I've spent the past few days getting settled here in Brussels, and so far things have gone quite well. I've got a great apartment right in Centre Ville next to the Grand Place, and my intensive French class is fantastic. It's an advanced class and there's only seven of us, each from a different country.
Last night I had drinks with a French friend who lives here in Brussels, and we were talking about different things going on the EU these days. There wasn't a shortage of things to discuss. Toward the end of the conversation, we remarked on what a crazy time this is to be living in Brussels reporting on the EU. It feels like we're on the precipice of something, particularly in Europe. Things are about to change, we speculated, and they could possibly go in extreme directions. It looks like we've all been victims of that old purported Chinese curse, "may you live in interesting times." But to continue with the 'mangled cliches claiming to be proverbs theme', the Chinese character for crisis also means opportunity! Could the economic crisis lead to a strengthening of pan-European institutions, or could it just as easily lead to the disintegration of the entire EU project?
The topic that got us thinking in this direction was the unfolding story in the UK of ever-spreading strikes among industrial workers protesting the presence of foreign EU workers in the UK. The dispute started last week when British workers at an oil refinery in Lincolnshire walked out in protest at a contract to carry out work at the plant being awarded to an Italian firm, which then supplied Italian workers. Since then, the strikes have been spreading. Workers at neighboring plants have started walking out to show solidarity with the Lincolnshire plant workers. And now nuclear plant workers have joined the movement. The demonstrators are getting a lot of press, and when interviewed the leaders of the walk-outs all say that the plants are hiring "cheap foreign labour" to save money instead of hiring better-qualified British workers at home because they are more expensive. "British jobs for British workers" read the signs.
The assertions they're making, however, adon't exactly reflect reality. According to the refinery owner, a company called Total, the Italian workers are making the exact same wage that the British workers make. Additionally, not a single British worker lost their job as a result of the contract being awarded to the Italian firm. And of course as EU citizens, Italian workers have the exact same legal right to work in the UK as the British workers. And given that these Italian workers have received the same training that the British workers have, claiming that the British workers are better trained betrays more than a little Anglo arrogance.
Yet the issue has taken hold among the British public. The strikes are turning into the biggest labour unrest since the Thatcher government took on the labour unions in the 1980's. Gordon Brown has condemned the strikes, but they continue to expand (but not quite as fast as the media coverage of them is). Given that people in the UK are jittery already about the dire state of the British economy, which is predicted to be the worse affected by the global economic crisis, it's not surprising that people are on edge and looking for someone to blame. Obviously, foreigners are historically one of the first targets in such situations. But what is it that the striking workers want exactly? They're demanding that British companies shouldn't be able to consider foreign EU workers for jobs, but EU membership requires that EU citizens be able to work across borders. So are they calling for the UK to suddenly pull out of the EU?
Protectionism or Internationalism?
This trend toward populist protest is hardly isolated to the UK. As the far-right in the UK has reported increased interest in recent months, last week's one-day strike in France demonstrated to many French politicians an alarming rise of the far-left. The demonstrators were venting their fury that as tens of thousands of Europeans lose their jobs, the bankers who got us into this mess are being bailed out by the national governments. Although the strike didn't grind France to a halt as the organisers had predicted, it really seems to have rattled the French government. The French communist movement is reporting that its ranks are growing fast and furiously. Across Europe, the far-left is sensing that their time may have come, particularly in countries like France where they are still a powerful force. According to the BBC, recent intelligence reports have picked up an "elevated threat" from European far-left activists, predicting a possible rebirth of the "violent extreme left."
Both of these groups are clearly not fans of the EU. The European far-right loathes it for taking away national sovereignty, and the far-left regards it as little more than a dismantling of labour protections for the benefit of big business. If either of these two forces become more powerful with the public, it would be bad news for the future of the European project.
At the same time, the changing economic reality could also have the effect of strengthening the EU. Many analysts are predicting that Ireland's dire economic woes will almost certainly mean that the re-vote on the Lisbon treaty will result in a 'yes' this time, as Irish voters lose confidence that the nation could go it alone if need be. European politicians may be able to use the current crisis to point out examples of how a strengthened EU would allow Europe to develop a fast, cohesive and effective response to such crisies in the future. Iceland is now working with Brussels to develop a fast-track process for them to join the EU and get into the Eurozone as quickly as possible in order to resolve their current crisis. And even in the UK, where debate about replacing the sterling with the euro has been dead in the water for years. discussion of the UK going onto the single currency has suddenly reignited as the pound plummets to historic lows.
So which way are things going to go? It's difficult to say now, and probably depends on who will be calling the shots over the next few years - the governments, or a panicked public. These are interesting times indeed.