rest of Europe,” said Ilya Amutov, a 25-year-old technology worker marching in Moscow. And this is an example of voices coming from a new “Putin generation” that has often been described as only interested in acquiring the latest iPhone, or happy to let itself be swept up in waves of militaristic nationalism.

Europe does have values. No doubt, they are irregularly observed, trampled on in places such as Viktor Orbán’s Hungary and Poland under Jarosław Kaczyński; nor is it likely the debate over the unsatisfying democratic workings of EU institutions will be resolved any time soon.

But this is the part of the world that has managed, uniquely, to combine and enshrine in common treaties the respect for fundamental rights, pluralism, social justice, non-discrimination, environmental norms and mechanisms (however tentative) for collective security.

There was something painfully ironic in the fact that much of this was acknowledged by May on the very day she officially signalled Britain was pulling out of the union.

Europeans are extremely lucky. Remember President Obama’s speech last year in Hanover. “Your accomplishment – more than 500 million people speaking 24 languages in 28 countries, 19 with a common currency, in one European Union – remains one of the greatest political and economic achievements of modern times,” he said.

Now 65 million people are leaving the club, just under half of them with great reluctance. The EU will be smaller, less confident, full of regret, at pains to limit the damage to itself; and its institutions will now be weighed down with the unprecedented and daunting task of having to manage the extrication of a large member state. No-one will gain, except those who hope the whole European project will one day unravel.

Yet they shouldn’t hold their breath. Talk of the EU’s imminent demise as a result of Brexit is an exaggeration – just as it is ill-judged to believe the club will suddenly implement far-reaching plans for deeper integration now that it is supposedly unburdened by British intransigence.

The far larger danger that lurks today comes from France, where Front National leader Marine Le Pen hopes to make great strides towards power. Serious obstacles for closer integration or a form of political union were never, in fact, purely British – they rose up over 10 years ago when French and Dutch voters rejected plans to introduce an EU constitution.

As for eurozone governance, it never helped that right from the start (in the early 2000s), France and Germany chose not to respect jointly agreed budget deficit targets. During this time, Greece’s government tampered with its national debt statistics to pretend it could abide by EU rules.

The EU is not on its death bed – not if France rejects Le Pen. Rather, at the age of 60, it is going through a midlife crisis. It’s that period in life when most people realise the dreams and ambitions they once held – of being an astronaut, a star ballerina or a neurosurgeon – are unlikely to materialise. But that doesn’t mean their achievements aren’t worthy – they even ought to be cherished.

The EU represents 7% of the world’s population, approximately 23% of global GDP and 50% of global public spending. Without Britain, it will be less of that, of course. But this loss will not erase the fact that almost all of Europe’s nations are close to the top of the global list where people enjoy the highest life expectancy at birth, the best conditions of access to education and the highest GDP per capita.

And EU social norms mean that, despite all the talk of inequality, this part of the world is devoid of the kind of roughshod capitalism that has come to characterise many “emerging” economies, not least China’s. It’s because the EU strives to act on the world stage as a bloc, however imperfect the exercise, that it can have a say in how globalisation will be shaped. Who wants China to set the rules?

The Rome declaration adopted on the EU’s 60th anniversary said as much: “Taken individually, we would be side-lined by global dynamics. Standing together is our best chance to influence them.” Not a word was said about Brexit. But the conclusion to draw from those words – “taken individually” – was clear enough. Farewell, Britain. And do stay as close as all of us would wish.

The author: Clémentine FORISSIER

Clémentine Forissier, a youthful journalist hailing from Brussels, has been making waves in the field of media. Despite her relatively young age, she has quickly risen to prominence as a prominent voice in Belgian journalism. Known for her fresh perspective and dynamic reporting, Clémentine has become a recognized figure in the Brussels media scene, offering insightful coverage of various topics.

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