A politician … is a man who thinks of the next election; while the statesman thinks of the next generation.
James Freeman Clarke
Konrad Adenauer, Joseph Bech, Johan Willem Beyen, Winston Churchill, Alcide De Gasperi, Walter Hallstein, Sicco Mansholt, Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman, Paul-Henri Spaak, Altiero Spinelli.
These names are unanimously considered the founding fathers of the European Union, or rather the advocates of a politically unified Europe that could deliver peace, unity and prosperity to future generations; a kind of utopia in a continent ravaged by two world wars, the deadliest in human history. Such statesmen came from a heterogeneous category of countries, including the Federal Republic of Germany, under the influence of the Euro-Atlantic bloc, the small Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the formerly hegemonic Great Britain, the Republic of Italy, the Fourth (and Fifth) Republic of France and the geographically central Kingdom of Belgium.
Although a union of European states had been a reality throughout history (for instance, the Holy Roman Empire or the Napoleonic Empire, to mention just a few), the process of creating a democratic European union only began in the early 1950s, when West Germany, France, Italy and the Benelux countries (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg) agreed to sign the Treaty of Paris establishing the European Coal and Steel Community and, consequently, a common market for those two commodities. This served as a basis for the 1957 Treaties of Rome, a landmark which gave shape to the European Economic Community as well as the European Atomic Energy Community, later followed by a number of joint initiatives such as the famous 1985 Schengen Agreement on free movement within Europe (nowadays questioned by brand new nationalists who exploit the panic generated by migration flows and terrorist attacks), the 1986 single European Act and, last but not least, the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, setting the parameters for entering the politico-economic union.
It must be said, the project of European unification has suffered some discouraging moments, such as the rejection of the project for a European Constitution (or rather, the draft revision of the founding treaties of the European Union), following the lack of popular support in referendums held in France and the Netherlands in 2009. However, member states have in fact provided the EU with its own constitution by approving the Lisbon Treaty of 2007, which was to enter into force two years later. It has basically affirmed that the core of the European project lies in four treaties: the Treaty on European Union (1992), the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (formerly known as the Treaty of Rome of 1957), the European Convention for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms (ECHR, approved by the Council of Europe in 1950) and the Charter of fundamental rights of the European Union (also known as the Nice Charter, approved in 2000 with the purpose of securing rights and freedoms to all citizens of the Union, officially sanctioning those which had been recognized by the jurisprudence of the Court of EU Justice).
Nowadays the EU, which in the last 25 years has adopted an enlargement policy at the expense of the western frontier of the former Soviet Union, is composed of 28 countries (plus 7 other candidates to join in the near future), which covers approximately 4 and a half million square kilometers from the Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsula to the Baltic countries bordering the Russian Federation, inhabited by just over half a billion people, with the highest GDP in the world ($ 18,495,349 billion, about 1 billion more than the United States).
However, what, in the idea of its proponents, was supposed to pave the way for a federal Europe, or at least a (really) political one, turned out to be its Achilles heel. In fact, the unregulated monetary union implemented in 2002, which created the so-called eurozone, has caused serious imbalances that have emerged in all their evidence following the outbreak of the sovereign debt crisis in the wake of the 2008 subprime crisis in the United States. A number of European countries, including Cyprus, Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain, failed to repay their sovereign debt after bailing out the banking system (or an unsustainable public administration, with regard to Athens), triggering panic among international investors. Such panic resulted into a hurry to sell government bonds of PIIGS countries (affecting Italy, too), so that the flow of international capital headed toward German Bunds, due to its two lower yields.
Following the intervention of the Troika (that is, the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the European Commission), the continent has then divided into two opposing sides. On the one hand, those in favor of austerity, mainly the Scandinavian and Central-Northern European countries, led by German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble; on the other, mostly Mediterranean movements (Podemos, SYRIZA…) demanding an end to self-defeating economic rigor and increased investment to boost public and private sectors, as well as to oppose the dramatic scourge of unemployment. The above-mentioned factions are clearly visible in the debate over the Greek bail-out.
As almost always happens, the virtue lies somewhere in between. How cleverly pointed out by several experts in a document published by the Italian-based Institute of Federalist Studies “Altiero Spinelli”:
The lack of coordination and rescue plans adopted from time to time does not allow to make financial discipline and economic growth compatible. Even worse, spending cuts, trying to accomplish immediate gains, mainly affect social spending and investment, negatively affecting the future.
This uncertainty hinders demand and households prefer to save in anticipation of future taxes. At the same time, banks limit loans to the private sector in order to restore their balance sheets. So that the revival can not come from the application nor from private investment nor from public procurement. The most indebted countries are therefore destined to a very low growth or, worse, to recession, which aggravates the burden of their debts. If the current scenario is perpetuated over time, the euro will no longer have the means to resist the centrifugal tendencies and the growth of populism. The end of the Euro will then be only a matter of time. The European Union won’t emerge from this crisis without a paradigm shift.
Another factor that added further fuel on the fire is the unprecedented influx of migrants in the Old Continent, favored by crises spread throughout the Greater Middle East, especially in Libya (the hub) and Syria. The three main routes, clearly on the Mediterranean, include the Spanish coast near the Strait of Gibraltar (Ceuta and Melilla), the Strait of Sicily (with Malta), and the stretch of sea between Greece and Turkey. Men and women who pay unscrupulous smugglers (protagonists of the fastest growing criminal activity) hundreds of dollars to travel on makeshift boats are reportedly a mix of economic migrants and political refugees.
According to the Dublin II Regulation, enacted in 2003, the first country an immigrant arrives in is responsible for processing his/her asylum application or recognition of refugee status. However, this criterion has been harshly criticized by Mediterranean nations (Italy in the first place), which have accused Brussels of unloading migration problems on the border lands, causing overcrowding in reception centers and bureaucratic delays. Consequently, many Italian officials have turned a blind eye to those avoiding identifying in Italy as the latter are headed towards other destinations, namely Germany, Britain, Scandinavia and France. The result has been European neighbors’ stance, which provoked the freezing de facto of the Schengen Area and numerous migrant rejections on the Italian borders with France at Ventimiglia and with Austria at the Brenner Pass.
It is foreseen that the waves of immigrants will be inescapably hitting European shores for several more years, or at least until the root causes of the phenomenon (poverty, rampant corruption, war) are eradicated or significantly alleviated. Until then, the EU, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, needs to reach diplomatic agreements with the countries of the area and, more importantly, shape a real migration policy, inspired not only on basic humanitarian principles, but also on the fight against criminal organizations and the countries’ capacity of reception and inclusion in the social fabric.
The leaders of the European Union, a hybrid creature that is both/either everything and/or nothing, have to take charge of a responsibility that in the short term is not likely to provide them with votes, but rather the gratitude of future generations. This responsibility is to avoid sterile populism-nationalism and continue on the path of a just and regulated European integration, which has already contributed to pacifying a historically warlike continent. Only such a solution will be able to cope against the three greatest internal crisis, namely the eurozone crisis, the migration crisis and the terrorist threat. Moreover, this would allow the European Union to forge a more authoritative foreign policy and become a fundamental actor in solving international crises (from the Near East to Russia), in order to shape a comprehensive world order.
It is double … or nothing.