Source: CGTN Published: 2019-5-8
"History is back," said French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire of present-day Europe. In a way, he's right – the Europe that was once beset by war is returning to a state of divisiveness as its experiment with solidarity comes apart due to rising populist sentiments.
It's been 74 years since WWII allies accepted Nazi Germany's unconditional surrender. The two world wars left Europe scarred and deprived of its vast, resource-rich colonies. European countries could no longer afford the trauma of the battle, so "for the sake of peace, the conception of a community encompassing European nations came into being," Wang Yiwei, a Jean Monnet Chair Professor at Renmin University of China, told CGTN.
To resolve the disputes between France and Germany over coal and iron ore mines along border regions back then, French political economist Jean Monnet brought up the idea of forming the European Coal and Steel Community. Founded in 1952, the grouping started out with six nations – France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. The Treaty of Rome brought about the Common Market – the European Economic Community – in 1957.
With several enlargements over the turbulent Cold War era, it grew to become the European Union we know today – which was conceived to link member states economically, politically and socially so that war among them would be too costly to wage.
The bloc comprises 28 members that boast widely different cultures and are no strangers to the woes of war throughout the millennia. However, Europe still managed to maintain the longest period of peace and prosperity in its history.
But over the past years, as more people gravitate toward populist and far-right ideologies that lean towards local interests than continental fraternity, the EU is struggling to maintain the foundation of its institution. The public's indifference to the massive bureaucracy means that the Pan-European identity that it aimed to cultivate is losing to nationalism.
The tensions started bubbling during the global financial crisis in 2008, after economies including Greece, Spain and Ireland almost went bankrupt. As a result, the union's economic giants such as Germany had to bail them out, rolling out austerity measures that tightened the belt on public spending and imposed more taxes on the debtors.
Amid high unemployment rates, citizens of those countries began to resent those who had imposed these harsh conditions – their European neighbors.
Many began questioning their faith in the EU. This resentment added to the simmering discontent as a result of the EU inducting new member states such as Poland and Hungary in 2004, and workers from those countries starting to migrate to richer countries, like the UK, and competing with locals thanks to the union's open border policy allowing free movement.
Anti-immigrant sentiment reached its peak in 2015, when over a million migrants, including refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war, tried to cross from East Europe and port cities in Greece to the richer European nations in the west. Panic gripped citizens of European countries that accepted these migrants, most of whom are from countries ravaged by poverty and conflict in the Middle East and Africa.
The fear translated into the birth of popular movements against immigration and the administration of Brussels' decision makers. Far-right parties gained prominence in Germany, getting members elected to the country's parliament, the Bundestag, for the first time in decades. Chants of "Italy first!" echoed that of Trump's campaign slogan in 2016, with his former strategist Stephen Bannon trying to sow the seeds of right-wing populism from the UK to Belgium.
The majority of voters decided in favor of the UK leaving the EU in the Brexit debacle that continues to roil British Prime Minister Theresa May. In the streets of Paris, the consistent turnout of "Yellow Vest" protesters had French President Emmanuel Macron try to appease popular outrage by proposing lower taxes, among other measures.
Popular slogans like "Let's reconnect instead with our national soul," and "Let's rediscover our ‘lost identity'" are washing over the continent. Some analysts believe it's the economic integration that has widened the wealth gap and exacerbated class sclerosis because the single market puts more emphasis on economic efficiency than on social justice.
“It's also a reflection of the global backdrop. Neoliberal globalization has led to a hollowing out of the manufacturing industry, and that's when the unemployment rate started surging," said Wang Yiwei, also head of European studies at the university. He added that profit-seeking behaviors under capitalism make the strong stronger and the weak weaker.
From grievances spanning wealth equality to immigration, the EU experiment seems to be collapsing given its current trajectory. As Frans Timmermans, a Dutch diplomat, put it, "Our darkest angels in Europe are always somewhere under the surface."
Wang Yiwei is a senior fellow of Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China.