I am on the Eurostar, travelling between my new-found home in London and my place of birth in Belgium. As the train runs smoothly in its tracks, a quintessentially British landscape unfolds beneath the skies where the RAF and the Luftwaffe tore the Old Europe apart 70 years ago. None of the devastating slaughter of that time has been repeated since then, at least not on this continent. The European Union prides itself in having created the first era of peace in a tremendously long time and perhaps rightly so. Yet it seems that decades of welfare, interaction and integration still haven’t provided a foundation on which Europe’s half a billion citizens can truly rely. Even the once so evident concept of democracy is barely managing to maintain its grip as the economic crisis tears through our societies.
The heads of state in the hardest-hit countries are replaced overnight; others struggle hard to overcome the political deadlock that makes then unable to govern. At the level of EU, after a series of crisis meetings, timid decisions are taken but are lacking the popular support, legal legitimacy and economic common sense, and fall short in meeting the ambitions of the trillion euro packages.
For an individual taxpayer, Europe is becoming a debt-based society in more than one way: economically, but also politically and socially, structures are built and burdened on broken or absent foundations. A Chinese speaker at the Berlin Foreign Policy Forum last month defended the Asian principle that the legitimacy of a state (or any other political construct, for that matter) is not in the procedures of its policy-making, but in their outcomes. Arguably, this is a very convenient viewpoint for China today, yet some of it rang true. The European Union, despite being profoundly integrated and entrusted with a mandate for unprecedented supranational rule, has failed to provide the regulation, the foresight or even an early warning to prevent the steady formation of a financial Pandora’s Box in the heart of our economies. Therefore, it has lost a critical part of its legitimacy, as both the definition and the practice of its raison d‘être remain unfulfilled. If this crisis teaches anything, it must be that the EU’s responsibility and accountability can no longer be loosely defined as the grey zone between national governmental limitations and globalized, ambiguous ideals.
Having said that, national governments – European and worldwide – are far from innocent victims here. Politicians, and their electorates, have bought into the idea of easy capital and copious growth with a sickening devotion that rendered them incompetent to regulate and control the suppliers of that cash flow. In many ways, this approach to economy is perhaps a child of that previous western sin: colonialism. Once again we have collectively and passionately believed that welfare and progress could come from that single source outside of our traditional support system. We believed it would be mould in our hands, that we would be able or even entitled to control it, that obtaining it would be a mere competition between equally hungry players rather than a learning process or a careful, informed approach. And when one project failed or a bubble burst, it would be deemed an exceptional circumstance, the black swan in the flock, rather than a cause to reassess the concept as a whole. Colonialism backfired, because the individuals involved earned a sadistic degree of liberty with the wealth they supposedly generated. But it also backfired because a system of economic exploitation and social arrogance is never sustainable. Because much of the gross domestic production was no longer truly domestic or material. And because the whole of western society was so bought into the system, only a complete collapse could make it reconsider its principles. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? A profit of this size never comes without victims and villains, and therefore will not last without a possibly greater cost for society. Colonialism is a black mark that lives on around the world, in pain in our former colonies, and to a large extent in denial here in Europe. It becomes exceedingly clear that several new generations will bear the marks of this financial crisis as well, and that the seeds of denial and easy money have already been sown again. Mr. Cameron did his part in that just a few weeks ago, when he defended the City that directly and indirectly holds the reigns of a third of the British economy, and turned his back on an agreement that, in the long run, could get this island back to generating value rather than capital.
My Eurostar train is approaching Brussels, where the empty EU institutions wait for their workforce to return after New Year ‘s Eve. My mind is on Sudan however, where according to recent news, rape has become the weapon of war it already was in Congo and elsewhere. Thousands of women, often extremely vulnerable due to their refugee status, extreme poverty and illiteracy, are raped, sold into sex slavery and killed in a conflict that will not see its end in 2012, or likely even 2013. The European Union will not be of any meaningful assistance here, as we are preoccupied with our own institutional and economic turmoil. Do remember however, that while we are navel gazing, both our western democratic principles and our model of regional integration are losing credibility in exactly those places where they could have made a difference now. With so many headlines speaking of failure and collapse, citizens in Europe and abroad are reluctant to invest in something as complex, inaccessible and seemingly reckless as the European Union.
Brussels-South station is a place of many colours, most of all in the faces of the people passing by. Their future, regardless of their nationality or cultural identity, is standing on unsteady grounds, moved by too many single-minded forces. May 2012 be the year in which Europe gets to know itself better, and sees that the same short-term, fast-profit results will ultimately lead to the same destructive outcomes we have seen so many times before. May 2012 be the year in which Europe realises the world is changing, and that with the instrument is has in its hands, it can be made a change for the better.
Happy New Year.