"Where do we go from here?". After a protest in Athens, Greece. Demotix/Socrates Baltagiannis. All rights reserved.
The European crisis has become the most popular topic of debate amongst Europeans and a fundamental subject of research for many academics. For the past couple of years we have witnessed a period of constant readjustments of European governance. But many citizens are now accusing European authorities of procrastination and faulty communication. Unfortunately, seemingly inextricable issues such as wide unemployment and a deep recession support this view. This situation yields a rather disparaging image for the citizens of Europe, and yet another intensification of the crisis has become the biggest collective fear or, more pessimistically, an inevitable prospect.
The crisis did not only have economic and political consequences, but has also reinforced a new sociocultural framework, through which national societies consider the Union with negativity, suspicion and scepticism. This framework, generally referred to as euroscepticism, may be one of the most negative consequences of austerity. On the one hand it is vital for eurozone members to consolidate a concrete fiscal framework to ensure a prosperous future, but on the other the ruthlessness dindicated by the measures so far blocks any potential for a rational popular response – not to mention the popular perception of the Union having shifted from generous paymaster to strict regulator demanding drastic cuts.
The resurgence of demagogic politics is the first expression of euroscepticism. The most glaring example appears to be Golden Dawn, the Greek far-right party, which not only managed to increase its share of the vote to a historical high in the last election, but is also considered the third strongest political party in the country according to the latest opinion polls. Of course, nobody can blame the electorate for its choice, since Golden Dawn was democratically elected to Parliament. However, the thematic cores of its policies, adamantly opposed to the European Union and strongly predicated on the premise of chauvinism and xenophobia, are resolutely nation-centred and eurosceptic.
In the Netherlands, the far-right party of Geert Wilders - a political personality known for his resolute anti-European stance - was defeated during the Dutch elections this last September. But this was not because the Dutch stopped believing that the Southern Europeans are taking advantage of the assets of the North, but rather because they wanted to claim a stronger position in the Union. The two centre-left and centre-right parties who won the election have fully integrated negative stances on immigration and the EU into their platforms - if anything, these elections have proved how the eurosceptic sentiment has fully permeated Dutch mainstream political discourse, especially when one considers the traditionally pro-European Dutch context. Additionally, the country's PM, Mark Rutte is still one of Angela Merkel's strongest allies within the eurogroup, and as such certainly shares her stance towards the South.
These cases are just a glimpse of how euroscepticism has risen equally in the North and in the South for absolutely different reasons but with the exact same consequence: profound disapproval of the socio-political tactics of the European Union. Europeans have become more prejudiced against other member states, less open to innovative ideas and more disbelieving of a hypothetical “intercultural dialogue for European integration”, as is stated among the main objectives of the Commission. European cultural capital is significantly altered and the fact that multliple political lapses are changing the way the citizens see, evaluate and experience Europe, is a crucial issue which cannot be overlooked.
For example, Italy has frequently been accused of maintaining an inefficient taxation system that enlarged the public debt and consequently widened the eurozone crisis. Many, especially in the northern European media, have claimed that Italians wanted to avoid paying taxes and that the system was overly accommodating in allowing this kind of bad behaviour. However, almost no one noted that a dysfunctional policy imposed by the government and the business interests that some politicians wanted to please does not necessarily describe a national tendency towards tax evasion. The media – intentionally or unintentionally - has formed a common perception according to which the debt-stricken countries do not have a single law-abiding citizen, while the strong economies do all the work to support the Union. So much for European solidarity.
Consequently, the implementation of unilateral austerity, a procedure that was designed, proposed and put into practice by the aforesaid strong economies, didn't only create deeper recession but also generated an unbridgeable gap in terms of how societies now think of Europe. When the North considers the South as a source of a potential general default and the South thinks of the North as the origin of social destabilization and financial laceration, euroscepticism becomes more than a mere theoretical issue. It is now a full component of our collective sociocultural identity – and ironically enough one of the rare common denominators between southern and northern Europe's vision of the world.
This dysfunctional framework determines how societies are facing other societies within the European political family. Stereotypes and oversimplified conceptions about how laborious, organised, structured, or “euro-friendly” each European nation is have become the bone of contention in an already volatile situation. Many now consider that, contrary to the Union's motto, unity doesn't equate to strength, since every effort for a holistic approach in economic terms (the eurozone and its common currency being the best example) or a collective social policy (through EU regulations) is now seen as a potential existential threat through the prism of the demagogic 'National Us' in all European societies.
It is rather clear that the keystone of this crisis is profoundly cultural – therefore the solution should be cultural as well. Now is the moment to consider solid, strong and real integration as an antidote to political disorientation. The Union cannot function, develop and mostly survive when each member state considers itself as an individual amongst individuals. The complex European cultural mosaic needs the reestablishment of the European idea as a means for socioeconomic development and real, intercultural dialogue and exchange. This crisis has only further brought to light the fact that the European Union has never been sufficiently integrated and that it is time for a coherent and pragmatic plan aiming to forge a collective European culture. When remedial measures obliterate any possibility of development, social cohesion and cultural merging become the cure. There is an old saying, 'where there is a will, there is a way’. The point is to find the will - there is a way for sure.
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