The well-known story about the European Union begins with the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community and later of the European Economic Community, following the end of the Second World War. This cooperation was very much motivated by the assumed nexus between political order and prosperity, as years earlier had been theorised by John Maynard Keynes in the Economic Consequences of the Peace. However, the idea of a united Europe can be also related to a less instrumentalist struggle for peace and justice, generated from the resistance of people to fascism and expressed, years later, through the joyful opening of the Berlin Wall and the genuine spirit of solidarity that drove hundreds of European volunteers to travel to the former Yugoslavia to support the victims of the Yugoslav Wars.
The European [c]ommunity, later reframed as European [u]nion, has not just been made by bureaucratic processes and strategic agreements signed in the conference rooms and shining buildings of Paris, Rome, Maastricht, Amsterdam, Lisbon, Luxembourg or Brussels. It has also been the result of gestures of solidarity across immaterial borders, protests for rights, equality and social justice, easy and inexpensive travels across Europe, exchange programmes, social movements, the making of mixed families and the process of learning about each other’s language, culture and cuisine that made the entire Europe feel like Home.
While the golden European Fortress has been considered for some time a place of security and wealth, power dynamics within it and with the outside have started working towards its transformation in what has been defined a neoliberal oligarchy. With the enlargements towards the East, the Fortress has built stronger walls with the outside, closer and closer to the Middle East, and ‘revolving doors’ within it. The image of revolving doors illustrates processes of inclusion and exclusion which are defined by the adoption of conditions imposed on less powerful member states, limiting their ability to negotiate their and their peoples’ status. Examples range from mobility restrictions imposed on Eastern European countries to austerity measures that exacerbated the consequences of the 2007 financial crisis in Southern European countries, such as Greece, Portugal, Spain, Cyprus and Italy.
This situation has been further complicated by the questionable foreign policy and military interventions adopted by Western governments, which have caused consequences borne mainly by Southern and Eastern member states. The millions of migrants escaping from conflicts and extreme poverty, mainly caused by imperialist Western interventions over the years, and desperately trying to reach the Fortress’ southern coasts, provide an eloquent example of this. The lack of redistribution of resources and wealth together with the unfair distribution of responsibilities has surely contributed to the growing malcontent among EU peoples. These unequal relations have made the EU institutions resemble the imperialist and patriarchal attitude of international financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund towards countries of the Global South.
In raising criticism for the EU apparatus, however, we shouldn’t forget the idea of community and union built by the European civil society. Those Europeans who travel to Lampedusa, Calais and Lesbo to bring material and emotional support to refugees, those who assist the millions of migrants who every day attempt the dangerous and exhausting cross to reach Europe, those who open their doors to strangers in need, those who last year protested against the adoption of draconian austerity measures in Greece and started solidarity campaigns and those who keep supporting those people devastated by conflicts outside the EU. All these voices and actions are the glue of the Union, although they don’t always have a meaningful follow-up around the Brussels’ tables. In the same way, and very sadly, we can’t afford to ignore the undemocratic and even neo-fascist voices and actions that are emerging from a more scaring side of Europe. This is made by those people who are using the overall malcontent and strain to disseminate racist feelings of intolerance and hate, as also emerged from the killing of Jo Cox and from the darker side of the Brexit campaign.
It is necessary, now more than ever, to reconcile the EU project with the intents and principles that have aimed the people who have filled with significance and purpose the idea of union. Many of these principles, such as solidarity and substantive equality, are claimed in the Treaty of Lisbon, the Charter of Fundamental Rights and by the jurisprudence of the European Court of Justice – following the failure of the attempt to adopt a Constitution for Europe. However, these principles have been more recently obfuscated by the economic and financial measures contained in what can be considered the other Constitution of the EU, the Fiscal Compact.
The future of Europe does not depend only on the agreements that will be concluded with the UK and on strategic economic and financial manoeuvres to reduce discontent among EU member states, but on whether the EU politicians will be able to reconcile the formal Union with its heart, the people who have made it.