Living in Brussels, it’s easy to be sucked into the prevailing pessimistic and heart-wrenchingly grim European Union narrative. The one that says that the EU is falling apart, Brexit will prompt other countries to leave the bloc and there’s no common ground among the remaining 27 members.
So, let’s close the EU shop and will the last one out, please turn off the lights. And please do it quickly. Now!
Really? Is it that bad? Or is it the case — as a Chinese friend said to me this week — that European leaders are just suffering from a particularly bad case of the blues. Or as she put it: “Why can’t European leaders get their act together and stop whining and whinging about their ‘first world problems’.”
And whining they definitely are. In separate public statements last week both Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission President and Donald Tusk, the EU Council President — the two men and rivals who run two key EU institutions from their perch in Brussels — painted a very similar picture of a Europe ready to fall off the cliff.
It was stark stuff. “Our European Union is, at least in part, in an existential crisis.” Juncker confessed in an almost hour-long “State of the Union” speech to the European parliament.
“Never before have I seen such little common ground between our member states. So few areas where they agree to work together,” he complained.
EU member states — with Britain set to negotiate its way out of the bloc — were in a state of fragmentation. “Never before have I seen national governments so weakened by the forces of populism and paralysed by the risk of defeat in the next elections,” said Juncker.
Not to be outdone, Tusk in a similarly downbeat mood, called on EU leaders to take a “brutally honest” look at the bloc’s problems, declaring in a reference to the Brexit vote: “We must not let this crisis go to waste.”
“We can’t start our discussion … with this kind of blissful conviction that nothing is wrong, that everything was and is OK,” intoned Tusk. “We have to assure … our citizens that we have learned the lesson from Brexit.”
Interestingly, despite their differences and their rivalry, both men came up with a similar solution to putting Europe back together again: pull up the drawbridge, talk tough on security and come up with an array of new initiatives to distract, deflect and dazzle.
Tusk spoke of the need to bring back “stability and a sense of security and effective protection”. The former Polish prime minister echoed the demands being made by many other leaders from eastern Europe to enhance border security, step up counterterrorism and efforts to “bring back control of globalisation” — whatever that means.
Juncker also talked tough. The focus was on building a “better Europe that protects, empowers and defends”, he declared. His cure for ending the EU’s “collective depression” is to convince the UK to trigger the exit talks as quickly as possible, set up a common European military force and appoint an EU foreign minister.
Stronger efforts to “defend ourselves against terrorism” would include more information on “who is crossing our borders”. A so-far mysterious “automated” European Travel Information System will provide information on “who is travelling to Europe before they even get here”.
He insisted that the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, should have a seat at the table in negotiations on Syria’s future. And in case you were wondering, the EU will also strengthen its trade defence instruments and make sure China curbed its steel exports.
And oh yes, there will be free wireless internet in public places all over Europe, in the next four years.
Both Tusk and Juncker have made the headlines of course. Bad news always does.
But the more EU leaders talk down Europe — and bewilder already puzzled Europeans with more incomprehensible and makeshift initiatives — the more they perpetuate the myth of a lost continent.
The truth is more complex. Yes, Europe faces many problems. Unemployment remains high and its economy has been weakened by years of economic stagnation and budgetary austerity policies.
The East-West divide is deep. The “Gang of Four” leaders of eastern European states — Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic — want a closed-off white and Christian Europe which has little truck with diversity and inclusiveness. And so on.
But the bottom line is that despite all the moaning and groaning by policymakers, the European story remains a strong one. Europe has room for — and a need for — the million or so refugees and migrants who have arrived on its shores.
Terror attacks continue to threaten Europe’s “way of life” but intelligence agencies are getting better at foiling plots and catching would-be terrorists. The number of European “foreign fighters” heading off to Syria is going down.
The EU has brought years of peace, reconciliation among enemies, the creation of a frontier-free single market and the free movement of people.
Those watching Europe from outside recognise the EU’s strength and resilience. They also know that it is not the EU that has lost its way, its Europe’s squabbling, fractious and dysfunctional leaders.