I was born in Sofia. I’ve lived in Bulgaria, Hungary, France, and now the United Kingdom. Four very different countries, yet very similar in many regards. I was born French and Bulgarian, and the European Union has had a significant impact on my life: I don’t remember showing my passport at border checks, I’ve been able to spend summers in a dozen of European countries, and I am in the third year of an International Relations degree at King’s College London. Also, I have only seen war through a television screen, I have never been arrested arbitrarily, and I am able to express my uncensored opinion in this paper. The EU, its achievements, and the idea of a unified Europe are all very important to me. That’s why I can only be critical of its failures.
Beginning with economics, unified monetary policy has been created, but budgetary policies remain nationally-controlled. The result is a policy of austerity which strangles Greece instead of saving it, an intra-European race to lower salaries, social dumping, and lower labour standards. The Greeks, who have been scammed by their successive governments with the complicity of European leaders who let the country in the Eurozone, are consistently accused of being lazy. They are now being scammed by the EU, which imposes austerity policies regardless of Greece’s democratic decisions in the hope that Greece will pay back its debt, and in spite of its obvious inability to do so. In the meantime, a trade agreement is being secretly negotiated by unelected EU commissioners, American officials, and representatives from multinational corporations without any civil society representatives or national officials. The UK and other European countries may someday be prosecuted by American corporations for not opening education or healthcare to the market, or for restricting practices such as the use of Genetically Modified Organisms and shale gas ‘fracking’. There are, however, no legal instruments for states to prosecute a company for malpractice such as spilling oil into the ocean, or secretly mixing horse meat with beef.
With regards to foreign affairs and immigration, the EU is incapable of delivering a united front on foreign policy and defence: Europe is powerless against Russia, and the military intervention in Libya —a state in Europe’s backyard— would not have been possible without the United States. Indeed, thousands of refugees leave from Libya to Europe every day, as they are facing imminent death or political persecution from wars, many of which European powers have started after years of European support for North African dictators. We are only able to reason in terms of quotas and figures, in terms of potential danger and prevention, instead of seeing refugees as human beings and viewing the crisis as an opportunity.
Institutionally-speaking, the EU appears —and in many regards is— undemocratic. One imagines unelected bureaucrats deciding to ban curved cucumbers across the EU, the same bureaucrats who are negotiating the Transatlantic trade agreement. One reaction has been from the far-right, with calls for a return to national borders and sovereignty. A national-level response to EU reform is practically non-existent: re-election and politics are the priority, solutions come second.
The problem is ideological. The European project has become depoliticised, with the debate reduced to two options: a more neoliberal, market-oriented, fortress Europe or no Europe at all. Either we agree to austerity, private healthcare, technocratic management and meaningless elections, or we want to go back to a time when European and world economies and peoples were not so interconnected.
Which is preferable? Can the EU survive? Furthermore, should it survive? As an IR student, the EU is a wonderful aberration to me, an exception to a ruthless rule, a hope for international change and peace. It is also necessary in the context of globalisation: mainstream ideology pushes us into a worldwide competition in which small often means weak. And don’t fool yourselves. The UK, France, Spain, Italy and Poland are small countries. And the more the German population decreases, the smaller that country becomes. Moreover, and perhaps counterintuitively, I believe the EU to be the only hope for European democracy. Decisions over issues that transcend European borders cannot be strictly national. At the same time, issues that are local –such as curved cucumbers– do not need to be solved at the continental level. Most importantly, Europe needs a common voice in global and environmental affairs. It can be a global force for good, and an example of human rights, labour, safety, equality, environmentalism, living standards, and peace. It can provide an alternative to financial capitalism and neoliberal globalisation.
I believe another Europe to be both possible and necessary. What would it look like? It would be minimal: only issues that concern the continent as a whole should be discussed in Brussels. This could include monetary and budgetary policies, higher education, foreign policy, defense, environmental policies, migration and asylum, and agriculture. What can be handled at the national level should be handled at the national level. Smaller, local levels of decision-making will also be necessary. Centralisation of some competences and decentralisation of others are complementary. This is the ‘subsidiarity’ principle: as little as possible is centralised, and the whole decision-making process is in principle more democratic. It would not prioritise economic trends over daily lives, monetary concerns and GDP over people and nature. This may sound unrealistic. Here’s the thing: if you think this representative-(un)democratic, neoliberal, market-driven globalisation will last, you are being unrealistic. It’s a matter of time, a long time of course, but there is no other way. Our leaders know it, but it would harm their popularity to say what really needs to be done.
The European soul is dying under the mismanagement of the current EU. Those who remember what the European project is about –more than just money and growth– are disappearing, and those who are disenchanted by the current EU are becoming more numerous. The Eurozone crisis has not triggered large-scale solidarity, quite the opposite. As German Chancellor Merkel said, the refugees crisis is important, and the very soul of Europe is at stake. A common migration and asylum policy is necessary now.
The ‘Brexit’ referendum must be mentioned. Simply put, the UK has no interest in leaving the EU: European citizens contribute just as much to the British society as UK nationals, and leaving the EU would only harm the UK’s economy. I love the UK, and I don’t wish this fate on Britons. But I love the EU more, and without the UK, Europe could move further economically and politically: France and Germany have always been the heart, the engine of Europe, while the UK has always been a hindrance to European integration. Now, while Paris and Berlin agree that a European migration and asylum policy is necessary, the UK would most likely refuse it just as they refused the Euro and the Schengen area. You want to leave? Leave, then. But when you come back, it’ll be all or nothing.
Can the EU survive? In the long-term, it must. But what truly matters is deciding what kind of Union Europe needs.
Written by Marc NIKOLOV, Bachelor of Arts Honours International Relations, Department of War Studies, King’s College London.
DISCLAIMER: The opinions and views expressed in this opinion piece belong to the author and are independent of the Department of Political Economy and KCL Politics Society.