To save itself, the EU must act as one. The choice is clear: Everyone wins together, or everyone loses together.
Last Friday, the leaders of the 27 countries remaining in the European Union after Brexit convened in Bratislava to discuss the future of this oddball super-state. Despite the congenial atmosphere, quite uncharacteristic of EU meetings, no one doubted the seriousness of the moment.
EU Commission President Donald Tusk stated in his invitation to the meeting: “People want to know whether Europe’s elite can regain control over the situation that has overwhelmed, disoriented and scared them. Many now think that EU membership is standing in the way of stability and security.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that “We are in a critical situation,” adding that she hopes “that Bratislava shows that we want to work together.” In rare unison with her, French President Francois Hollande announced, “We face either break-up, weakening, or we choose the opposite, together giving Europe a purpose.”
I believe them. If the EU falls apart, it will take the world down with it. Like a divorcing couple, the countries will not part peacefully. They will pounce to take as big a chunk of the carcass as they can for themselves, leaving others to sift through the scraps, unleashing centuries-old hatreds that will shred the thin façade of commonality that was contrived by political factions for all the wrong reasons.
Conceived in Sin
From its very inception, the EU took the wrong direction. The combined economic power of the European Bloc was meant to reposition the old continent as a world leader, on par with the US, Russia, and the awakening giant of China. But economics is not a hard science. It reflects the goals and values of society. When clashing cultures, deep-rooted animosity, and inability to speak each other’s language are thrown into the pot without prior preparation, you’re bound to cook up an explosive dish.
For the EU to succeed, it had to have prepared its people in advance. For example, you cannot remove all check points on a border and create a free-travel zone if countries don’t first agree on who is and (mainly) who is not allowed into their territory. Also, you cannot unify the economies of the EU member states when it means the virtual eradication of the means of production in the majority of members and the creation of complete financial dependency on a powerful few. Without a shared sense of concern for all, such an initiative is bound to fail. This is why I said back in the 1990s that the whole idea was hopeless.
A Rude Awakening
But it is not too late. In a letter to the leaders of the EU, preparing for the Bratislava meeting, President Tusk wrote, “We all feel that in these turbulent times marked by crises and conflicts, what we need more than ever before is a confirmation of the sense of our community.” The belated awakening of the EU may be painful and hard, but there is still time to set things right, if indeed there is a “sense of community,” and a shared responsibility for everyone’s well-being.
The first thing to remember is that peace is a dynamic process. Human nature is ever evolving, and always toward greater self-centeredness. Yet, nature has an inbuilt force to offset the inherent power of self-interest in all creations. This allows for the preservation, evolution, and prosperity of the species. Animals do not seek to destroy other species or their own kind. Their struggles are merely for survival. This results in balanced ecosystems throughout the globe, where the thriving of every species depends, and therefore supports the thriving of all the other species in the system.
Humans lack this natural inhibition. By and large, we take what we can, where we can, from whomever we can, and if we can humiliate someone in the process, all the better. This creates a slew of problems—inequality, discrimination, oppression, and depression, which then lead to aggression. At the same time, our desires to exploit and dominate compel us to connect ever more tightly. The result is a bond that no one wants, yet which no one can untangle. This, in short, is the story of globalization. Therefore, if we want to avoid eliminating one another, we must learn how to coexist, and amicably if possible.
One Way Out
Europe cannot dismantle the EU. The anger amassed due to the crises, coupled with the long history of bloodshed, will make a dissolution brutal and deadly not just for Europe, but for the entire world. As Merkel and Hollande noted, the only way to resolve the crisis is together. Understanding this is imperative to the success of the process of healing Europe.
For the EU to prosper, it must set up a “Pan-European education-for-connection” system that will include every resident of the EU. All citizens and temporary residents of the EU will partake in mandatory classes that teach how to practically cooperate and unite above differences—not just in theory, but in actual practice.
This “compulsory education” may sound extreme but it is far more conducive to the EU’s survival than, for instance, the suggestion to establish an EU army. Instead of mandatory recruitment to the EU army, if all residents of the EU were “recruited” for education in unity, the bloc would stand a fighting chance.
This effort to unite will unleash the force that maintains the balance on all levels of nature but our own. It will enable the Europeans to offset their isolationism in much the same way that nature balances self-centeredness in the animal kingdom.
By working toward unity, Europeans will develop a common identity throughout the bloc. As long as people think of themselves as Germans, French, Spanish, or Italian before they think of themselves as Europeans, it will be virtually impossible to patch up the tears in the “union.”
That said, the emergent European identity must not suppress the national one, but be more of a “blanket” under which everyone can find shelter.
Being the Europeans’ balancing force, this overarching unity will allow each nation to rise above the urge for isolationism in favor of working to benefit all of Europe.
Clearly, this unity will be completely feigned, at first. However, as the inculcation process continues, the Europeans will warm up to the idea. Gradually, views will change and a new spirit will emerge. Eventually, as it is unthinkable for cells to grasp their own existence as separate from the existence of the organism that they constitute, countries will perceive themselves as integral parts of a greater whole, called “Europe.” Their concern for Europe will not weaken them, but rather provide them with additional vitality and power.
And since we are becoming increasingly connected, the well-intended reciprocity, unlike the existing ill-intended ties, will benefit everyone involved, and Europe will become the power it has always aspired to become. If unity prevails in Europe, its already diverse population will give the continent vitality and agility that other continents and powers can only dream about.
As Merkel said, the situation is critical. We are nearing a tipping point beyond which everything will fall to pieces. The time to act is now and the choice is clear: Everybody wins together, or everybody loses together.
Featured in Haaretz