The past sixty years have been a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity in Europe. A continent devastated by two World Wars, empires undone in the span of a few decades, the formal subjugation of Europe under the United States in return for their assistance in winning World War II, in light of their superior industry, military and economic might. European prosperity, the extremely high quality of life enjoyed by so many states for so long cannot be attributed to anything, but the support of the United States in the decades after World War 2 and, perhaps, the creation of the European Union, a vast and complex organisation that has provided for much of the population of Europe, by smoothing out the differences between the economic output of the north with that of the south, supporting — perhaps excessively in some cases — agriculture, innovation and collaboration, but above all fostering cooperation and trade between European countries.
In 1945 Europe was a devastated continent in what was the end of an era. The three decades of tension and war, extreme economic boom and bust had begun the process of dismantling of the major European empires of old that had dominated the world in the previous several hundreds of years. Throughout this process of redefinition of old Europe under the auspices of the two new superpowers, the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was founded. The ECSC, a precursor to the European Economic Commmunity and, later, the European Union, had only six members in 1951. The organisation’s gradual expansion, both in scope and in geography redefined its existence as the de facto governing body in Europe, an important institution in a globalised world. Despite the clear need for Europe to cooperate, to put aside centuries of pointless nationalistic drivel and rivalry and promote, in whatever way was possible, the European economy and European culture (the people of Europe share quite a lot of their culture, even if they won’t readily admit it), national pride has played a significant part of the evolution of the EU. From de Gaulle’s veto of British accession to the EU, the dominant Franco-German alliance, heavily promoting French and German interests and controlling the politics of the Union, to Thatcher’s British rebate in the 1980s and Poland’s alignment with Bush in the Iraq War of the mid-2000s, national interests have remained a crucial part of the Union.
Still, the EU has for many years been a major force in helping Europe develop, innovate and stay at the top of the charts in most areas that mattered. Until the early 2000s. The major mistake of allowing Greece to join the Euro in 2001, was quickly followed by the hurried, premature and politically destabilising enlargement of 2004 and 2007 — arguably something that eurosceptics around Europe have desired for years in order to push their own agenda of a lesser-Union. This much was expressed in an excellent manner in the much loved 1980s classic British series “Yes Minister”:
Enlargement happened quickly with most European people having no say; it happened hurriedly without properly thinking through how the addition of ten new members, most of them largely economically and politically just coming out of fifty years of Soviet control, would affect the continent. A hurried enlargement was turned into a flawed one, when, unjustly, citizens of some newly-acceded countries were denied the right of free movement within the Union, or the right to work in some member-states. It destabilised the politics of the Union and affected its course. It was stained by the failure of resolving the accession of a unified Cyprus and then in 2009, by the various scandals arising from corruption in Bulgaria, the indefinite postponement of the Turkish accession among others.
For all of those issues, Europeans had very little say. Referenda are rare in Europe, and in most cases powerless, as the last thirty years of European history have shown; in many of the referenda that actually took place in Europe the popular vote was marginally negative, even from countries that have vastly benefited from their membership in the Union; yet in almost all cases the actual outcome was positive, be it through a repetition of the referendum in question and/or the slight modification of the treaty and potentially a parliamentary vote. A relatively recent example of such a country is Ireland, where misinformation and ignorance caused a rejection of the Lisbon treaty in the mid-2000s. Even France, a founding member and the de facto dominant force in the Union until the early 2000s, only marginally accepted the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 with 51% of the almost 70% that participated voting yes and the others opposing it.
It is difficult to gauge how Europeans feel about the Union, yet it is clear that the EU27 is a vastly different entity from the EU15 of the 1990s. The effect of national agenda is not concealed or constrained behind closed doors, but is commonplace in high-level discussions and press releases; Europe may be legally more united now than it were ten years ago, but that wouldn’t really show if one listened to the press events. It shows everywhere, from the very public spat between Germany and France about the Greek financial crisis, the dead-ends arising from the weakness of the PIIGS, the dissonance observed by those on the fringe of the main issues and the non-actors. The voices of dissent are getting louder; the foundations of the European Union are threatened, while Eurosceptics are having a field day. Almost a decade later, it is clear that Enlargement should have been a much more gradual process; one where countries were perhaps initially supported financially, observed politically and allowed to develop before they became full-members of the EU. One where accession would truly mean equal rights, with no discrimination and no per-case rules. One where the people of Europe would have had the time to integrate further, organically, on their own accord and not abruptly. Similarly, the Commission and the ECB should have done a much better job auditing the financial credentials of the Eurozone candidates; they should have realised their importance within the scope of a monetary union and acted so as to minimise the influence of the financial markets to the well-being of European people and businesses. They should have done their job, for it seems that it took them a qhile to realise what that was supposed to be. Had they done so, Greece would never have been admitted to the Euro in 2001. Europe would not have been affected as much by the financial crisis of 2008.
The reasons for hostility towards the EU institutions are numerous — and only in some cases reasonable: the perception of lack of control and sovereignty by somewhat forgetful citizens of relatively well-off, developed countries (the UK is a prime example here), the proven corruption of Brussels, the opaque bureaucratic machine that is the Commission, the relative lack of power of the European Parliament, the only immediately elected European Institution (the Council is arguably less democratic when considered from a European perspective), the repeated ridiculing of European Institutions both within Europe (say, when the collective interest is opposite to that of a major power within the EU that can and does dictate terms) and in the global community, in addition to the distorted, vastly exaggerated (if not hilarious) portrayal thereof by eurosceptic parts of the press.
Still, the EU has been a force for good in this world, it has benefited European countries more than any single organisation in the history of this continent; it has fostered cooperation and ensured better trade, faster development and better relations among member states for the better part of a century. In observing its effects, it is clear that the EU is not, and should never be allowed to become, a NAFTA-like Free-Trade Zone. It is, saddening that a series of bad decisions have amplified the inherent problems and threatened the core values of this ambitious project of uniting so many distinct European countries under a common, fair and democratic organisation, in the process making dismantling the EU a distinct possibility, rather than a surreal nightmare.