To quote Shakespeare’s The Tempest, ”what's past is prologue” and the citizens of the EU need a crash course in history, if we want to try to avert the decline of what is still one of the most prosperous spaces in the world, even if it is headed towards irrelevance. Europe is not Xanadu, but the minimum common denominator shared today by the EU allies provides a unique space of progress and peaceful coexistence, as well as a political space besieged by Europe’s inability to manage 21st century migrations and by an economic downturn that is fast approaching before the consequences of its prequel —in terms of growing inequality and the discredit of the political elites— have been resolved. With its soft power and its capacity to be the true workhorse of the new economy, the US casts a long shadow over Europe. The old continent remains disoriented by the centre of the world shifting to Asia and overwhelmed by a testosterone-fuelled US president who scorns the virtues of multilateralism. Europe must accept that it cannot bank on its traditional protector anymore and that the future demands greater fortitude at home and in the international context.
The idea of Europe that led to the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and the European Economic Community —on the ashes of a sizeable portion of the continent— and culminated in the creation of the single currency was hardly straightforward and without setbacks. Rather, it was the result of many crises and a compromise between the various different ideas of Europe, in permanent tension between economic pragmatism and political idealism. The result today is that this club has brought decades of peace to its members, but has failed to foster a true feeling of European identity. In Ian Kershaw’s Roller-Coaster: Europe 1950-2017 the author writes that “perhaps the elusive search for a European identity is unnecessary, as long as citizens of Europe’s individual nation-states are committed to upholding the common European principles of peace, freedom, pluralist democracy and the rule of law; to sustaining the material well-being that underpins that commitment; and to striving to strengthen, wherever possible, the bonds of transnational cooperation and friendship”.
As it turns out, nowadays the internal compromise is being threatened by enemies within the club: by Hungary and Poland, who undermine its democratic values; by Italy’s turmoil and, above all, by a successful Brexit that would deal a fatal blow to the EU (because it would pave the way for other countries to leave), although an unsuccessful Brexit would be catastrophic, if the member states got caught in its shockwave.
As for Italy, after an odd, fourteen-month long coalition between the Five Star Movement (FSM) —euro-skeptical and anti-system— and the Lega Nord’s nationalists, this week we have seen a move to explore an alternative alliance between the FSM and Nicola Zingaretti’s Democratic Party, backed by a few independent representatives. The five conditions for a new government would mean a step forward: supporting the EU, sustainable growth, changes to migration laws that involve European solutions, greater redistribution of wealth and full respect for parliamentary democracy. This minimum common denominator is in stark contrast with Salvini’s Mussolini-style request of “full powers” while he spreads lies about the alleged “pull factor” of rescue boats that save migrants stranded at sea, an allegation that does not hold water.
The political situation in Italy is tied to the country’s economic reality: its public debt amounts to 132 per cent of the nation’s GDP and the EU insists on cuts totalling €23bn. The political class is plagued by short-termism and the country’s public opinion has witnessed Brussel’s formula to overcome the downturn: a mediocre leadership that ignores the suffering of an increasingly precarious workforce and is unable to manage the so-called turbo-capitalism. International investment banks, large corporations and infotech giants have consolidated a power that extends beyond the control of nation states. The reckless, oversized banking sector pushed the international finance system to the brink of collapse and the EU has not strengthened its internal cohesion devices to face the challenge beyond Draghi and the Central Bank’s skill. At present, Trump and his trade war with China pose new, dangerous unknowns for a Europe that might just sit back in its comfortable (for some) decline or else will have to fight for an integration that allows it to rise to the challenges posed by the real agenda of climate crisis, migration, multilateralism’s diminished influence and the new economy.