Since 2008, the EU has been dragged into what could be considered its worst downward spiral of political, economical and social crisis. During this time, the stability and credibility of the EU as an institution has been undermined repeatedly. One of the most impressive results of this process was Britain’s vote for an exit from the Union last June. Still, there could be light at the end of the tunnel. The purpose of this article is to revitalize a “micro” approach to the European problem, and to suggest a reassessment of tools that have been overlooked, but that could actually bring an answer to the table.
Despite the fact that statistics released by the EU Cohesion Monitor for 2007-2014 suggested that there hadn´t been a decline over macro and micro cohesion between the EU countries, new data from 2015-2016 might show a different picture. Brexit will probably reflect a lower level of cohesion, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It was the willingness to cooperate that allowed European integration in the first place, and even though there is still strong interdependence and interaction, a new kind of crisis is bringing about an anti-EU political rhetoric that is gaining ground faster than it should.
What’s been going on: Europe in context
For a while now, European security has been under threat. Great security instability has been shaking the continent even before the Ukraine conflict began back in 2014. A new kind of rivalry arose from different perceptions of the social and political order -a dispute about freedom, democracy, the rule of law and human rights- brewing confrontation between rival blocs and reviving the old struggle for political spheres of influence. This has brought greater ideological disunity.
Economically speaking, the Eurozone has not been performing well since 2008, in fact, it’s members have done more poorly than those European Union countries outside the Eurozone. This has lead to a political and economical restructuring, mostly in decline of labor rights, generating instability and social unrest, triggering massive protests and violence, like the ones witnessed in Paris last September.
The growing refugee crisis, together with islamic radicalization and latest terrorist attacks, have shaken Europe’s political and social structures, but mostly, they have evidenced a lack of capacity for concerted actions, due to an incomplete approach to the problems faced. It is incomplete because the whole dynamic of the present crisis has changed from the one experienced in 2008. The current crisis, quoting Josef Janning, involves the internal cohesion of the EU societies in a much more deeper and direct way; the conflict is over people and society.
This incomplete approach shows that the political ruling class is rapidly loosing its global vision and aim for cooperation, and at the same time their legitimacy. Brexit was a wakeup call which proved the bloc needs to be reformed. The EU’s current organizational framework is unsustainable, and a crisis of political leadership is paralyzing its institutions. Brussels got lost in time, with endless elite-runways between conventions and protocols, that year after year shows more its detachment from reality and loses representativeness.
Thus, the question about the future of the EU sounds louder and louder everyday, specially regarding future generations. What kind of Europe will the next generations be living in? but most importantly, if possible, who will save the European project? According to the EU Cohesion Monitor, there is still a great amount of unused potential for greater European cohesion, and thus further integration. Maybe the way to discover that potential is getting the political class, as well as the public, to look out of the “macro” box. So, what kind of mechanisms does the EU already have and should it be reinforced to make this happen?
Alternative views: integration, culture and cooperation
Perhaps Eco wasn’t mistaken when assuring that it is the culture, and not merely the economy, that cements de European identity. And, somehow, this idea has been long forgotten, all the more after the rough path the world went trough after the 2008 financial crisis. Perhaps this has been the problem all along: Europe hasn’t been able to recover because the approach has been merely economical. Following his reasoning, Eco strongly suggested to expand programs like Erasmus to all society. It has been the first institution to give birth to a new generation of young Europeans, yet its is barely mentioned in the business section of the newspaper and public speeches, and its been overlooked in the political agenda, since it is not a priority for the economic recovery. Even more, its been struggling for budget the past few years, given there are ‘far too many problems more important’.
Nevertheless, revising the Erasmus program logic matters; it’s the last bulwark of collective cultural identity left. The fact that more than 4 million youngsters have been able to experience the possibility of living, studying and working abroad should not be taken lightly. Is not just about labor mobility, or improving people’s employability. It facilitated further social equality, by making the possibility to have an experience abroad accessible for every student . At the same time, this brought students closer to different realities, increasing their awareness of the problems and challenges confronting the European project. Even more, according to the Erasmus Impact Studies, approximately 85% of those who has participated from a study or working exchange program feel ‘more european’ and/or acquired a more comprehensive perspective, ‘beyond national horizons’.
This mobility has also created bonds, and if that sounds a bit romantic, well, in sense, it is. It is a sexual revolution, like Eco said, a comprehensive and complex one. Conforming to the Erasmus Impact Studies, a third of ex-Erasmus students had a partner of a different nationality. Further more, by 2014 Erasmus programme was “responsible” for 1 million babies. This dynamics generate cultural interdependency, and that reinforces a collective identity.
Should the newfound unwillingness to cooperate prevail, European cohesion will be destroyed and national identity will overcome European integration. Preventing this from happening requires cohesion within and between the societies the EU members states. In this sense, programs like Erasmus are great European networking sources, and facilitate this kind of cohesion. Perhaps it is time to revaluate priorities and budgets, but this time keeping in mind that it is education and culture will continue to be a cornerstone of the future of European integration.