What is this thing we call the “Europe”? Is it an aspiration or a government? Is it a business agreement or a marriage? Is it simply a mass of land that many different people share?
While Ukraine fights a nasty civil war over the desire by many to join Europe, the UK is starting to question whether it belongs. Where the European Central Bank (ECB) has given its stamp of approval or withheld it for many important banks a scramble has taken place to comply at all cost.
Whatever it is, Europe has always moved in many directions at once. The last few months even moreso.
The most important story out of Europe today is that 25 banks (of the EU’s 130 largest) have failed to pass a “stress test” conducted by the ECB. This was a challenge to see how they would fare in a real financial emergency that threatened the whole system. 13 of them have supposedly corrected the problems and the rest require a mere €10B to fix. The number of weak banks was enough to be scary, at 10%, but the tab was smaller than everyone feared.
Like everything else from the EU, you can take the news however you want.
This comes on the heels of the presentation to the UK of a supplemental tab for EU operations of €2.1B, or €1.7B more than they thought. They do this every year as the budget is blown and an assessment is sent off to the member nations. But today it’s all different. This time, the UK says they won’t pay.
PM David Cameron, who is certainly far more worried about David Cameron than Europe, has been facing a growing threat of “Euroskepticism” from voters who elected a large slate of 24 UK Independence Party (UKIP) members out of 78 seats to the European Parliament in 2014. Their platform calls for UK withdrawal from Europe altogether as soon as possible. It’s a serious threat to Europe.
This came before the vote on Scottish independence, which everyone agrees was far closer than the UK was comfortable with. Cameron reasonably feels a need to pander.
But the UK is far from the only nation where Euroskepticism is growing. France and many other nations are questioning just what this thing called Europe needs to be and how it will supersede their sovereignty.
How did it get this messy? The financial crises of 2008-2012 certainly didn’t help, but there is a growing belief that Europe, as an entity, is not the political entity that the people of the continent want. It was born of the horror of World War II and a desire to end war on the continent once and for all while asserting the basic rights of everyone. Since then, it’s evolved into a convenient arrangement for unified trade more than anything.
The basic idea that there should be a nation, a “United States of Europe”, has faded in importance. Continent-wide war is a distant memory.
If Europe is only a matter of convenience there is still a need for a universal banking system with a strong sense of faith. That has remained unquestioned through the entire process and calls for an end to the Euro as a single currency appear to be fading as the problems have been worked out. But political union? Not as essential.
The contrast between the cool skepticism of the UK and elsewhere versus the hot passion in Ukraine could not be more striking. In between, the banks struggle to keep themselves solvent and up to continent-wide standards that presume some kind of union that is simply presumed. The developed Western part of the continent slouches towards some kind of agreement while the fringes shed blood.
What Europe means depends a lot on how much you depend on it – but the more it is a part of your life the more it is taken for granted.
Where will this wind up? It’s impossible to say. Like so much of the developed world, Europe is blown by the winds of great change that come from an increased reliance on the rest of the world to support an easy life. The developing world wants a piece of what we have, and is claiming more of it every day. What it means to those who already have a lot, and already gained materially from globalism, is harder to pin down.
In many places, including the Islamic world, the cost of that standard of living in loss of shared values and self determination, is starting to seem rather high.
What is this thing called “Europe” after all? It is a work in progress, an idea that has given much and promises more even as the price tag seems higher every day. Unity is something sought by those in fear but feared by those who have already benefited. As long as that holds politics local and global will be in conflict, and nowhere is that contrast going to be as sharp as it is in Europe.