Europe seeks to maintain unity, but is it too closely knit?

The European Union has kept peace among member states, but some are finding the ties that bind are becoming too tight, writes Caroline O’Doherty

Europe seeks to maintain unity, but is it too closely knit?

THE treaty that underpinned the formation of what is now the European Union ran to more than 30,000 words but its ethos could be summed up in just two of them: “ever closer”.

The theory was that countries that were interdependent economically would not wage war for fear of mutual destruction, and as they grew more deeply allied ideologically, they would not turn aggressor on a friend regardless of economics, while any tensions would be mollified by the intervention of others in the friendship circle.

Two other words have been much used to describe the new union’s goals in this reflective post-Second World War period: “never again”.

Events this week have prompted another bout of reflection, but this time on what should be done when “ever closer” becomes too close for comfort, and whether the resolute statement of “never again” should now carry a question mark.

Commemorations to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz were a reminder of the horrors that the architects of European unity sought to ensure would never be repeated.

But in Greece, we saw an example of what happens when that unity is challenged by an electorate who found that notwithstanding its noble intent, it bound them too tightly, regulated them too rigidly and left them feeling suffocated rather than supported.

The victory of the Coalition of the Radical Left, better known as the Syriza party, in the Greek general elections is being viewed by some as a wobble for Europe, but others see it as a watershed.

Syriza and its supporters want to put Greek national interest before Europe’s, arguing the crippling austerity measures imposed by the terms of the EU bailout leave the Greek people in servitude to the European cause.

The new prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, will now seek to renegotiate those terms. If he fails, Greece could be forced to exit the eurozone, leaving a weakened monetary union. If he succeeds, his achievement will come at the cost of weakened EU and German authority.

New Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras. What happened in Greece

was an example of what happens when an electorate feels it has

been bound too tight by European rules. Picture: AP

Far left and far right parties awaiting a string of national elections in Britain, Spain, Poland, Portugal, Denmark, Estonia, Finland and here in the next 12 months or so are looking on with intense interest. Some are implacably anti-EU, others simply anti-austerity, but all threaten to some degree an already shaky union.

For 79-year-old Tomi Reichental, who survived the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and has lived in Ireland since his 20s, these are worrying developments.

“If Europe disintegrated, it would be the biggest calamity. It took years to get together and to find ways to keep peace in Europe and we should not take it for granted.

“There are shortcomings with the main political parties but I think these extremists don’t understand politics and we could go into a dark corner with them that we don’t know how to get out of.”

Tomi has sympathy for ordinary Greeks — and for others throughout Europe crushed by austerity — but says they must be on guard that their difficulties are not exploited for political gain.

“When you hear what some of these groups are saying — the Independents and Sinn Féin for example — that they are going to do this and going to do that — it’s fairy stories and it’s sad that people are believing them.

“People voted for Hitler in Germany because of promises. I don’t mean to compare that to anybody here. I would not say such a terrible thing. But Hitler promised everything and started to build autobahns and fine buildings and suddenly there was employment and people cheering and look what he did in the end, so we have to be very, very careful what we do.”

Peter Cassells, chair of the Holocaust Education Trust of Ireland, is also careful with his language and points out Alexis Tspiras’s first official act this week was to lay a wreath at the National Resistance Memorial in Athens.

But he too says the rise of extremism should not go unscrutinised. “I don’t have any difficulty with it once it’s for straight economic and social reasons. I would put Syriza in that bracket.

“I would be more concerned about Golden Dawn in Greece [third in this week’s elections] and other far right parties across Europe.

“Once it hones in on people because of their race or religion or mixes the economic and social with race and religion, I think we are in serious trouble.

“There is an urgent need for us to continue to remind people of what happened in the past, particularly when people at the early stage of a movement don’t realise what is happening and don’t act.”

President Michael D Higgins spoke of similar concerns in an address to the Council of Europe this week when he spoke of “those destructive currents which, in my view, threaten unraveling our European systems of cohesion and cooperation”.

His speech covered geopolitical divides and new forms of fanaticism, but it was in his call to parliaments to reassert their power in a world overly influenced by financial institutions — and by implication the troika —that he got to the heart of the problems bedeviling European unity.

“How have we let rating agencies, for example, who act as a modern panopticon [a glass-walled prison], not bound by any democratic requirement, gain such influence on the life and prospects of our citizens?” he asked.

“Parliaments, both at national and European level, must urgently claim back competence and legitimacy on economic and fiscal matters.”

Dr Rory Costello, lecturer in politics at University of Limerick, echoes that view.

“European integration has removed a lot of powers from national governments and from national political institutions, particularly in countries like Greece and Ireland that have been under a programme, but it hasn’t replaced that with adequate democracy at the European level.

“What you’re seeing is at national level the mainstream parties — in most countries the centre right and centre left — have been losing support because they are the ones who have bought in to the European integration programme but they are very constrained in what they can offer to voters because they are essentially having to implement policies decided at EU level. You have a hollowing out of democracy at the national level.”

Dr Costello believes the EU will “muddle through” its negotiations with Syriza and conjure up some kind of compromise that will avert a crisis, but he says the democratic deficit will remain a long-term problem.

“For European integration to continue and to be successful in the future it does have to address this problem because a lot of the policies, particularly in the economic realm, are coming from Brussels and voters don’t have much input into that with the result being a move towards radical parties on the left and on the right.”

In a week of commemorations, Tomi Reichental has also been thinking of the future. He believes the ethos of “ever closer” must not only apply to European unity but to the link between past and present generations, those yet to come and the lessons that should bind them.

“My fear is that when we vote, we don’t really think what we are voting for. The past should be some guideline for us all.”

READ MORE: SHAUN CONNOLLY: Hard to call which politician most deserves derision

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