The Europe we must save
Nobody is happy with the state of our continent.
Walking down the boulevards of Brussels — the city I live in — on a Sunday afternoon, I feel no pride or awe when I pass the dull grayish buildings that house our European leaders whenever they gather for their summits. It has been a month now since the Greeks surrendered here to all demands of its European “partners”, and when I think of the hypocrite oaths surrounding this place, heralding an “ever closer union” and “united in diversity”, I feel only shame and embarrassment as a European. This is not my Europe — this is not the Europe anybody dreamed of.
More than seven years have passed now — so long that Bush Jr. was still president in the U.S., the first iPhone barely was released, and Justin Bieber was just an average boy in a Canadian elementary school — since the world of finance collapsed and triggered an economic meltdown in Europe in its wake. In spite of the huge amount of time that has elapsed since then, we Europeans are still mired in unemployment and bickering on how to resolve our crisis. Our economy is performing worse than during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Yet, we lack a vision that will finally put an end to this crisis. Along the way we succeeded, through wrong policies, in destroying much of the wealth built up since the 2000s and in dividing our continent in complete bitterness over the causes and actions to be taken. Our problems are being tackled by our leaders in a similar fashion to the way I used to handle the dishes when I was still a student: extending and pretending. Cleaning up the least filthy plate, knife and fork so I could have a fairly decent evening meal while ignoring the pile of utter dirt in the sink which I hoped would magically disappear on its own. Sadly, it never did. And neither will this European mess.
A big unwieldy whale stranded without purpose.
The pile of dirt in the European sink is us sharing the Euro without a European democracy, economic and fiscal policy in order for it to work smoothly. The sad part is that our politicians knew this when they pushed for the Euro but lacked the courage and vision to tell us. So, we lived ten years in the illusion that we could have all the benefits and stability of a fixed currency without losing any part of national sovereignty.
Now, we find ourselves in the worst of worlds. We lost most of the economic gains of the Euro through European-wide austerity that economists all over the world, including the IMF, already have denounced — and we lost our sovereignty. Instead of building a true European democracy to accompany the Euro, our leaders opted for a gradual technical approach of economic decisions lacking any real public consent. More and more of our policies are now fixed in complicated written rules controlled by an unelected European Commission, as if economic policy is a hard science that should never again be the subject of a popular vote.
This expanding rule-based technocracy is complemented by the dominance of one particular economic vision that is here to last — unless the majority of German voters change their mind. The Greeks surrendering to the demands of Merkel and Schäuble reveals that the lack of a decent European democracy results in the dominance of the leaders that wield the strongest economy. Leaders that promote their own narrow electoral interests regardless of what other Europeans might think or approve. This Europe is stuck in an anti-democratic rut where some Europeans are more equal than others.
This is not the Europe anyone of us dreamed of. Huge unemployment, rising inequality, insecurity caused by globalization, an immense refugee crisis and above all a sense of powerlessness regarding forces that steer our societies. What has started as a graceful dolphin, a project to prevent European countries to wage war, has become a big unwieldy whale stranded without clear purpose or leadership.
A passionate narrative for a shared future in the 21st century is missing — and legitimacy is too. Todays’ Europe neglects the most important institution of all not housed in any of the buildings in Brussels; the people living their lives between the mountainous hills in the Northern fjords to the radiant beaches of the Mediterranean sea: us — you and me, Europeans.
Erasmus, Ryanair and Facebook.
We long for a change, but how should a future Europe look like?
To me, the answer lies within my generation. We are the first to experience Europe so profoundly via student exchange programs such as Erasmus; the first who can so easily discover other European countries, cities and cultures thanks to cheap travel such as Ryanair; the first to keep and build contacts all around our continent through Facebook and other social media. But we are also the first generation unable to say that we are better off than our parents; the first generation feeling the misery of immense unemployment. It is therefore only proper and fitting that we should take on the effort of changing Europe.
Erasmus, Ryanair and Facebook have shaped our generation in this connected world. They could be the symbols of our shared future-to-come in the 21st century. A Europe that is equal, free and deeply democratic. Erasmus is not only the breeding ground of a sexual revolution; by providing student grants and access to a wide array of universities across the continent, it exemplifies a more fundamental value: ensuring equality by means of common European policies.
We surely could use more of such common policies to tackle rising inequality in our society. One of the only ways to stay “competitive” as an individual country in the free-market Eurozone is indeed by beggar-thy-neighbour policies such as suppressing wages, allowing tax evasion by big companies and cutting benefits for the average citizen.
If the Euro and the free market is to work for everyone in society — and I believe it can — we need Europe to step up its game, organize a framework for fair wages, introduce a European corporate tax for multinationals and install European unemployment benefits among other policies. Consequently, citizens will not become the victims when countries need to cut their budget fast to deal with economic shocks. These policies are not only a question of ensuring equality but of freedom too. When a German or Greek works full time but still finds himself in poverty, can you really call that person free? Hell no.
Ryanair is a symbol of freedom in Europe — the company lets you fly everywhere for a very modest price, but the freedoms Europe can and must ensure thus go well beyond open borders and the ability to study, work and fall in love wherever you like. Deprivation or poverty, climate change, terrorism, conflicts in the Mediterranean and our digital privacy are all examples in this connected world where our nations are simply too small to protect us from such threats. We need to install or improve common European policies in those fields to ensure that we and the coming generations can live our lives truly free.
Here’s the kicker though; none of the common policies that ensure equality and freedom across Europe should be implemented without a profound public discussion on the merits of them. The only just governance is indeed that of discussion by its citizens.
Democracy in Europe is often solely treated as a process of elections although we forego on its key element. It is not the act of appointing leaders through voting that makes a just and fair democracy — it is the discussions on TV, in newspapers, in the bars and on the streets that is the most important democratic element. Through such processes, candidates receive feedback from every group in society and either adapt their stance or lose support. The fundament of democracy is that the wisdom of the crowds should always prevail. This is the best way to ensure a just and fair society since a single person or leader cannot always be right.
The current European leaders believe in the opposite of the wisdom of crowds — they believe in their infallibility. The European status quo is maintained insisting that “the rules” have to be followed and “there is no alternative”, although years of crises have debunked the status quo. We desperately need governance by discussion and the possibility to vote for or against the policies argued behind closed doors on the European level, since reality shows that our leaders are clearly not right all the time.
Luckily it is 2015, and technology has evolved to an extent where we are capable of communicating with people all over Europe. It is striking how you can do anything you want — becoming a writer on Medium, a driver for Uber, a photographer on Instagram, a designer on Etsy, a host on Airbnb — however, the profession that needs our input the most, politics, eludes us more and more. Facebook is the platform that comes closest to a forum where politics could be discussed, yet, in reality, it is probably better suited to debate whether the dress was white or blue.
The idea of Europe: Justice in a connected world.
First and foremost, a reformed Europe hence needs a platform for governance by discussion where we, the citizens, can provide input and influence policies. Paths towards that goal are electing our leaders in true European-wide elections, organizing European referenda or developing a digital democracy. We need to leave behind the status quo of letting appointed people decide for us and instead turn to a discussion with all of our fellow Europeans on which policies we should share and how our beloved continent should be governed. In such a system, equality and freedom in Europe are enhanced step by step according to the will of the people, which is the condition of any society that wants to claim it is guided by justice.
The idea of Europe in the 20th century was peace through economics. The idea of Europe in the 21st century should be justice in a connected world. Justice through equality, freedom and above all government by discussion. Justice through Erasmus, Ryanair and Facebook if you will.
That is the Europe we must save from the empty calls for “more Europe” and from the anti-democratic setup we have today.
So when are we going to clean out our sink?