Is the European dream over?

Europe’s current crisis stems from a lack of cross-border solidarity or any sense of belonging in the supra-national EU.

EU Flag
The people of northern Europe need to think it is in their interest to strengthen the EU [EPA]

New York, NY – Were the Eurosceptics right after all? Was the dream of a unified Europe – inspired by fears of another European war, and sustained by the idealistic hope that nation-states were obsolete and would give way to good Europeans – a utopian dead end?

On the surface, Europe’s current crisis, which some people predict will tear apart the European Union, is financial. Jacques Delors, one of the architects of the euro, now claims that his idea for a single currency was good, but that its “execution” was flawed, because the weaker countries were allowed to borrow too much.

But, fundamentally, the crisis is political. When sovereign states have their own currencies, citizens are willing to see their tax money go to the weakest regions. That is an expression of national solidarity, a sense that a country’s citizens belong together and are prepared, in a crisis, to sacrifice their own interests for the collective good.

Even in nation-states, this is not always self-evident. Many northern Italians fail to see why they should pay for the poorer south. Affluent Flemings in Belgium resent having to support unemployed Walloons. Still, on the whole, just as citizens of democratic states tolerate the government that won the last election, they usually accept economic solidarity as a part of nationhood.

Since the EU is neither a nation-state nor a democracy, there is no “European people” to see the EU through hard times. Rich Germans and Dutch people do not want to pay for the economic mess in which the Greeks, Portuguese or Spanish now find themselves.

Instead of showing solidarity, they moralise, as though all of the problems in Mediterranean Europe were the result of native laziness or its citizens’ corrupt nature. As a result, the moralisers risk bringing the common roof down on Europe’s head, and confronting the nationalist dangers that the EU was created to prevent.

Europe must be fixed politically as much as financially. It is a cliché, but nonetheless true, that the EU suffers from a “democratic deficit”. The problem is that democracy has only ever worked within nation-states. Nation-states need not be monocultural, or even monolingual. Think of Switzerland or India. They need not be democracies, either: China, Vietnam and Cuba come to mind. But democracy does require that citizens have a sense of belonging.

Is this possible in a supra-national body like the EU? If the answer is no, it may be best to restore the sovereignty of individual European nation-states, give up on the common currency, and abandon a dream that is threatening to become a nightmare.

This is what the more radical Eurosceptics in Britain think, having never shared the EU dream to begin with. It is easy to dismiss this as typical British chauvinism – the insular attitude of a people living in splendid isolation. But, in Britain’s defence, its citizens have had a longer and more successful democratic history than have most continental Europeans.

Still, even if disbanding Europe were possible, it would come at enormous cost. Abandoning the euro, for example, would cripple the continent’s banking system, affecting both Germany and the affluent north and the distressed countries in the south. And, if the Greek and Italian economies face difficult recoveries inside the eurozone, consider how hard it would be to repay euro-denominated debts with devalued drachmas or lira.

Quite apart from the financial aspects, there would be a real danger of throwing away the benefits that the EU has brought, particularly in terms of Europe’s standing in the world. In isolation, European countries would have limited global significance. As a union, Europe still matters a great deal.

The alternative to dismantling the EU is to strengthen it – to pool the debt and create a European treasury. If European citizens are to accept this, however, the EU needs more democracy. But that depends upon a vital sense of European solidarity, which will not come from anthems, flags or other gimmicks devised by bureaucrats in Brussels.

For starters, affluent northern Europeans have to be convinced that it is in their interest to strengthen the EU, as it certainly is. After all, they have benefited most from the euro, which has enabled them to export cheaply to southern Europeans. While it is up to national politicians to make this case, the EU’s governing institutions in Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg also have to be brought closer to European citizens.

Perhaps Europeans could vote for members of the European Commission, with candidates campaigning in other countries, rather than just in their own. Perhaps Europeans could elect a president.

Democracy may seem like a mad dream in a community of 27 nation-states, and perhaps it is. But unless one is prepared to give up on building a more united Europe, it is surely worth considering.

And who can say what is possible? Consider football clubs, the modern world’s most insular, even tribal institutions. Thirty years ago, who would have imagined that two of London’s most popular clubs – Arsenal and Chelsea – would have a French and a Portuguese coach, respectively, and players from Spain, France, Portugal, Brazil, Russia, Serbia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Mexico, Ghana, South Korea, Holland, Belgium, Nigeria and the Ivory Coast? Oh, yes, they have one or two from Britain, too.

Ian Buruma is professor of Democracy and Human Rights at Bard College. His latest book is Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents.

This article was first published by Project Syndicate.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.