Much ado about nothing

Paraphrasing Mark Twain, the news that the EU is cranking and moribund is premature. In historical perspective, this period we are living now will be remembered probably as “much ado about nothing.”

By ALFRED TOVIAS
April 6, 2019 10:09
A protester in Brussels during the European Council, 1987

A protester in Brussels during the European Council, 1987. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The move toward more globalization is unstoppable, basically for technological reasons. For instance, constant improvements in transport and communication technologies lead to increasing direct contact between different individuals, families, tribes, cities and states. In a matter of 10 to 20 years, civilian supersonic travel will be back. This is not to speak of the indirect contact with other people and cultures by trade in goods.

By and large, most young people look forward to it. They are not scared by change brought about by globalization; they are not even fatigued by constant change. Apart from age, the reason for this fearless attitude is that they are increasingly educated and acquiring a very important tool, namely knowledge of the English language. They are better equipped than previous generations to cope with globalization. As a matter of fact, many adults, including old ones who are naturally inclined to resist change, are also becoming computer literate. Research shows that people of the baby boom generation, including this author, are or at least feel younger mentally and physically than their parents when they were the same age.

Globalization has not only technological reasons, but also political will to eliminate artificial man-made barriers to movement of goods, services, people and capital across national borders. The European Union is at the forefront of globalization. It has been an open trading block, largely thanks to elimination of man-made barriers to movement of goods and services through intensive participation in multilateral trade negotiations first in the GATT and then the WTO. But when that road was unavailable or did not go far enough, the EU did not hesitate to negotiate free-trade areas, including with Israel; or even negotiate inclusion of countries such as Norway in its single market.

The degree of freedom of movement was always many steps ahead inside the EU. Since 1968, citizens of the member states can move across the entire EU territory to look for permanent work; for a place to retire long-term; to study in another EU member country for an unlimited time; and this list is not exhaustive. Almost all Israelis that by law are allowed by one of the EU member states to become citizens are slowly and discreetly availing themselves of this possibility, Zionism or not.

GIVEN THE opportunity, most people prefer to be citizens of a supranational state than a purely national one. Those forecasting the unsustainability of the EU in the long run (Eurosceptics) as compared to the durability of the nation state have constantly had to revise their dire predictions. The eurozone is alive and kicking. Nobody questions the usefulness for the citizen of having an international currency that can be used in practice at least in the European continent (including Switzerland, Hungary, Montenegro and so on).

Those UK citizens that voted for Brexit expecting the EU to collapse afterward must recognize now that this was not only fantasy, but that Brexit has energized the other 27 to integrate further. Some keen observers of what Britain will do after leaving the EU think that the former will ask again for EU membership in less than a decade.

Who would have predicted several decades ago that the largest producer of civil aircraft in the world, Airbus, would be a consortium of different European firms working in harmony with Brussels eyes monitoring its development? Who would have said that a mega-national producer of aircraft like the American Boeing, with Washington behind it, would incur huge losses because of rushing the development of a new model, the Boeing 737Max, to catch up with Airbus and then having to ground the whole new fleet until the safety of the new aircraft is duly established?

The advantages that educated young people in Europe see in economies of scale are self-evident. For instance, a much higher percentage of young British citizens favor the UK remaining in the EU than the rest of the population. Young European citizens love the EU because it opens to them 28 different labor markets; they benefit extensively from the successful introduction of EU educational programs such as Erasmus for education, training and sport. Low-cost airlines such as Easy Jet and Ryan Air have become European trademarks for vast amounts of young people that never dreamed two decades ago of visiting other European countries as they do know – and they like that.

One of the taboos firmly engrained in European societies is being bypassed increasingly, namely mixed intra-European marriages. Traditional barriers such as language and religion are left aside. Children issued of these marriages are going to become the real Europeans. Quite ironically, among the first generations of real Europeans are, relatively speaking, many Jews. Not surprisingly, we don’t find many European Jews that are Eurosceptic.

THE TRIUMPH of neoliberalism as an economic doctrine both at the supra-national level (the EU becoming an engine of globalization) and at the member-state level (creating EU single markets for goods, services, capital and labor) has had secondary effects that must now be reckoned with. They became glaring a decade ago with the onset of the Great Recession. Increasing income inequality and regional disparities, both at the domestic level and at the EU level are well documented.
The political backlash is the emergence of Europopulism and the rise of extreme parties – both right- and left-wing. A common feature to all is hostility to neoliberal and cosmopolitan elites. This translates frequently into classic nationalism, protectionism, hostility to migrants and foreigners in general, but also to well-integrated minorities, such as European Jews.

The EU has been and is at the avant-garde of globalization.(Wikimedia Commons)

However, things must be put in perspective. The explosion of social media exaggerates the real impact of people with extreme, frequently badly informed, views. Let’s not overreact. If most Europeans think that globalization should continue and that on the whole it is a satisfying feature of their lives, then the right things to do is to hear the qualms of those left behind and try to bring them up to average as much as possible. This is what is expected to happen in a modern democracy.

“As much as possible” will be a function of the place of the state in the political economy (from almost zero in the UK to quite a lot in France). In that task, the nation-state will play a central role for some time (for practical reasons, in most instances), but if it appears to most Europeans that some services can be provided more efficiently at the supra-national rather than at the national level, they will eventually go for it. The European University in Florence is a good advanced example of graduate teaching toward obtaining a PhD without renouncing to excellence.

Paraphrasing Mark Twain, the news that the EU is cranking and moribund is premature. Europopulism can be addressed by adopting policy measures that can correct the worst side effects of openness and globalization, something that President Emmanuel Macron of France seems to have understood. In historical perspective, this period we are living now will be remembered probably as “much ado about nothing.”

The writer is a professor emeritus of the Department of International Relations of the Hebrew University and co-president of the Israeli Association for Study of European Integration.


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