Why we should talk more about Europe and less about the crisis

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

If European crises are internalised as normal social facts, fear and anxiety about European (dis)integration escalate. [Celeb-flickr/Flickr]

Why are the irregularities of the financial markets and immigration being grouped together as a solidarity crisis in Europe? Dr Senka Neuman Stanivukovic and Jesse van Amelsvoort argue that the time is ripe for a more sober look at the problems of current European politics.

Dr Senka Neuman Stanivukovic is a Lecturer at the University of Groningen (Euroculture), in the Netherlands.

Jesse van Amelsvoort is coordinator, MOOC European Culture and Politics, and Lecturer at the University of Groningen.

Events such as the European sovereign debt crisis, Orban’s construction of border walls, the Polish turn to the right, or the recent Brexit referendum have marked Europe’s socio-political scenery in recent years. It should come as no surprise that they have sparked many strong reactions. What is surprising, however, is how easily these phenomena have been grouped together.

Why are events such as the irregularities of the financial markets on the one hand and immigration on the other hand being grouped together as a solidarity crisis in Europe? And what are the consequences of such a merger? Moreover, to what extent have we – academics, citizens and politicians – been able to account for and accommodate diverse experiences of these various “crises”?

We argue that the time is ripe for a more sober analysis of current European politics. The discussion should focus more on Europe, and less on the concept of crisis. To do so, we need to look at the bigger picture of Europe as a cultural and political project. This means, first, that we stop debating the European Union, and the various “crises” that are associated with it, as if it exists in a vacuum. This is not a viable way to sustainable solutions.

There are multiple reasons for this.

First, it is not healthy. The recent Brexit vote has been labelled as the end of Western civilisation. This talk among the European political elite is probably aimed at shaking up people who have started to take things for granted: you’ll have to fight for what you hold dear. But what if this summer’s awakening is not fully in line with what we would have expected? What if, for Europeans, saving Europe means getting rid of the EU? For many, the EU increasingly looks like a threat to the very ideals that drove its creation. For instance, a growing number of politicians, especially in the far right, represent the EU’s policies as a threat to freedom or security, thus casting the EU as an existential threat.

Second, it is messy and violent. Crisis sentiments create moral panic; and when in panic, people tend to exaggerate the magnitude of particular events, to legitimise disproportionate responses, and to ostracise certain social groups as a cause of the potential threat to the social order. In such a situation, cultural divisions, socio-political uncertainties and historical traumas, so entrenched in the lived experience of Europe, can quickly become sources of anxiety and conflict.

Third, crisis sentiments can fuel renewal, but also wear out established, ‘normal’ democratic processes. In a context where everything is potentially dangerous, acts of social control become justified as reasonable and necessary – and this doesn’t stay restricted to increased camera surveillance. If European crises are internalised as normal social facts, fear and anxiety about European (dis)integration escalate. In such a scenario, Europe no longer is a soft or normative power, nor a post-national Empire. Instead, it becomes a damsel in distresses, waiting for a hero to rescue her. And everybody wants to be that hero.

Because the notion of a crisis is so abstract, the threat of disintegration becomes a fertile soil for all sorts of reforms, leading to the empowerment of a wide variety of actors. Everybody seems to be developing alternatives for Europe: national leaders call for power to be given back to member states; EU elites seek to improve supranational competences; the Left grounds their efforts in citizen sovereignty against ‘diktats’ from Brussels; even Putin is involved in the business of saving Europe, offering his Euroasianism as a panacea to the decadent “gaytropa”.

Which alternative will come out on top is unclear. But what is clear, is that binaries such as East/West, North/South, old/new, rich/poor and so on, are treated by a variety of actors as a threat to “Europe” and “Europeanness”. This means that the social construction of the “crisis” is directly grounded in social anxiety and increasing panic over the question what will happen to Europe. This panic can, in turn, legitimise policies and policy responses.

We saw this at work during the Brexit referendum. Here, the East/West division was intensified and fed into more general sentiments of uncertainty about employment or availability of social services. This is the threat of immigration from Eastern European countries dramatised.

Or take the negative position of Central and Eastern European leaders and societies towards the EU migrant quota bill. This stance is partially rooted in a fear of foreigners or Islam. At the same time, it is also an expression of broader insecurities regarding statehood, Europeanness and the countries’ place in Europe.

These cultural conflicts are presented as inherent to the European integration process. Consequently, political elites are empowered as the sole mediator of these conflicts. Either we need the Commission and instruments such as the European Stability Mechanism to mediate between “greedy Germans” and “lazy Greeks.” Or, alternatively, we need nation-states to protect us from Romanian strawberry pickers, or the Law and Justice Party to protect us from weak Eurocrats.

Faced with this all, we need a more nuanced and holistic take on European contemporary politics and society. What is more, we need for this debate to exceed the closed doors of university lecture halls and academic conferences.

This is why a group of educators from the Euroculture Erasmus Mundus Program has developed an open access course on European Culture and Politics. Find out more here.

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