I have always disliked anniversaries, feeling that if something is good, its goodness speaks for itself regardless of any arbitrary landmark. So, the fact that the European Union is fifty does not matter much, what it has achieved in those years however, does; it has achieved far more than people often give it credit for. Indeed the EU may, in future generations, be seen as the most important positive development in Europe since the Enlightenment. If that process two hundred years ago spawned the ideas of individual liberty, constitutionalism and liberal democracy, few institutions have proliferated the implementation of them to quite so spectacularly as our Union.
Recently, Europe has seemed to come undone; its attempts at creating a constitution were dealt a resounding blow after voters in France and Holland, both usually known for their enthusiasm for the project, rejected it. This, combined with a decade of sluggish economic growth, fears of Islamification, growing hostility to greater expansion and administrative deadlock has caused many, not just the usual short-sighted Europhobes, all too content to convince themselves that it is some kind of modern Anschluss, to lose faith. Even I have moments of despair in the face of a seeming inability to reform and streamline.
Strangely, it was a young man on a bus somewhere south of Casablanca who restored my faith. Hamid is an economics student, living on the outskirts of the city; he laments the atrocious smog and congestion that bedevils his town, but, above all, he hopes (and believes) that his country will one day achieve the same prosperity, freedom and democracy as mine. With a paternalistic Islamic culture, a simmering conflict to the south, relatively low rates of literacy and an only partially reformed monarchy, I cannot see this happening for a long time yet. He could: the EU being the cornerstone of his argument. Hamid believes that once Turkey finally joins the union, people in established European countries will realise that there is no more inherent contradiction between Islam and constitutional democracy as with Christianity. The common market will then look to Morocco and the Magreb to expand. With the possibility of membership, the country will liberalise itself and, on joining, reap the rewards of investment and low labour costs, undergoing the same economic miracle as Ireland and Spain before it. And why not? Countries that people never thought would join, those from behind the Iron Curtain and those that once comprised Yugoslavia, have, and this county is so Europeanised (mainly due to its colonial past) so as to have a state which owes at least as much to Voltaire and Paine as to the Arabs who invaded it seven hundred years ago. The same can be said of Algeria and Tunisia.
In modern history, we have had empires aiming to “civilise” with mixed results. We have had the West attempting to bolster democracy against a socialist foe, often bolstering tyranny instead. Most recently we have had neo-conservatives trying to spread freedom through muscle. Where all these have failed, the EU has succeeded despite (or maybe because of) the fact that it never specifically tried to do so. It has provided the carrot necessary to entice peoples into change and governments to liberalise, without the indignity of occupation, the pain of military action or misplaced trust in local strongmen. We have seen already what the prospect of membership can achieve. In the 1970s and 80s, nobody besides the madly optimistic would have predicted that almost the entire Eastern European bloc would be liberal and democratic. Some may say that this would have happened with the EU or not, the itch for freedom after all those years of oppression and exploitation being enough. But the key to the speed and uniformity of reform across the area must be the EU; where membership was not an option, in central Asia and some states bordering Russia where the Kremlin still holds sway like Belarus, Moldova and pre-orange revolution Ukraine, there is (or was until recently) authoritarianism, vote rigging and wholesale government intimidation. These countries were just as put upon by the USSR as Poland or the Baltic states, and yet without the goal of membership, a foreseeable aim with certain set criteria to meet, they have taken much longer to move toward reform. The reform that has come (most notably in Ukraine) has come about mainly because many in those countries think it could be their turn next. The EU has played a large and growing role in the pacification and, now, democratisation of the Balkan nations. Croatia is in membership talks and other states are open in their ambition to join in the period from 2015 to 2025; there are many existing member states that support this. It would be a monumental achievement, guaranteeing a sustainable (unlike Marshal Tito’s oppressive but peaceful reign) end to what has, for well over a hundred years, been Europe’s bloodiest and most consistent hotbed of atrocity and violence. Macedonia and Bosnia are making good progress, while Serbia may take longer, mainly due to the unresolved issue of independence for Kosovo. It also cannot be left unmentioned that, despite some recent problems, Europe has delivered an incredible rise in prosperity. Contrary to popular belief, the union has grown economically at a faster rate than the US for most of the post war period, at least partly due to the free exchange of goods, services and labour that has allowed us to truly take advantage of our national specialities. One only has to look at the transformations in states that joined in the seventies and eighties to see this. They have not been successful purely due to the subsidies and grants received from Brussels; they have vastly improved trade ties with the single market and grown through the force of comparative advantage and by attracting investment.
Democratising the Balkans, Eastern Europe and the one-time dictatorships of Spain, Portugal and Greece, as well as producing a lasting peace and ushering in unprecedented prosperity through the free market, will be the legacy of the first half-century or so of the union. What happens next? Critics are swift to claim that Europeans have lost appetite for expansion, fearing that the impoverished hoards will steal their jobs and homes before wrecking their culture. They claim too that the social welfare model of high tax, high spending and strong labour protection laws is unfit for today’s globalised world where countries compete for investment, capital is fluid and developing countries are expanding fast. They also believe that a European Union of 27 or more countries is ungovernable. The critics seem to have good points. It does seem that countries have grown tired of expansion; numerous polls have shown disquiet on the subject, and on the whole project in general. To facilitate this there has to be a fresh agreement (the Maastricht treaty stretched only to the existing members). In the recent hostile environment, this new expansion will be harder than the last. But before losing hope, one must understand that Newton’s third law of physics, that every action has an equal and opposite reciprocal reaction, holds nearly as true in politics as it does in the physical world. The union expanded faster in the past decade than at any other point, so there was bound to be a backlash. And yet, as the new state of affairs matures, people will realise that we have only to gain from our partners to the east. Indeed, the counties that opened up most, Britain, Ireland and Finland, have gained the most. Locals have not lost jobs, inflation has been kept low more easily, job vacancies have been filled and more young, productive taxpayers are supporting our extravagant social system (crucial with our aging population). It has even helped Lembit Opik find a girlfriend. Those who claim that Europe is in terminal economic decline ought to look back to the UK in 1979, when union militancy, high taxes and vast deficits were making it “the sick man of Europe.” Now, due to the reforms of the Thatcher government in the 80s, the UK is Europe’s most successful large economy. The Economic sluggishness of the past fifteen years has been almost entirely focused on the three big countries of Germany, France and Italy. Two of these are showing good signs of change, and the other is increasingly being marginalised as a key member by Spain. Germany grew at a healthy 2.6% last year, competitiveness is up, partly due to business’ restraint in pay rises and partly due to Gerhard Schroeder’s “agenda 2010” reforms. They have a chancellor in Angela Merkel (left) who is committed to pro-market reform, despite being hamstrung by an unwieldy parliamentary coalition. The country is reminding the world why it is the world’s largest exporter after finally getting over the trillion-dollar cost of reunification. France too has been seeing a minor revival and seems likely to elect the economically liberal Nicolas Sarkozy (right) in May. Italy is, for now, a basket case, but out of bleakness can come unforeseen hope. The recent Berlin declaration has set out an agenda for reform that would streamline Europe’s now unwieldy administrative process. In short, all the problems that critics point to are transitory; in twenty years time, I will hazard a guess, they will be forgotten, or at least partially remedied.
What I see happening next is a period of consolidation, perhaps fifteen years, in which Europe will reform, country by country, and will introduce some form of constitution. In this period it will let in only a couple of countries, Croatia and Bosnia perhaps, but will prepare itself for a new wave of expansion in the 20’s, taking in Turkey, Ukraine, and the rest of the Balkans. Its economies will have gone through the pain of economic reform, but its population will still be elderly and require more young workers to support it. It will then expand into North Africa, the Caucasus and the Middle East. By the time it reaches 100, I am willing to bet that at least one of Morocco, Lebanon, Georgia, Tunisia, Algeria, Israel, Palestine or Russia will be in the EU. It is this truly incredible prospect that makes me truly sad when I go to the BBC website and read comments like: “let us hope it does not reach it’s 51st birthday” and “the EU is just an excuse for the French and Germans to steal our money.” Maybe one day they will see that for the very little we loose in sovereignty, we gain in prosperity and give in democracy and hope. Or maybe they will not, and our great dream will be lost.