One of history’s boldest political experiments ever has been the unification of Europe, first in the West, then extending to the East. After eons during which the continent was scarred by bloody battles, in the wake of World War II was a slow but certain effort to connect the countries in peace not war.
In some ways the experiment has been remarkably successful. Certainly the countries of Western Europe, in part through the development of institutions such as the European Union, are tied so as to make war between them – between, say, Italy and England – near inconceivable. But in many other ways European reunification remains a struggle – economically, politcically, socially, and even in selected cases militarily.
A few observations:
- Not only are most of Europe’s economies continuing still to struggle after the financial crisis, their struggles divide rather than unite them. The stark divide between the economies of Europe’s southern tier and the economies of its northern one highlight the enormous and arguably irreconcilable economic differences between, for example, Greece and the Netherlands.
- One of the consequences of what most countries are experiencing as hard times – including unacceptably high rates of unemployment, especially among young people – is a political shift to the hard right. Notable electoral gains have been made by right wing parties in countries including France, Denmark, Austria, Finland, Greece, and Switzerland. Not only are these right wing movements characterized by values that could be considered anti-democratic, they are also deeply nationalist. They go against the grain, against the heart and soul, of the European experiment.
- The fact that Europe has tolerated Russia’s intervention in and invasion of Ukraine has exposed a grave if not fatal weakness: Europe’s inability or, if you prefer, unwillingness to stop aggression even when it violates a border between two sovereign states. So far at least, Vladimir Putin’s willingness to escalate in Ukraine has manifestly outstripped Europe’s capacity to stop him.
- Increasingly questions are being raised about whether the values of countries in East Europe can finally and fully be aligned with those of countries in West Europe. Of course not all East European countries are the same. Poland is not Bulgaria. Still, there are unsettling signs that authoritarian rule in Eastern Europe during the decades of the Cold War may have had lingering effects. For example, in countries including Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia, a free and independent press is giving way to a press controlled by a small number of people with money, power, and political influence.
- Finally there is this. There is Pope Francis, who this past week addressed the European parliament in Strasbourg. Though he began his speech with a few niceties, it was in the end no less than a tongue-lashing. He decried the ebbing of Europe’s “humanistic spirit.” He lambasted Europe’s obsession with “trade and commerce.” He attacked the “fuctionalistic and privatized mindset” of many of Europe’s decision makers. And he accused the continent generally of being “elderly and haggard,” of feeling enfeebled in a world that increasingly regards it with “mistrust” and even “suspicion.”
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U. S. gradually shifted its gaze from away from Europe and toward Asia. Certainly in the last five years or so, America’s fixation has been on China, not on Russia, Germany, England, France, or even on Europe as a whole. I would argue that we went so far as to take Europe for granted. I would similarly argue that when the Pope likened the European continent to an aging “grandmother,” he was making what he intended a wake-up call.