Europe - the Choice That We Must Make
Ralitsa Kovacheva, 9 May 2012
"Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity."
These words belong to French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman, and were delivered on 9 May 1950. A year later, France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands established the European Coal and Steel Community - the archetype of the European Union. 62 years later the Union, risen to 27 countries, is experiencing the worst crisis in its history. And Europe again, as at the time of Robert Schuman, needs genuine solidarity above all.
It was easy to believe in solidarity in the years of prosperity - there was plenty for all. Today, when most European countries are forced to cut budgets and pay large debts, solidarity is challenged. First, countries were forced to bail out the banks, then the rich countries had to save the poorer and the bill was ultimately paid by the taxpayers, who met the dawn with reduced incomes and social benefits, and those who did not lose their jobs face the prospect to work more and longer.
62 years after the Schuman Declaration, Europeans believe less in solidarity and have little faith in the European Union as its real exponent. However, the economic crisis was not the reason but the catalyst of the already smoldering processes. As Dutch politician Frans Timmermans said, people think that when something works well then they do not need to know about it. Affluent Europeans were not interested in the European Union, while it ensured high living standard for them. The European affairs were a business of a chosen circle of people, who media called sarcastically ‘Eurocrats’, but not of the ordinary people, who remained more German, Pole, French or Greek than European, and the European Union turned into the nondescript and distant concept "Brussels".
And in between, populism has planted itself, with the typical confidence and unpardonable manner of a parvenu coming to the opera for the first time. Populism filled the vacuum between "Brussels" and the citizens with the self-confidence of one called to talk to the people in their own language, to explain what is happening and to express peoples` opinion. And since it feeds on the public discontent, populism had to find enemies and to direct that discontent against them - Eastern Europeans, immigrants, Eurocrats, the southern "sluggards." Traditional parties arrogantly ignored their poor populist relatives until they started to decide elections and enter Parliaments. And then, instead of opposing it, the traditional parties simply acquired the populist rhetoric to increase their electorate.
So we woke up to find populist parties all over Europe, populist governments in Bulgaria and Hungary, extreme blond Geert Wilders in the Netherlands who was pulling the wires of governance and ultimately overthrew the government, former French president Sarkozy, who, while battling for re-election, has called for the return of borders in Europe not just literally but also economically and culturally. Perhaps the most dramatic example is again Greece, which has not default on its debts but may default on its populists who impel people to resist the enslaving loan from the EU.
62 years after the Schuman Declaration, that has set the common economic development as a pillar of European integration, the biggest threat to the European project is not the economic crisis, but populism. The crisis is grist to the mill of populists, who unscrupulously misuse the natural human fear of poverty, foreigners or uncertainty and divide to rule. So, Europe needs a new plan with concrete steps towards this "de facto solidarity" of Schuman, which unlike the leftist interpretation "each according to the needs" means a consensus, unanimity, a community of interests. Solidarity as euinside wrote, means that we have common views and goals, expressing the personal interest of every one; to act together to defend and achieve them; to be ready to share the responsibility for our actions.
This genuine and working solidarity requires the participation of every citizen and needs leaders, who can resist populism, providing meaningful and real alternatives to the citizens. Because, contrary to the thesis that has lately become popular, I believe that Europe has no problem with its democratic legitimacy, there is a problem with the populists, who embezzled it. Suggestions such as "the European Commission to be elected directly by the citizens" will not solve the problem – the populists will simply enter the Berlaymont, just like they did in the national governments. However, populism is not just harmful, it can be dangerous.
Robert Schuman delivered his declaration exactly five years after the World War II. The message was: Europe must be united to ensure peace and prosperity for its citizens. 62 years later, being spoilt by peace and prosperity, the Europeans do not seem to realise that they have much to lose. While young people take the EU for granted, it is actually only half a century old and is not a historical accident but the result of single-minded efforts of many people. This is even more true for Bulgaria's EU membership, which is only five years old but is now taken for granted. However, it is not a reward, as the populists claim, but responsibility and challenge, because nothing should be taken for granted and everything depends on the choices we make.