Without a doubt, we are going through a deep crisis in Europe that directly or indirectly impacts all EU citizens and the union itself. From our working environment to the breaking news, and from a discussion with a friend to a quick reading of the newspaper front pages, the word “crisis,” or one with a similar meaning, is there. Furthermore, this crisis started as a financial one, but it has turned to be also a political and social one, as well as a crisis of values. This multidimensional character of the crisis has definitely made most of us think about what its reason is, how it started, how we can escape it, and whether we are responsible ourselves? To the questions above, many analysts, politicians, philosophers and other “experts” in the field are giving a wide variety of justified answers and ideas that many times contradict one another. But the analysis of the roots of the problem and the design and implementation of the rescue plan is not the only important thing we should focus on. Of course, one day this “crisis” will belong to the past. But even after the crisis has ended, will we really have become wiser through the situation we are in nowadays, or will we just go through some years full of harmony, until the next crisis comes and hits us ever harder?
What is mostly missing from our discussions and analyses is what we are like or how we can benefit from this crisis as European citizens. What are we learning from this situation we are going through? Can this situation be a kick start for a new Europe? Are we in the middle of a tragedy or at the beginning of an opportunity? An opportunity to learn from our mistakes and build a new more secure Europe, a Europe with clear vision spread across every single country that is part of it, a vision that will become our life style and not a paragraph in a constitutional book lying on a dusty shelf. The crisis can eventually help us clean this book up, read it again and maybe add our own small paragraph.
In the little lessons that follow, I cite some of the most important issues that we are currently facing in the European Union, aligned with four different aspects of the crisis, as I see them. I also provide ideas and suggestions on how to change the current situation and how to benefit from the crisis by seeing it as an opportunity.
Lesson 1: Social crisis – Collaboration among European citizens and European countries: “All hands on deck – Solidarity”
“I know how to do some things, he knows how to do some others; together we can do even more”
The real “drama” in the European Union, in my eyes, is not the crisis itself. It is our social behaviour that gave the crisis – apart from its initial economic profile – a social character as well. It looks as though Europeans were waiting for a cause to unofficially divide the European Union. An important reason, in my opinion, which strengthened this deviation, is that we had started losing our coherence as European Union members even before 2008 when the crisis started. That is why we proved to be unprepared in terms of cooperation and coordination when the crisis knocked on the door of EU. Europeans have stopped working all together towards common targets and missions. Instead of having the mentality of a united union, we turned into selfish individuals acting only in our own and our country’s interest. We kept the geographical term Europe and we threw away the meaningful word “Union”.
Since the crisis started, the EU has unofficially been divided into two classes. The good students from the north, who study hard, do their homework and get good grades, and the bad students of the south, who are lazy, do not study and need support to get a passing grade. Furthermore, instead of supporting these bad students in many other ways than just financially, we became really good at reminding them how bad they are every day. Also, in the small local communities, the personal interest is a priority that one gives over the common one. A commonly spread mentality in Europe is: “let us save ourselves and then we will see about the rest”. In addition, a wave of extreme nationalism has started spreading across Europe, with Europeans being reserved and scared of foreigners, even if they come from a neighbouring country, itself a European Union member. Without a doubt, the only thing that we do not need in this crucial period is a divided and selfish European Union.
Now that we have come to understand the critical situation in the fifth year of the crisis, the light of cooperation has started to shine, but not strongly enough to break through all the clouds. It seems that Europeans started to realize that if they don’t work as a union, firstly, it will take them more time and effort to get over the crisis, and secondly, that the negative impact to our economies and societies will be greater. Organizations from different European countries that cooperate with one another have started operating across Europe; politicians have started co-operating by creating healthy alliances aiming to draw up common action plans that will benefit all members of European Union. Additionally, youth organizations have started sharing the same mission by working on activities and projects in order to promote collaboration across Europe and make their voices heard. Many web platforms that promote innovative ideas and join people together to work towards the implementation of these ideas are appearing. Local markets of exchanging products without using currency in the payment process help citizens to exchange their goods and everybody benefits by showing solidarity to others’ problems.
The initiatives mentioned above are a sample of many that have found fertile ground in the difficult situation of the crisis. I think that the crisis was what helped make us realize that we need “all hands on deck”.
The EU has to support and promote activities and initiatives as the ones mentioned above. The percentage of the funds planned to be released and used to develop countries have to be offered also to support the projects that aim to bring Europeans closer together, enhance the collaboration and create a unique European cooperative mindset. These collaboration initiatives also have to be supported by countries individually and local regions and communities, and not just taken up at the European Union level. In addition, the European centric and local media in all the countries have to highlight these united actions, and also the importance of having them. Furthermore, all of us individually should get up from our sofas and take our own initiatives. We can start from our neighbourhood and take it from there; motivate our friends, housemates and colleagues; create small teams and unions and take the necessary steps towards the change we need.
By being united, we will be less insecure, less afraid and more confident. Now is the time to use the opportunity to continue all these initiatives, take many more and make sure that the word “collaboration” will be repeated again and again in our daily discussions.
Lesson 2: Political crisis – Reform European Union politics
“Politics is not a game. It is an earnest business”
The European politicians also hold a great deal of the responsibility. They acted with a significant delay to stop the crisis, or at least to stop the spread of it to many European countries. Such tardiness increased the public debt and unemployment of many European countries, decreased growth of domestic products and enabled financial markets to pressure these countries and take them into a stranglehold. The only plan coming from Brussels was austerity. Instead of giving a fast and permanent solution through real initiatives to development, they focused on diplomatic and opportunistic games by creating alliances and pointing the finger at one another, refusing categorically to take responsibility for their mistakes and actions. Many European politicians have misunderstood their liabilities to European citizens. They have been elected to represent the citizens of Europe and make their voice heard and not to promote their personal interest. Our politicians have to serve their countries and Europe and not expect the countries and Europe to serve them. Millions of Europeans have been demonstrating on the streets across Europe over these past few years, showing their frustration with European politics, and the majority of European politicians have either pretended not to see them or claimed that they were the vast minority of the European citizens.
Our political leaders, through their actions, gave the world the idea that the European Union is weak; that the European Union cannot support its members by itself. Two main decisions that pointed directly to that conclusion are the involvement of the International Monetary Fund in the rescue packages for European countries with big public debt, and giving allowing countries like the United States of America and Russia to influence the European political decisions behind the scenes. Also, many of our politicians have proved to have split personality, announcing different proposals and ideas at country and European levels. They have contradicted their own decisions so frequently that European citizens have lost faith and trust in them. This situation helped the extreme political parties of Europe increase their popularity and power and, even worse, to enter parliaments and start poisoning our democracies with extreme actions. This situation brings us back to the era before the Second World War, when many citizens wanted to trust someone new, someone different, and which led to power being given to nationalists and fascists and eventually involving the whole of Europe and the world in a catastrophic war.
In my opinion, the political situation in Europe needs a brand new start, following different principles and standards. First of all, European citizens need to be involved in politics more than just voting once every four years. Every time their politicians are up to take important decisions that will influence the future of their country, they should be involved in this decision making. For instance, the decision whether to accept a loan from IMF or not has to go through a referendum, and then the decision taken by the prime ministers and parliamentarians should be based on the outcome. Secondly, European politicians have to stop blackmailing their citizens and present facts as they really are: tell the truth. They should stop the doomsday speeches in order to present themselves as the rescuers of nations. Positive figures indicating progress and development are shown now and then, but if we look at the real economy and the living standards of many European citizens, we will be more than a little disappointed. In addition, political alliances dividing the European Union try to promote their interests by taking an advantage of other member countries, and so should be carefully monitored by special task forces established by the European Union. Only healthy competition should be allowed among the members of the European Union. Another important change will be introducing pan-European lists of candidates for the European elections. In this way, all European citizens will be represented by the same constituency within the European Parliament, which will introduce an interesting diversity to the promotion of needs, ideas and in decision-making processes.
Last but not least, European politicians must start taking responsibility for their actions and accepting criticism for wrong decisions without trying to hide. If our politicians stand in front of a mirror and realise their mistakes, then we can hope that European politics is entering a new era, full of promise and trust. Nevertheless, I also believe that along with our politicians, all European citizens have to become more sensitive when it comes to politics, and that we must get involved as much as we can in order to strengthen European democracy. As they say: “we get the politicians we deserve.” Our politicians have grown up in our societies, and we are the ones voting for them.
Lesson 3: Financial crisis – Support the small local economies and businesses
“We can’t help everyone, but everyone can help someone.”
Another important factor that mostly influenced small companies, enterprises and co-partnerships that have been hit hardest by the crisis is the focus on financial support for big companies and banks. The saying “too big to fail” forced the decision makers of the European Union to give first priority to rescuing big banks and multinational companies, giving second priority to small businesses and local economies, which have been left unprotected. The recapitalization of banks did not reflect well on the real economy, as the banks have significantly reduced the liquidity of small enterprises. As a consequence, thousands of small businesses have terminated their operations due to the inability to cover their liabilities. This had a negative impact on the local communities where these small businesses were the backbone of growth and economic balance. Another factor that has worsened this situation is that European countries are significantly dependent on imports from other continents like Asia or America. Exactly the same products can be found in Europe, but importing them is cheaper due to commissions that the middlemen of the trading transactions add to prices, and also due to the monopoly formed in the trading of specific goods. Thus, small companies and co-partnerships find it difficult to promote and sell their goods. The same goes for tourism. Big tourist agencies have a monopoly on tourist packages to attractive destinations, offering what is called an “all inclusive” package, leading tourists away from lending financial supporting to local shops, restaurants and economies when on holiday.
In my opinion, the European Union and European Central Bank should be obligated to support small businesses and local economies. The first step would be to force banks to start offering loans to small businesses again, and in this way help them survive in a really competitive environment that has been formed in Europe during the crisis. This will significantly help keep local economies strong, reducing unemployment and increasing healthy competition in Europe in terms of the quality of services and goods. Another important initiative is to enhance cooperation with countries individually to reform and organize better local and European competition commissions, which are responsible for the quality assurance of trading transactions. This will help reduce the operation of black markets, middleman intervention, creation of monopolies and avoidance of paying taxes. This will also support local producers of services and goods within Europe so that they can negotiate the prices at which they sell their products to bigger companies under fair conditions. These same commissions should also be responsible for the promotion of these initiatives to the European and local media to try and make Europeans realize that supporting small businesses is as important as supporting Europe itself, so that it stands strong. Furthermore, special regulations should be applied to large tourist agents in order to achieve healthy competition in tourism in terms of quality and prices, and also, with respect to both, the benefit to tourists and the small tourist enterprises.
Our support of the European businesses should change from a “top-down” to “bottom–up” approach, meaning that we have to start with securing small businesses. All these small enterprises are the core operation of the local regions of Europe and their successful operation will contribute significantly to rescuing us from the crisis.
Lesson 4: Crisis of values – European Union identity
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
But the most important reason for the period we are currently going through, I believe, is that we are not well educated about Europe and the European Union. As Europeans and members of the European Union, we do not share a common vision and values to the extent that we should. We do not have a strong unique identity that would overcome our cultural, linguistic and mentality differences.
Education about the European Union should not only be to teach us which countries are members of it, where the European parliament is and who the president of Eurogroup is. Real education about the European Union would make sure that we understand what the purpose of having a united Europe is and its vision. We need to understand that the European Union is not just a geo-political entity. It is a method of co-operation for common growth and development, a strong guarantee for liberty, peace, welfare and protection of human rights, an application of democracy across Europe and of the right of freedom of speech.
We need strong European culture, influenced by the different cultures of all members of the European Union. We need to exchange ideas and be influenced by one another. More and more initiatives of gathering and brainstorming among Europeans have to start taking place, with strong support from the European Union and the member countries individually. Mandatory courses at schools and universities have to be given to all young Europeans. Coordinated forums have to be created by the members of the Union aiming to culturally educate Europeans. Initiatives being supported by the European Union like “Debating Europe” and the “Erasmus Programme” that give young people an opportunity to challenge European leaders and live in other European countries, be influenced by other cultures, communicate and work with other European young people, have to grow even more and spread further across the continent.
This fourth aspect of the crisis, the crisis in our values, is – I believe – the most important and at the same time the most difficult to face. Drawing inspiration from the quotation above by Nelson Mandela, I would say that before we can start changing Europe Union, we must make sure that we know the European Union. And because we are the European Union, we should make sure that we know ‘us’, and that we have a clear European identity.
Concluding, I would like to answer the questions cited in the introduction. Europeans have to and can learn a lot form the crisis. The crisis should be a new kick start for Europe and the European Union. The union must see the crisis as a new start with new visions, missions and dreams. Furthermore, we must – all of us individually – contribute to this new start, becoming more conscious and knowledgeable about what our responsibilities are as European citizens. There is a saying that “wise people do not repeat their mistakes”. Let us prove to ourselves through our history that we have indeed become wiser. We must stop seeing the crisis as a tragedy and wait for the “deus ex machine”, like in the ancient Greek drama plays, to come and give us a solution. Instead, we must see the crisis as a great opportunity, our opportunity to make history as the EU and Europeans, and make Europe a better place for the next generation.