All the talk of Europe’s decline that I was bombarded with as I began to report on the EU had a corollary that was surely worth celebrating: the rise of other parts of the world that had long been deprived and marginalized. If Europe were no longer as economically or strategically dominant in the world because other nations had begun to climb the pot-holed path to greater wealth and clout, it was surely something that even Europeans should find it in themselves to welcome.
If Europeans had to work somewhat harder for their money, resulting in a modest levelling out of global inequalities, surely this was only in keeping with the values that Europe claimed to espouse and wanted to universalize: those of solidarity and social justice. Perhaps, I wrote, tongue only lightly in cheek, in a piece titled “Celebrating the Decline of Europe”, it was time for European policy makers to uncrease their furrowed brows and raise a toast to the great benefits to humankind at large, that Europe’s relative decline indicated.
As the economist Arvind Subramanian points out, despite the financial crisis that has plagued the rich countries of the West since 2008, the period of accelerated global economic growth that began in the mid-to-late 1990s has mostly survived. Prosperity in fact continues to spread across the globe at an unprecedented pace. The great “divergence”, whereby the living standards of a few countries in the West pulled ahead of most others following the industrial revolution, was finally being replaced by a “convergence”, with the rest of the world catching up with the standards of the developed world.
In the decade preceding the global crisis, some 80 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America as well as Asia began to converge towards developed- country living standards. Their growth exceeded that of the United States on average by nearly 3.25%. From a global perspective, the post- 2008 period remains a “golden age of global growth”.
In my first year in Brussels, I often found myself willing Europeans to see themselves as others perceived them. To me there was something glaringly wounded about a place which spent so much energy ensuring that foreign students are sent back home the moment their studies come to an end, or banning articles of clothing that cover the head, or ensuring that shops do not decide to hold sales at the wrong time of the year. I found it hard, too, to understand Europeans holding anti-immigrant sentiments in a region with shrinking demographics; or censuring India and China for their carbon emissions from heated rooms well-stocked with bottled water. Or why they so resented hard work.
A moment that remained with me long after I’d written it up for a newspaper article was when the boss of an Antwerp-based jewellery company had talked, eyes glowering and beard aquiver, about why Indians were getting the better of their European counterparts. He’d ascribed it to their relentless work ethic; to their willingness to stay open on weekends and “work 24 hours a day” if necessary. I’d never come across anyone spitting out the word “work” in a manner that transformed it into a term of abuse before.
Across much of Europe, the greatest privilege of all, that of less work, is the one that seems to have the greatest popular support. There is deep-seated anger at the idea of allowing in economic migrants who might work for longer hours and for less pay than the local population were themselves willing to do. The somewhat satirical conclusion that I come to has a real kernel of truth in it: In countries like India and China, what people really want is the right to work; in Europe it is the right to holiday that is the goal.
Opinions, evaluations and reactions to Europe’s problems from inside of the region naturally differ sharply from mine, unencumbered as they are by the constant comparison with developing countries that frame my observations. But over time I was able to understand how this first world “crisis” must feel to those experiencing it. Gradually, a reluctant empathy made pathways through my irritation with the hypocrisy and arrogance I encountered so regularly in Europe.
It is obviously harder to give up something than to make do without something one has never had. Comforts and privileges are normalized with remarkable ease. And for a generation that has no living memory of another reality, letting go of them is a tough ask indeed. This is hardly unique to Europe or Europeans. It calls to mind the difference between an older generation of Chinese and current day youngsters, the Little Emperors, born after China’s economic reforms took off at the tail end of the 1970s. The former understood what it meant to chi ku, “eat bitterness”, and were far more likely to bite their tongue and tighten their belt if circumstances demanded it. For them, the freedoms bestowed by the contemporary avatar of the Chinese communist party – to get rich, to choose your own spouse, to travel – were privileges they were well aware might vanish as suddenly as they had appeared.
Not so, China’s twenty-somethings. For these young people, competitive, consumerist, globalized, and ascendant China is the norm. And for them the freedoms to shop and love and study abroad are rights that they would certainly not renounce without a fight, or possibly a revolution.
From 2010 on, as the euro crisis came to a boil, it was increasingly evident, even to a sceptic like me, that the anxiety in European policy circles and the protests on the streets were not just a case of the whingeing of a poor little rich boy. The crisis sharpened and hastened the trends that had already been set in motion by the gradual eastward shifts in economic power over the last two decades.
The pace and depth of the changes necessitated in countries seeking bailouts were more painful and more abrupt than would have occurred in the absence of the particular constraints thrown up by the workings of a common currency, the euro, which denied member states the ability to devalue their way out of bankruptcy.
There was great debate among economists about whether the kind of harsh reforms demanded by Germany and other northern euro-using countries like Finland and Austria were appropriate. Were they exacerbating the problem and causing needless misery, or was a rude shock to the system the only way to jolt countries like Greece, Italy and Spain into accepting reforms that had long been necessary but were politically unpalatable in the absence of a gun held to their heads?
What was not open for debate, however, was the very real pain caused in these countries as a result of austerity measures. Youth unemployment figures of 50% and higher, patients with chronic diseases facing major cuts in healthcare funding, hunger forcing people to forage in trash cans: none of these were merely the self-indulgent problems of the wealthy.
The effects of the speed and sharpness of the changes being enforced in southern Europe were not just limited to a rollback in material comforts. The social and political friction consequently unleashed within the worst affected countries, as well as between the continent’s Germanic north and Mediterranean south, was grinding away at the very legitimacy of the idea of Europe.
Serious questions loomed about the ability of democracies to swallow unpopular diktats from without, be it from the IMF, Brussels or Berlin, particularly since a prolonged economic trough would likely mean that no clear end to the pain of austerity was in sight.
But the moment questions about the viability of the European Union were raised, a clammy hand gripped my heart. The EU was not an easy thing to love for a reporter covering its day-to-day functioning. Grey eurocrats and righteous parliamentarians; endless procedure and toothless resolutions; regulations standardizing the curvature of fruits and the use of incandescent lights at fairgrounds, did not make for passionate attachment.
And yet, the alternative is chilling. A Europe in crisis is a recipe for a smorgasbord of unsavoury tendencies – from xenophobia and protectionism, to the reassertion of tribal nationalistic identities. Ballooning unemployment, economic stagnation and eroding trust in political institutions are not developments that can be contemplated with complacency, especially given Europe’s history of civil war and devastating ideologies like fascism.
Already, parties on the extremes of the political spectrum have been gaining strength across swathes of the continent, from France’s National Front (FN) and the Netherlands’ Dutch Freedom Party, to Greece’s coalition of radical Left parties, Syrzia. When people feel under siege they lash out, finding scapegoats in every corner – from immigrants to Muslims, foreign investment to globalization. In this atmosphere, tolerance and empathy are usually the first casualties.
The European project has kept in check the fear, prejudices and violence that had characterized relations between the warring empires and states of the continent for centuries. The ideas embedded in the European Union – of inclusion, openness, peace and prosperity – are the kind that evoke rousing symphonies as imagined aural backdrops.
Yes, the actual workings of the EU institutions are lacerated with duplicity and hubris, and weighed down with a ponderous penchant for process. But its essence is precious. And fragile. It needs nurturing and commitment and vision to see it through the pitfalls that the euro crisis and the challenges of a more multipolar, globalized world, have opened up.
It may be tempting, but it does no good for the rest of the world to indulge in Schadenfreude at Europe’s woes. A besieged Europe is not only bad news for the world’s economic health, as slowing growth in India and China is testament to, but also a blow to the idea wherein rests humanity’s great hope. That of the possibility of a renewed world, which is not condemned to repeat history’s mistakes, but able to break out of destructive patterns of exclusion and hatred, and weave together that fabled unity out of diversity.
In some ways India is a proto-European Union, having stitched together a large region of diverse social and cultural fabric into a political and economic union. Like the EU, it is the antithesis of the concept of the 19th century European nation state where a single religion, a single language and a common enemy form the “natural” basis for the only sustainable kind of political unit. But, as the Indian historian Ramachandra Guha points out, on traditional European parameters of the ideal nation state, it is Pakistan, rather than India, that should count as a success.
Over the course of its 60-plus years as an independent nation, India has defied the exclusions and divisions of this ideal, and is a testament to the fact that it is possible to successfully create a strong, common identity out of seemingly fractured multiplicity.
Were the European Union to care enough to look, India could serve as hope, if not a guide, for the EU’s own momentous project of rejecting the homogenizing tyranny of the “nation” state and instead choose to celebrate difference and aggregation. But, with characteristic arrogance, the EU does not care to look elsewhere for inspiration, and certainly not towards dirty, poor, teeming India.
Instead EU officials are quick to shake their heads in despair over India’s reluctance to take a feather out of Europe’s cap on issues of regional integration. India’s ham-handedness in its dealings with SAARC (the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) is the classic case in point that they raise.
While I believe that by its very existence against the odds of modern political convention, India has something to teach Europe, the reverse is patently true as well. South Asia remains one of the poorest and most backwards regions of the world. Revitalizing regional trade and economic links between the countries of SAARC could potentially have dramatic benefits for all.
If countries like Germany and France have found a way of overcoming their blood-soaked history, it is proof that historical enmity does not have to preclude cooperation ad infinitum; that economic imperatives and statesmanship can enable a break from beggar-thy-neighbour mentalities and damaging patterns of behaviour.
This article has been tailored from Punjabi Parmesan: Dispatches from a Europe in Crisis.
Author: Pallavi Aiyar is the Southeast Asia correspondent for India’s The Hindu and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader.
Image: A Bulgarian seamstress manufactures EU flags in a factory in the town of Parvomai, some 160 km (99 miles) south east of the capital Sofia, December 13, 2006. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov