The news today that the United Kingdom managed to avoid a triple dip recession during the first quarter of the year comes as a boost to morale, even though the growth rate, at 0.3%, is pathetic. 0.4% less and everybody would be lamenting the triple dip. (Question: are stats reliable enough to measure growth that accurately?)
The UK isn’t the only country in the European Union struggling economically. There is even greater suffering across the water in the Eurozone countries, those European nations that use the euro as their common currency.
Spain’s unemployment rate has risen again to 27.2%, over six million people; while the rate for those 25 and under is a staggering 57%. At the same time, the French unemployment rate has just grown for the 23rd month in a row.
It’s not surprising that the public is losing confidence in the European Union, which is failing to deliver on its promises. There is little or no confidence in the austerity measures that some countries have introduced. An article in Wednesday’s Guardian (UK) highlights the problems:
“Public confidence in the European Union has fallen to historically low levels in the six biggest EU countries, raising fundamental questions about its democratic legitimacy more than three years into the union’s worst ever crisis, new data shows.
“After financial, currency and debt crises, wrenching budget and spending cuts, rich nations’ bailouts of the poor, and surrenders of sovereign powers over policymaking to international technocrats, Euroscepticism is soaring to a degree that is likely to feed populist anti-EU politics and frustrate European leaders’ efforts to arrest the collapse in support for their project.
“Figures from Eurobarometer, the EU’s polling organisation, analysed by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), a thinktank, show a vertiginous decline in trust in the EU in countries such as Spain, Germany and Italy that are historically very pro-European.
“The six countries surveyed – Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Spain, and Poland – are the EU’s biggest, jointly making up more than two out of three EU citizens or around 350 million of the EU’s 500 million population.
“The findings, published exclusively in the Guardian in Britain and in collaboration with other leading newspapers in the other five countries, represent a nightmare for Europe’s leaders, whether in the wealthy north or in the bailout-battered south, suggesting a much bigger crisis of political and democratic legitimacy.” (“Crisis for Europe as trust hits record low”, Ian Traynor, Europe editor of the Guardian, 24 April).
Things do not look good for the European Union, a 27-nation democratic club that has helped Europe avoid conflict for over 50 years. Will the EU survive? Or will it fall apart? If the latter, what will replace it?
It’s important to remember that, while there are similarities between Europe and the US, there are also some major differences. Chiefly, that whereas the United States has been a unitary nation, a federal republic, without a serious blip for almost 150 years, since the end of the Civil War, European countries have seen a great deal of turmoil in that time period.
150 years ago, most of the nations that currently comprise the European Union, were monarchies, or ruled over by imperial monarchies like Austria or Russia. During the last 15 decades, they have experienced social upheaval, wars, and revolutions in a way that America hasn’t. The United Kingdom is an exception, being stable for over three centuries.
The point here is that we should not necessarily expect democracy as we know it to continue on the continent of Europe. Can Spain really withstand 27.2 % unemployment? Many Spaniards must remember the dictatorship of General Franco, which only ended I n 1975. There must be nostalgia amongst some for a return to the conditions that then existed, prior to the EU. This will also be the case in Portugal and Greece, where fascist dictatorships ended about the same time.
The peoples of the former communist countries of eastern Europe will also be looking back nostalgically to the time of full employment, under communism. Of course, they never really had full employment, but every citizen had a responsibility given them by the state, even if it was only sweeping the streets.
Change does not have to be the result of economic problems. There is a sense among many Europeans that politicians have imposed a racially mixed society upon them against their will. There is also disillusionment with radical changes in society like gay marriage (see quote below this article). There is little or no trust in government or its institutions.
European history teaches us that violent upheaval can suddenly come, overthrowing a regime overnight. France in July 1789, Russia in February 1917 are the two most notable examples. But, remember, in 1848 virtually the whole continent experienced revolution as uprisings toppled almost every government, or forced radical change upon their leaders. In 1989 something similar happened in the East, when communist regimes fell like dominoes.
Let us not be naïve in assuming that now these countries have democracy, they will stay that way. When democracies fail to provide basic needs, like employment and housing, people will look for alternatives. At such a time, any demagogue or rabble-rouser can promise paradise and they will believe it.
In Russia, a 300-year-old dynasty was overthrown as a result of a shortage of bread and the riot that resulted from it. Twenty, forty or sixty years of democracy can suddenly change. Everybody knows enough history to be aware that Europe hasn’t always been democratic – it can easily be non-democratic again!
“Paris: Revolutions are often sparked by an unexpected shock to an already weakened regime. As commentators in France remark not only on the crisis engulfing François Hollande’s government but also on the apparent death-rattle of the country’s entire political system, it could be that his flagship policy of legalising gay marriage — or rather, the gigantic public reaction against it, unique in Europe — will be the last straw that breaks the Fifth -Republic’s back.”
(“Why France’s gay marriage debate has started to look like a revolution,” John Laughland, The Spectator (UK), 27th April).