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27 April 2012

Where next for Europe?

Where next for Europe?

If the Euro is a symbol of the grand project of the European Union, what does the present crisis suggest about the future of the EU?

For many months the Greek economy has teetered on the brink of collapse. It may have escaped the notice of all but the most avid of watchers, but despite late nights in Brussels and numerous summits, Greece actually defaulted on their debts earlier in the spring. This situation makes the nightmare scenario of financial contagion spreading across the continent a distinct possibility.

This hasn’t happened, or at least it hasn’t happened yet. It’s possible that all Greece’s recent default has done is delay problems which may well pop back up in a few months time. Alongside the Greek tragedy, the economies of Spain and Italy are not looking particularly healthy. All of which are sparking worries that Europe is a long way from a secure economic future.

Apart from the now seemingly obvious fact that the economic model for the EU was seriously flawed, what has also become clear is that Europe has failed to develop a ‘soul’ – something that former president of the EU Commission Jacques Delors considered essential to its survival. Instead, a Union has developed that is largely technocratic and rule focused. Not something that fosters a sense of identity or empathy among its members.

When the ill-fated EU constitution was under consideration a few years ago a quite breath-taking attempt at historical air-brushing was attempted. Those framing the nature of what it means to be European famously sought to leave out any reference to God in its preface, instead referring to a generic cultural, religious and humanist heritage. Although including a clause about God would not have solved the manifold problems that the constitutional treaty encountered, it did reveal a deeper problem – a problem that was identified at the beginning of the European project by one of its key architects, Robert Schuman. It does not have a common identity.

What makes discussion of a European soul more difficult is the lingering historical resonance that the Christian faith has across the continent. This may explain the default resistance among many very secular countries towards Turkey joining the Union. It would come to the table with a very different history, with very different traditions and expectations. It may also explain how the very different religious histories within Europe resulted in the drafters of the proposed constitution omitting any reference to God.

Benedict Anderson wrote about the creation of new nations in the 19th century when Germany and Italy were more or less imagined out of nothing. They were, in his assessment, imagined communities, brought together more by political will and external threats, rather than through any pre-existing common bond. Sixty years on from the foundation of the European Economic Community, it is clear that beyond self-interest, the sufficient bonds necessary to hold these nations together, and help each other in times of crisis, have not emerged across the continent.

Although Christianity is embedded deeply into the European identity, the combination of the Catholic south, the Lutheran north, secular France and Anglican England meant a shared religious identity for the European Union was and remains a long way from reality. Nor has there been the political will or external threats necessary to force national leaders to forego their own identity to forge a European identity that will cross borders.

In the place of a clear European identity there are continued calls for increased democracy within the EU, to address what is referred to as the democratic deficit. But without a common identity such a deficit will always remain, because new rules and institutions, more elections and elected officials, will simply lead to a technocratic state – without a clear vision for the future. This is what presides over the economic maelstrom enveloping Europe today. And countries seem intent on protecting their own economic interests above making the sacrifices needed for a pan-European recovery.

What the future holds for the EU remains unclear, however, the failure of the economic crisis of the past few years to inspire and build any common identity suggests that the search for a soul will go on unfulfilled. And in the wake of that, the ambitions of the European project may well require a rethink.

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