My host father has worked for over twenty years as a translator at the European Commission, an arm of the EU with a staggering range of responsibilities. To provide a sense of scale, he is one of more than 30,000 European civil servants employed by the Commission – 30,000 Europeans who owe their livelihoods, and to an extent their allegiance, not to Germany or France or Belgium, but to Europe. When my host father talks of Europe, whether as a continent, an assemblage of institutions, or an idea being made reality by one of international politics’ boldest projects, he speaks with an audible and obvious pride that one never hears when he is talking about Germany, in the singular. And rightly so – he has played a small but essential role in the realization of a grand vision, one which demands the grit of the civil servant as much as it requires the guiding hand of the visionary. The European project has been nearly seven decades in the making; from a continent of dust and rubble has risen a truly extraordinary creation, one which represents a momentous step in the dealings of the world’s most political animals.
All this to underscore the tragedy, from a personal and historical perspective, of the troubles now facing the continent and the European Union. A specter is once again going around Europe: the specter of Euro-skepticism. With origins in the 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing tragicomedy of debt swaps and bailouts, this “ideology” – more of a vague but powerful dissatisfaction – has been stoked in recent years by the Syrian refugee crisis, which has put an undeniable pressure on Southern European nations to act not in their own interests, nor even in European interests, but in humanitarian interests. Populist parties have surged in popularity since the start of the Syrian war, and in Italy – a country with an economy considered “too big to fail” – two Euro-skeptic parties are ruling in coalition and threatening to pull out of the EU. Even at Schengen (pictured below), the Luxembourgish town in which the first European open-border accord was signed, the attitude is far from optimistic. My host father wonders aloud whether Schengen will mean anything in half a decade.
Whither Europa? That is now the question, as we plod along toward the next decade, exhausted by reactionary politics and a stagnation of civil discourse. Citizens the world over are forcibly reexamining the liberal assumptions that have guided foreign policy since the end of the Second World War. The emphasis of absolute rather than relative gains, economic interdependence as the guarantor of cooperation and peace, a trust in international institutions – faith in these basic principles has eroded in the past decade, for better or for worse. For worse, certainly, if one is in favor of a united Europe.
To abandon the project now would be a great sadness, not only for my host father, but to a continent that has achieved so much. Still, the legitimate grievances of the Euro-skeptics must not be ignored. Indeed, there is no better way of ensuring the dissolution of the Union than to strengthen the narrative that the European elites don’t really care about countries like Italy and Greece. But any long-term solution must be an agreement based in trust. And trust, more than any other necessity, is in extremely short supply.