For some time now, Europe has not been a beacon of freedom, a sanctuary of rights, or a model of economic success and democracy. The European Union has been undergoing a severe identity crisis at least since France and the Netherlands rejected the Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe. Ten member states approved the treaty before France and the Netherlands rejected it and thus finally laid it to rest. French and Dutch voters, at a time of economic expansion, chose to oppose something that would have brought “more Europe.” From today’s perspective, the treaty was rejected because it was way ahead of its time. It was a rooster that crowed too soon.
The consequences are clearly visible. The EU can nowadays set the lengths and shapes of fruits and vegetables, replace light bulbs in households, and regulate garbage cans. But it does not have uniform democratic standards even when it comes to basic human rights, minority rights, or the plight of immigrants. When it comes to the most important decisions, the EU remains a prisoner of a veto by which one country can block the remaining 27 member states. In this respect the EU is more like the United Nations than a functioning union of states. If it had adopted a constitution, the EU would have more easily weathered the current economic crisis and its consequences. If nothing else, the EU would have been able to more easily adopt decisions. As the doyen of Italian diplomacy Sergio Romano has said: “The true Europeanist is for the abolition of the veto. Everything else is just bollocks.”
The consequences of the economic situation and the European identity crisis in the developed western part of the EU are reflected in the constant limitations of human rights. In the less developed eastern member states, meanwhile, worrisome democratic set-backs have occurred in some parts. It has become more common again to scapegoat minorities — based on nationality, country of origin, or sexual orientation — for supposedly being responsible for the declining standard of living. The media have played an increasingly pivotal role in this process, as they become more dependent on capital and, as a result, conceal the true reasons for today’s crisis.
Those responsible for the ever more miserable salaries of European workers are not Roma, Jews, or homosexuals. Rather, the cause is globalization and the interests of capital. Our salaries are not lower because minorities have more rights, but because our salaries have to compete in the global market with salaries in Asia, and the rights of European workers compete with the rights of Chinese workers. Pope Francis illustrated this relationship between the developed and developing world by using the image of a peacock. “It is beautiful when looked at from the front,” he said, “but only when you look at it from the back you discover the real truth.”
Rise of the Right
Support for homophobic movements and parties is growing almost everywhere in Europe, and rising Euroskepticism is similarly widespread. A referendum in Croatia sought to constitutionally limit the rights of the LGBT community, yet the European Union responded with a technical explanation that “European legislation does not cover this area.” And so the member states can do whatever they please. They can limit the rights of national minorities, for these are not uniformly covered by European legislation. The two largest EU member states do not even acknowledge national minorities.
When not even France, a country with one of the longest democratic traditions in the union, is able to resolve Roma issues other than by forced deportations — and French voters give more and more support to the extreme right — what can we expect from Romania and Slovakia when it comes to Roma minority status? When arguments that the EU is too expensive and utterly unnecessary are becoming more popular in wealthy Great Britain, what can we expect from poorer countries and populations for whom Brussels is a symbol of luxury where commissioners and parliamentarians enjoy salaries that are 10 times higher than those of politicians back home, not to mention average voters? What is left of European solidarity when the flood of undocumented immigrants in Italy and Malta cannot stir up compassion in other EU member states, and no one wants to frame the issue as a European problem, rather than merely Italian or Maltese?
The European Union is living in a period that, in a decade from now if we are lucky, we will be able to refer to as the toughest if not the darkest in the history of European integration. “There comes a time,” once wrote the great Nobel Prize-winning novelist Ivo Andrić, “when reason becomes silent, the idiots start to speak, and the lowlifes get rich.”
In his famous 1995 essay “Ur-Fascism,” Umberto Eco described key social phenomena that foretell a decline in the society toward inequality, exclusion, and finally fascism. He put the key ones in order: a revival of the cult of tradition, a rejection of modernism, a fear of diversity, an obsession with conspiracies, a frustration with the success of the stronger, and a contempt for the failures of the weaker. Sound familiar?
Last but not least, Europe gave birth to all the major totalitarian ideologies: Communism, Fascism, Nazism. Their common denominator was their reflection of the will of the people, even a great majority of people. Who else unwaveringly celebrated, loved, and blindly believed in Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler, Tito, and Milošević if not the people? Bear in mind that it was the people who chose Hitler in free elections, while Milošević was even elected three times. As the Czech writer Gabriel Laub has written: “In totalitarianism, idiots come to power by force and intrigue, in democracy by free election.”
The Will of the People?
There are many who preach “direct democracy” as the highest instance of democracy. This completely erroneous belief, which spreads across Europe today as it has in previous crises, is typical for all extremists, religious and ideological, left and right. The will of the people is of secondary importance in democracy. More important is legitimacy: the rule of law based on the respect of basic standards of human rights. Those standards are grounded in the complete equality of all people regardless of what differentiates them. If only the will of the people applied, it is not hard to imagine how the rights of social or national minorities — or any individuals who dare to be different — would fare.
In May next year there will be elections to the European Parliament. According to public opinion polls and forecasts, the extreme nationalistic and anti-European parties might achieve surprising success and win a third — if not more — of the seats. This would be a terrible irony, since the Lisbon Treaty — which substituted for the treaty that would have created a European constitution — gave that same parliament more powers. A more powerful parliament will increasingly be under the influence of parties that act against the key goals of the European Union.
The EU can still undertake several initiatives to reverse this trend. First, it can finish the banking union, which would establish a central authority to close failing banks and help others to become more viable. This would bring internal financial stability to EU market as a whole. Second the EU should sponsor a broad public discussion among the member nations on the future of the EU.
If I had the power, I would also invite to that first session of the European Parliament after the next elections the greatest living Slovenian writer and a great European, Boris Pahor. He could offer to the new representatives his own testimony of Fascism, which the Slovenian nation was one of the first to experience and resist. It would be instructive and powerful to hear this vigorous man explain to all the politicians in that European half-circle — and to all of us as well — what saved his life in a Nazi-concentration camp.
“Love saved me,” he would say in Slovenian. And this would be translated into all European languages.