Europe has kept the peace but less bureaucracy, please
The trend towards EU devolution might be the answer, but today's citizens might well pause to reflect on why the union was founded in the first place.
Historians could well look back on 2018 as a year of inflection in modern Europe, a time when long-serving liberal political parties started losing their appeal, when further integration between countries was no longer an article of faith and when countries found merit in hardening along the ancient geographical lines and values.
It was a year when the notion of an ever-greater European Union was relegated to trash and urgent new voices shouted out the imperatives of self-interest and individual needs of nations. The experiment in bonding that followed WWII had been tried and its limits found.
Just a few years ago, the notion of a common future led by the EU seemed so well entrenched that its parliament was busy formulating more ambitious regulations and plans. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was reassuringly the head of the EU's biggest economic power, distant cousin Britain was difficult but still firmly at the table, Italy was led by the conventional centre-left Democratic Party, and France appeared ever-keen for an ever-grander role in a burgeoning EU.
Today Britain is walking away from the union, Merkel is preparing to step down after defeats at the polls, Italy is led by a coalition of anti-establishment parties and France has faced its biggest revolt in at least a decade. More changes are expected as the EU parliamentary elections take place in May next year. Most observers expect a greatly altered EU governing body next spring, perhaps decisive for the very future of the European Union.
From the vantage point of history, the real breakwater is surely the surge in refugees who inundated the continent in 2015. Millions of asylum seekers, both political and economic, sought refuge in benevolent Europe as word spread they would not be turned back and their basic needs and healthcare would be provided.
Mediterranean countries accepted them as a fait accompli and northern nations formulated plans to take their fair share. Quotas were imposed by the EU that were selectively implemented. The British balked and voted to leave while other European citizens wondered if their leaders had indeed gone too far in their compliance to politically correct views.
In some countries it was unclear how many refugees had arrived and where they all were. One of the crowning achievements of the EU, the Schengen Agreement that opened the borders within Europe, also facilitated the free movement of illegal immigrants.
Conflicts over national budgets also erupted as the conservative north imposed fiscal restraint on the more profligate south. Some countries charge that the common market and euro currency structurally favour industrialised Germany, leaving them at a perpetual disadvantage.
According to economist Pier Carlo Padoan, former Italian Minister of Economy and Finance, problems in France, the UK and Italy are a result of the actions of their own governments. He talks in term of a new self-inflicted European political virus.
"On one hand Europe is seen as the root of all evil, and as such is rejected," Padoan writes in the Italian daily Il Foglio newspaper. "On the other hand, Europe is underestimated in its role as a strategic system that reduces uncertainty and supports development. But it would be an equally great mistake to assume that Europe has no responsibility," says the member of Italy's Democratic Party. "In many cases Europe has not been able to adapt its strategy and response to the tumultuous evolution of the global, European and national frameworks, and to financial crisis. And for this reason, it has generated uncertainty and disillusionment."
The rebellious virus spreading across Europe can surely be traced to grassroots citizens. In a continent considered the most advanced in the world, one that espouses high-minded culture and universal rights for people, many are finding it hard to make the ends meet each month. Some say they face a decision between a full cart of groceries and a tank of gasoline. They wonder how advanced Europe could come to such a hardscrabble place. High tax rates and bureaucracy certainly play a part, with the EU regulating virtually every aspect of life. And certainly, the universal health care and generous pension plans come at a price: some of the highest taxes in the world imposed by individual nations themselves.
The new EU parliament that will be seated following elections in May will likely have a much different hue. The Greens are rising along with the rightwing AfD in Germany, the nationalist League and populist Five Star Movement are in power in Italy and the "yellow vests" have vociferously disrupted the status quo in France.
The trend toward EU devolution might be the answer, but today's citizens might well pause to reflect on why the union was founded in the first place, events so burned in our consciousness that they require only a couple of abbreviations for full reference: WWI and WWII.
The EU and its member nations might have overreached themselves, but more than 70 years without widespread armed conflict is a record for the storied continent.
Now, if they could just dial down the regulation and bureaucracy.
Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are editors at www.luminosityitalia.com news agency in Milan