Monday 4 October 2010

What has the EU done for You, lately?

As everyone knows, the EU has been tremendously successful in achieving its geopolitical goals 1) peacefully contain the dominant continental power, Germany, and 2) save Eastern Europe from the collapse of the USSR (just look at the former Soviet republics to see what would have happened otherwise). But these achievements have the drawback of being deeply dull, and even worse, about things that didn't even happen. What has the EU done for You, lately?

As we have all heard, the EU project is in trouble, constitutionally constipated; monetarily challenged; and full of prickly national sovereignty (except Belgium which achieves binationalist prickliness). Strangely enough, despite the official gloom the three central components of the EU project - economic, political, and social unification, - are still making progress, just not in the ways you might expect.

At the economic level we have apparent dis-unification, as collective illusions about the Euro unravel. Our economies are working at different speeds, and, it has become clear, under rather different institutional arrangements. But step back from the big economic news of the day and things look quite different. Trade between EU countries, facilitated by some explicit harmonisation of standards and procedures, often in the direction of deregulation, and an increased general sense of trust, is higher than ever. The effect of this can be seen most strikingly in the amazing success of airline deregulation - the rise of the budget airline. These have made it possible for nearly every European to visit another EU country as a consumption choice, rather than as a threat to their job. It is now almost possible to commute to work in a far-off city (though that doesn't much please environmentalists).

At the political level, the formal structures are clearly failing. Half the EU governments themselves openly declare that have no interest in the 'ever closer union' as a political project; most Europeans find pan-European institutions baffling or ridiculous (the European Council is not the same as the Council of the European Union or the Council of Europe?); and even the EU parliament has an enormous democratic deficit. And yet, I think we are more and more beginning to feel like European citizens (even if that identity is still a distant second to our national identity). Again, this has hardly been the result of higher level institutions, but rather of a combination of citizen-level rights and programmes. We have acquired various citizenship-type rights valid across the EU, such as the right to move and work abroad (which gives EU citizens uniform and extensive rights in other countries that can often be greater than their own nationals have!). When people make political claims it has an effect on their sense of their political agency – as they assume the identity of a person with the right to have rights i.e. a European citizen. 

Nevertheless, such rights are still relatively insignificant since only 3% of the EU's population currently live in another EU country (and many of those are retirees in monolingual colonies along the Spanish coast). Apart from anything else, Europe's language barriers are significant - internal mobility is never going to be like it is in America. But there is another EU programme that may be having a far more significant effect: The Erasmus Exchange Programme. This gives grants to support university students (3 million so far; several hundred thousand per year!) to study in another EU country for 3 months or more.

The academic benefits of the Erasmus programme are probably rather modest, but the students certainly come out of it feeling more European. They get to live their European rights, rather than thinking of them in the abstract like most people do. They get to live in a community with students from other nationalities, including other exchange students, They speak to each other in the international language of young Europe, English, and build lasting friendships and romantic partnerships across borders. In the words of one student, prominently displayed on the Erasmus website of the European Commission,"I realised that the experience made a whole new person of me and that I would never look at the world and Europe, my home, as I did before."

Although a relatively small proportion of the EU's university student population, Erasmians may have an outsize influence on the EU's future both because they are themselves members of the socio-economic group that will be running Europe's major private and public institutions in 20 years time, and because their presence also stimulates the host country students they meet to consider their European identity.

Finally, social unification. A pan-European culture would complement and support the EU's political unification. But it is a little difficult to get anywhere on this without agreeing on a European language (of course this should be and will be English, but even then it would only be a shared second language). There is consumed culture: the high streets of European cities are increasingly indistinguishable in terms of the brands and retail chains on offer. But this kind of homogenisation is somehow dissatisfying as the basis for an ambitious European project - it doesn't make you feel European (or inspire much feeling at all). Fortunately there is at least one pan-European cultural experience that is absolutely European and absolutely a success: The Eurovision Song Contest. This feast of kitsch brings together all the nations of the EU who want to compete (and everyone else within the European Broadcasting Union). They can decide on their own style, and language (usually English), and then show off their charms to an audience of upwards of 100 million TV viewers! Eurovision has become a source of endless fascination, and even serious academic enquiry. A certain European taste seems to have appeared, and shifted to the East over time: Western European countries compete ironically (with hilariously camp costumes); as you go East they start taking it all very seriously (power ballads).

Obviously the EU does not really come down to cheap flights, a student-exchange programme, and an international song context. There is much more going on than that. These are just slightly quirky examples, though not insignificant for all that. What they show is that much of the EU's successes are taking place outside the formal political and bureaucratic sphere, which is a good thing considering the current sclerosis and collapse of morale in Brussels these days. In fact all of them have the additional feature of exceeding the EU's official borders (e.g. Morocco, Israel, and Azerbaijan are in Eurovision; Turkey and Ukraine in Erasmus) although the EU is certainly at their core and is what made each of them possible. There is an outward-facing optimism about the European project supported by the quiet emergence of a European identity in the lives of ordinary people that is quite different from the current navel-gazing official EU gloom.