Europe’s challenge: “Out of many, one”

By Steven Hill, Social Europe Journal, September 18, 2010

With relief, Europe has made it to the end of the summer holiday season with the worst of the Greek/eurozone debt crisis behind it. Defying the gloomy headlines, the eurozone did not disintegrate; indeed this crisis, like previous ones, provided a shove toward further economic integration.

But much uncertainty remains, primarily because the challenge is not simply a technical one of crafting the rules for a tighter fiscal union. A union of institutions must be preceded by, at least to some degree, a union of minds. And the latter is infinitely stickier and more difficult to achieve.

This was illustrated for me recently by a conversation I had with a German friend.  She was lamenting that young Germans were moving away from Germany. ‘It’s a sign of the times’, she said. ‘Many young Germans don’t see a future here. I don’t know what it all will come to’.

I saw the concern on her face and, wishing to sympathise, I asked her a fairly obvious question: ‘Where are they moving to’? ‘To Austria and Switzerland’, she responded. I had to stop myself from laughing.

‘You know, for an American, that would be like worrying if a person moved from New York to Ohio; or from California to Washington; or even from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Don’t you think it is a good thing that people are able to move freely to where they feel there are opportunities?’

Her response was inconsequential, but the ramifications of this attitude are not. I have heard this lamentation in other European countries as well. It’s astonishing, and Europeans really need to renew their public dialogue about this because these attitudes are intricately related to the eurozone crisis. Simply put, continental unity begins with local attitudes.

In an age in which capital and financial transactions can move across borders at lightning speed with the flick of a computer mouse, the fact that it is still such a big deal for people to do so is an anachronism that needs to be left in the 20th Century as Europe moves deeper into the 21st.

One of the head-scratchers of modern Europe is that an Italian football star can play for a professional Dutch football team, or a British football star like David Beckham can play for a Spanish team, but can a Spanish worker be accepted in the Netherlands, or a Pole in Britain or Ireland, or a Romanian in France?

Recent headlines reported that German businesses are suffering from a shortage of labour, especially skilled labour, in the context of a strengthening economy. Companies haven’t been able to fill tens of thousands of engineering and technician jobs across the country, the Association of German Engineers reports.

At the same time the news headlines shout that Greek workers are being hit with widespread layoffs, due to the government’s breakneck debt-reduction programme.  Spain is suffering a shocking level of unemployment, with 20 percent of its workforce out of employment. In America, if one region of the country has a labour shortage while another region has mass unemployment, you would quickly see unemployed Americans moving to those parts of the country that offer jobs.

I live in California, but I was born and raised in Connecticut, 2500 miles away on the East Coast. California is filled with Americans who were born somewhere else and followed a golden highway to their dream of opportunity.

Germany would help its own economy, as well that of Greece and Spain, if it offered jobs to their fellow Europeans from those two countries. That’s just as important as providing billions in bailout money. Until more Spanish and Greeks are pursuing their version of the middle class dream in Germany, and more Brits in Poland, and Belgians in Hungary, and vice versa, ‘union’ will be a shaky concept. Language and culture are obvious barriers, but for a place where its parliamentary proceedings are conducted in 23 languages simultaneously, those should be surmountable.

In so many ways, it looks to this American like Europe is going through its ‘1780′s moment’. That’s the decade when a young United States, following its stunning defeat of the British Empire with the help of the French, still was not very united. It was plagued by regional tensions, mistrust between states and a distrust of central government. The average person did not yet identify itself as an American, but as a New Yorker or a Virginian or South Carolinian.

Its founding documents, the Articles of Confederation, turned out to be insufficient because, reflecting these local allegiances, it had fostered a weak central government that could not unify the continent, neither politically, economically, financially or culturally. That eventually led to a constitutional convention to draft a whole new founding document.

But even that wasn’t sufficient. It takes many decades to hone the institutions and practices that actually make it all meld. From the inauguration of the first American government in 1789, it took the US about 80 years – and a bloody civil war – to cease being a collection of regions and to bind into a nation. And during that time the US suffered at least eight banking crises and financial panics.

Seen in that light, it’s helpful to remember that the current configuration of the European Union – 27 nations and 500 million people – only dates to 2004. The use of the euro dates to 2002. ‘Old Europe’ actually is quite young.

Societies change on the order of decades, and it’s necessary to try and see past the daily headlines and discern the trajectory of the future. Europe may never become a full-blown ‘United States of Europe’. It may not need to. Perhaps the challenge for Europe is to reinvent what ’union’ means, fashioning suitable institutions for the 21st century. The details are important, but for now it is important to realise that ‘Europe’ is a work in progress. Patience and endurance are advised because this is a marathon, not a sprint. It will take many years for Europe to fashion its own version of that slogan visible on every American coin: E Pluribus Unum – ‘Out of many, one’.

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