“A worried Per Stig Møller warns: The EU is about to disintegrate, and it’s getting pretty serious.”
The headline of the article in Berlingske was shocking. One of Denmark’s most highly-regarded former foreign ministers, a Europhile conservative, was warning that Europe is on the verge of collapse.
But, as is so often the case these days, it was clickbait. Møller isn’t suggesting that Denmark should pre-emptively exit the union, as the Brits have done. Instead, he calls for even closer European cooperation and for politicians to emphasise the importance of a united Europe.
“[Politicians have] not started a clear discussion about how far we want to take the EU. They hesitate because they sense a latent opposition in many countries. That’s why they never really explain why we need a strong EU. A changed EU on some points, but not an end to the EU – I don’t think that will ever happen.”
Compare that last sentence with the headline, and they don’t really add up. But the headline serves a pervasive narrative: Europe’s in crisis. There’s Brexit, the rise of leaders such as Le Pen and Wilders, the development of illiberal regimes in Hungary and Poland, the continued economic crisis in southern Europe.
This narrative forms the common thread in Adam Holm’s latest book, a collection of interviews with European thinkers, all of whom share a pessimistic view of Europe’s future. Among them is British historian Antony Beevor, who said regarding Europe: “We are witnessing history’s slowest train crash.”
Beevor blames European federalists for creating a backlash to the EU by pushing for too much cohesion.
“Are we to have a super state, a common European ‘country’ with a flag, language, currency?”
It’s a strange question, because the idea that the EU poses a threat to the nation state is not something that worries my generation. We don’t really know ‘sovereign states’ in the way Beevor does. A borderless Europe is all that many of us know, and telling us that we can’t live and work where we like in the union seems as absurd as telling someone from Copenhagen they need a visa to work in Aarhus.
This doesn’t mean that young people aren’t aware of the problems the EU faces. My generation is extremely focused on the migration crisis, social dumping and youth unemployment in southern Europe. But few, if any, argue that the best way to solve these problems is by ending the EU. On the contrary, as Møller points out in the article, the EU is the best tool for solving all of these problems.
Nevertheless, Beevor’s metaphor is an important one. I would argue that if Europe is a train at risk of derailing, the most likely cause would be if the builders put down their tools and stopped laying the track ahead of it. We are the builders, and our belief in the project is what builds the track and sustains it.
The UK lost its EU membership out of neglect, because too few politicians dared to stand up for the importance of the European project. This is obvious from the ignorance expressed in British tabloids about the workings of the EU, and reality of what leaving will mean for the UK unless it accepts free movement.
And I am heartbroken because I know that millions of people who voted to leave will be worse off in a UK where they and their children lack the right to live, work and travel on the rest of the continent, where qualified workers from neighbouring countries can’t plug labour shortages in their vital public services, when the market for their products diminishes.
I write a lot about the EU in The Murmur, because I am worried we all will lose it through neglect. I worry that too few understand what it is and what it does, so there are too few to stand up for it.
But there is reason for hope. While the rise of modern populism is often blamed on the EU, the modest success of populist parties is perhaps actually a testament to the fact that Europeans prefer the status quo, where our interests are intimately intertwined, to a Europe predicated on national and ethnic divisions.
So maybe the dream of a federal EU is over. But that’s alright, because the EU we’ve got is pretty incredible. Rather than replace nation states, it’s made them stronger, by creating a platform for negotiating differences and finding common ground based on shared values, rather than identity. And that’s worth fighting for. M