As she prepares for her 60th birthday party in Rome next weekend, Europa is in bad shape. A recent medical check-up revealed one hand about to be amputated (gangraena brexitosa), one foot terribly inflamed (putinisma ukrainica), a skin disease across many body parts compounded by a dangerous allergic reaction (xenophobia populistica), an ulcer eating away her stomach (eurozonitis), as well as logorrhoea and memory loss.
The doctor also fears that her heart may soon go into cardiac arrest (arrhythmogenic Le Pen syndrome). When Europa was in her thirties, back in the hope-filled years after 1989, Ukrainians and Moldovans, Turks and Egyptians would turn their heads when this magnetically attractive woman walked into the room; now they take no notice. And to cap it all, her partner of many years has gone off his rocker (egomania narcissistica trumpica).
The image of Europa as a woman is probably as old as the word itself. Readers will recall that the Angelina Jolie of ancient Greek mythology was carried off by a repeat sex offender called Zeus, who disguised himself as a bull. But the EU — today’s “Europa” — more resembles the 16th-century cartographer Sebastian Münster’s wonderful image of Europa regina, queen Europe, her body composed of many European countries and regions. Munster’s Europa is a rather stately lady, with crown, orb and sceptre, but also has many distinct parts. For Europe as a single nation, nation Europa, is a figment of federalist dream and Eurosceptic nightmare, not the reality.
And here begins the problem with some of the prescriptions produced by Brussels doctors. Take the distinguished Luxembourgish gastroenterologist Jean-Claude Juncker’s recent European Commission white paper, interestingly subtitled “reflections and scenarios for the EU27 by 2025” (no more enlargement, then?). It helpfully lays out five pithily titled scenarios: “carrying on”, “nothing but the single market”, “those who want more do more”, “doing less more efficiently” and “doing much more together”.
But it takes off into cloud cuckoo land with the idea that a broad popular debate across Europe will culminate in what Mr Juncker modestly calls “my State of the Union speech in September 2017”, and then onward to “a course of action to be rolled out in time for the European Parliament elections in June 2019”. As if the whole continent were waiting with bated breath for Mr Juncker’s speech, as Americans wait for their president’s State of the Union.
This is politics with the politics left out. A more realistic timetable looks something like this: following the good example of Dutch voters, who this week saw off the populist challenge of Geert Wilders’ Freedom party, French voters rally round in the second round of their presidential election, on May 7, to avoid a Le-Pen-shaped heart attack for the whole EU; the issue of Greek debt is somehow fudged until after the German general election on September 24; an Italian banking and/or political crisis is avoided. If all this muddling-through works, and that’s a big “if”, then maybe a coalition of willing national leaders, working with the EU’s three “presidents” and their institutions (council, commission and parliament), can chart a recovery for the EU from 2018 on.
The complicated truth is that Europa needs an array of treatments, each based on a careful diagnosis of the particular problem, be it Brexit, populism, the eurozone, Russian interference in Ukraine, the plight of refugees from our near abroad, the looming dictatorship in Turkey, or how to live with Donald Trump.
Some of the treatments entail action at the EU level, as well as in other groupings: on the external border of the Schengen area, for example, or through Nato when it comes to defending the Baltic states against the hybrid threat from Vladimir Putin’s Russia. So far as the internal workings of the EU are concerned, the best way forward must be some combination of Mr Juncker’s third and fourth scenarios: “those who want more do more” and “doing less more efficiently”. But the struggle for Europa will be won or lost in the national and regional politics of her many parts, with their diverse languages and styles.
It is up to French, German and Italian politicians, intellectuals, teachers and business leaders to make the case at home, in their own domestic idioms, for continuing and reforming the EU — and likewise for the Walloon and Flemish, Polish, Spanish, Catalan, Irish and, yes, English.
Where European policies are causing damage, we must say so and change them, but national politicians should stop blaming all the bad things on Brussels and taking all the credit for themselves. They should listen carefully to the legions of unhappy voters, then develop policies to address those concerns and convey their solutions in direct, appealing language that reaches those caught in the internet-enabled echo chambers of populism. Like every political community, the EU will only survive if enough of its people (and peoples) want it to survive.
At 60, Europa is in bad shape, but there’s life in the old girl yet. Having the will and self-belief to get better is half the struggle. And it always helps to keep a sense of humour.
The writer is professor of European studies at Oxford university and the winner of this year’s Charlemagne prize
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