Despite persistent predictions of its fragmentation, the European Union continues to grow. Last Monday, Croatia became its 28th member and another eight countries are in line to accede. And yet the image of a united Europe has been bruised badly by the economic crisis. Despite widespread malaise and the return of national stereotypes and old disputes, there is no plan for Europe’s falling apart. The only solution then is the protection of its achievements and the adoption of new measures and institutions that will strengthen the whole and each of its parts.
The debt crisis that was first registered in Greece in late 2009 turned out to be much greater, affecting the economies, politics and societies of many countries. It revealed also that the EU had neither the ideas nor the mechanisms to deal with difficulties. The general impotence, the mistaken calculations and wrong actions, the focus on national interests rather than those that would benefit the Union as a whole, all contributed to worsening the crisis at all levels. Gradually, decisions were taken with the aim of helping stricken countries and defending the common currency. Daring proposals were aired, such as a banking and fiscal union, such as the mutualization of debt, and so on.
Unfortunately, the fear of sharing debts and misery resulted in many ideas being lost in the persistent fog of ambiguity which allows each country to present EU decisions as it suits it. It is striking that this same lack of specifics worked magic in the markets when Mario Draghi declared that the European Central Bank would “do whatever it takes” to defend the euro. A year later, the political troubles in Greece and Portugal, and the rise of borrowing for Italy and France, among others, suggest it is time for specific measures.
Whether it likes it or not, Germany, through its mighty economy, is Europe’s leading country. Because it does not want to take charge but to lead by example, it must make clear how it sees Europe achieving greater union in the face of today’s troubles. Apart from the triptych of “fiscal discipline, solidarity and growth,” Germany ought to calculate the social cost of ever-harsher austerity in many countries, and the political consequences which strengthen forces that desire Europe’s fragmentation. Perhaps hope lies elsewhere. Next May, the citizens of the EU will elect new members of the European Parliament, who, in turn and for the first time, in July will elect a new president of the European Commission. Europe will thus acquire an institution and an official who will have broad legitimacy and the power to push forward measures to save the Union. We can only hope that capable candidates will step forward.