Thursday, 26 November 2015

For the first time, I'm considering leaving Europe

Europe and America are both facing problems, but Europe's governing structures are more vulnerable and seem ready to collapse. It's left me pondering my future.

Since I first moved to Europe ten years ago, I've been surprised by how often I am asked one particular question - "will you ever move back to America?"

It always struck me as unusual, because I don't think a European who moved to America would get that question all the time. But in the four European cities I've lived in, people have seemed genuinely perplexed about why I'm here. Why would someone prefer to be in Europe rather than the United States? The question always annoyed me, and my answer was resolute.

"No, I'm not planning to move back," I responded. "I have a better quality of life here, I'm no longer in an American bubble separated from the rest of the world and, most importantly, I feel more hopeful for the future here than I did in the United States."

As we come to the end of 2015 I have to ask, is there reason for me to feel hopeful for Europe any more?

Europe is now facing a perfect storm of crises which it seems incapable of handling. Having barely weathered the storm of the euro crisis over the past six years, we're now bombarded with problems on all sides.

The migration crisis. The terrorism crisis. The Brexit crisis. The Ukraine crisis. And most worryingly, the Syria crisis, which after this week's downing of a Russian plane by Turkey seems more likely than ever to propel us into a global geopolitical conflict the likes of which we haven't seen for 70 years.

The European Union's institutions, assembled only halfway, have been unable to cope with these crises. Lacking public support for true economic integration, the EU ploughed ahead with monetary union without a common economic governance. Lacking public support for EU-controlled external borders, it ploughed ahead with the Schengen area while leaving the peripheral states on their own to police the union's external borders. Lacking public support for a unified EU foreign policy, it created a toothless high representative post that has generated more confusion than clarity when tackling the problems on Europe's doorstep.

What's clear now is that this halfway approach cannot stand. Europe can either go forward or go backward. At this point, it is difficult for me to envision a scenario in which Europe does not go backward.

The cross-border nature of this month's terrorist attacks seems bound to result in a walk-back of the EU's Schengen agreement of passport-free travel within the union. Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission observed yesterday that if Schengen fails, the euro fails. I don't think this is hyperbole. These are the two most sacred, symbolic aspects of European integration. If people don't care enough to defend one, they won't defend the other. And given that most Europeans I've met over the years don't even know what Schengen is, it seems unlikely there will be big public support to defend it.

Why does all this matter to me? Well, I wouldn't be here without the European Union. I moved here in 2006 because I had a fascination with the EU. My obsession began innocently enough - by reading a book. Although I had concentrated in European History at university and even did a semester in Prague, I hadn't really been taught anything about the EU. It wasn't until I read Jeremy's Rifkin's 'The European Dream' in 2005 that I learned what it was. And I liked what I read.

Rifkin's point was that the EU was moving Europe forward into being a third superpower for the 21st century. I was fascinated, and also hopeful - because I wasn't very excited about living in a century dominated by the US or by China.

It was right after the re-election of George W Bush in 2004, an election which had left me incredibly disillusioned and disturbed about the direction my country was going. A relative had died in the Iraq War, and it left me thinking about scenarios in which that disastrous war would not have been launched (such as a united EU opposing it rather than European states being played off against each other by Washington). I was also covering the US Congress in Washington at the time, and that was an experience which frankly left me exasperated with an archaic American governing system which seemed like it would never modernise.

I looked to the European Union as a place of younger democracies, a new, energetic project-in-creation that held out the promise of more logical governance. It seemed like a place that was more in line with my values. That has been largely born out. EU policy-making is much more logical than in the US (though you wouldn't know it because all the media focuses on are the high-level crisis talks). Culturally I've felt more in tune here also. To be honest I feel more comfortable here than I do when I go home to the US. At this point I feel a bit foreign when I'm in America.

So I always said I didn't plan to go back, and luckily enough I don't have to because I acquired EU citizenship in 2008. But lately, as we seem to be heading ever-closer to the abyss, my answer has become more nuanced. First it became "never say never, but I don't have any plans to". Then this turned into a "maybe". With the events of the past weeks, I think the answer is now "quite possibly".

Being in Brussels during the lockdown really affected me. I felt my confidence in European structures, in their ability to keep society functioning, collapse. It isn't just about Brussels (after all, I only live there part-time now and lost confidence in that city long ago). I felt overwhelming anxiety about what comes next in Europe as a whole.

It's not as if things are so peachy back in the US. An archaic governing structure still means the country is paralysed and cannot act to solve any of its problems. The presidential election process has become a completely entertainment-driven farce. The news media has devolved into self-parody. And the vitriolic reaction to the Paris attacks by the Republican presidential candidates has revealed a dark undercurrent that is growing in American society.

And yet, the country isn't about to fall apart. States aren't going to start erecting walls between one another. The dollar isn't going to collapse. The world's oldest democracy may frustrate me in its archaic methods of governance, but it's solid. America isn't going away.

Europe's institutions are newer, and weaker. It now seems increasingly likely that they are not strong enough to withstand the dramatic developments of this year. Think about it. A handful of angry young men with some guns have managed to shut down the EU capital for five days, and in the end they may scare Europeans into re-erecting walls between each other.

As a journalist, of course you want to be where the interesting things are happening. A big part of me says I should stick around, to do my small part to try to keep things from falling apart. And I probably will. But it's been a strange feeling over the past year, realising that for the first time in ten years, I've lost hope for Europe. And I can't fake it.

In two weeks I will fly to New York for an extended visit home for the holidays. It is badly needed - a time to reflect on everything that's happened. 

I will continue working on my book about what went wrong with the European project (education) while I'm home, and I will come back to Berlin in February. I still love this city, and I feel I have a lot more to discover. So that alone is a big draw to stick around. But for how long? Perhaps once I finish the book, it's time to pack it in.

My heart may be in Europe. I may identify more with Europeans. But I have to seriously think about whether there is a bright future here.

It's something I will have to think about over the holidays.


Anonymous said...

Yes, Europe is facing incredible threats at the moment. But the euro zone crisis has strengthened the euro, by forcing countries to set up new institutions that were lacking, and the refugees crisis will, I'm sure, strengthen the Shengen area, by forcing EU countries to finally erect real external borders.

As to the US, I disagree that institutions look solid there: that mess about the debt ceiling that almost caused a default and cost the country its triple A? Looks incredible for a 200+ year old nation! And what about Donald Trump having a good chance of winning the Republican nomination despite calling for muslims to wear badges and making fun of a handicaped person?! The incredible ignorance of world affairs by the average Joe?

Nowhere is perfect, so cheer up, things can only get better!

Enda said...

Dave, while I agree with many of your criticisms of how the EU functions as a bloc I think we need to realise that the EU as a supra-national entity can only do what its Member States allow it to do. A certain amount of power has been given to the EU institutions in certain policy areas as it makes sense for Member States to have a uniform approach concerning trade policy, customs etc. However there are many areas where the Member States have not so far given up their national control and there are various reasons for this. As a result one cannot blame the EU institutions for inaction in those areas of policy such as security, border control etc. because those institutions do not have the power to make decisions in those areas and national governments are unwilling so far to coordinate and share that power. The EU can only be as strong as its Member States allow it to be - that's the fundamental difference between the EU and the USA, the EU is made up of 28 sovereign countries whereas the USA is one country. The history of the development of the EU has been to achieve what can be achieved (frequently imperfect) and then build on that in future years, this has led to the problems with the Euro among other things of course. For me I see the recent trend since the Euro crisis of more inter-governmentalism through the EU Council and less of what was known as the "Community method" led by the EU Commission as one of the major problems. I blame the Barroso Commission for allowing this to happen, the Commission was sidelined and everything became a decision to be taken at an "emergency EU Summit" at the Council. This has resulted in paralysis and decisions taken in the middle of the night on a crisis-by-crisis basis, there is no long-term planning anymore and major decisions are now taken by Member States in the light of their domestic political landscape and not on the basis of what is best for the European Union. The Belgian government's reaction to the Paris attacks is probably an over-compensation for their lack of action in dealing with the known problem of radicalised young Arabs living in Belgium. They have been stung by criticism from France and other commentators are are acting with a show of force. If the current situation is not the catalyst to implement real, coordinated external border control and information sharing across the EU then I don't know what is. I don't believe the Schengen agreement is in danger as long as Member States agree to share the information they have on the movement of suspected terrorists and criminals - but again that is the key question, will they agree? I still have hope that there is a positive future for the EU, developments in the political scene in the USA however leave me cold!

Tarik said...

You know, I agree with you. When I moved from NYC back to London in 2012 I thought I would NEVER want to move back there. But Europe seems to be going down hill. Esp with the increased anti-EU rhetoric in England, it's not a great place to live. America has its problems too: Terrible healthcare and political systems, school shootings, cop violence, racism. But it also has more of a can-do attitude. It might be worth another look soon. I only need to find a husband for a visa.

Meg said...

I hear you buddy. Same here, and also unsurprisingly the same with lots of Eurocrats. I have a half-Italian, half-German friend working in the Institutions, who said recently, "I used to feel a sense of pride about where I worked and what I did. After the Euro crisis, the migrant crisis, and the security crisis, now I feel ashamed, as working in the institutions it isn't as positive as it was just a few months ago."

Amélie said...

Europe will endure without the EU (even if i don't believe the EU will disappear... it may change A LOT but it may not be a bad thing). but the EU is not Europe (though our elites want to make us believe that). the EU is not a country/nation or even state, but a project. Any project can be fixed, re-structured, etc. Brexit might in fact be more a blessing in that regard, a unique chance to change things and make this project work, before jumping ahead trying to create a state without having any of the proper conditions of a state, particularly legitimate institutions. the EU triangle are just governing structures of a project we started 60 years ago but are not legitimate institutions. So i totally understand your pessimism if you ever believed in the EU idea the way it has been presented to us, but Europe is not called the Old Continent for nothing. We have thousands of years of history (unlike America) and will continue to survive in a way or another

Gundars said...

I do share some views with you, however my sentiment is very different of yours. I feel more European then ever, and I have more pride to work for an EU institution then ever before! Only when confronted with real challenges you operate in full speed, if there are things to correct or change the right moment has come for it. Instead of leaving I will embrace these challenges!

Dave said...

I think, reading your article, that you've invested in the EU's construct that we are all "European" rather than a union of nation states with different cultures, aspirations and peoples. I don't think most citizens of Europe invest much in this idea of Europeaness but they like the freedoms and opportunities the EU delivers. What's under threat now isn't the cohesiveness of the continent but the "project" of ever closer union that only career politicians really want. Maybe the euro was a step too far and we do need to wind back the EU a bit. Perhaps the UK referendum will raise these questions in other countries too.

Dave said...

The EU wont ever vanish but why this constant drive to homogenise a continent. That's what actually makes me sad. I want a different experience in Sweden than I have in Greece. I want to feel I am in a different country not just a Union. I am pro-EU Brit - a rare thing these days and I totally believe in the freedoms of movement but I don't want centuries of culture wiped out by this determination to make us all the same. This continent has weathered many worse storms than this one and come out the other end.

Dave Keating said...

I hear this argument a lot, but I don't see how the EU is trying to make all countries the same. It's unity in diversity. Harmonising economic rules and establishing freedom of movement encourages cultural exchange but it doesn't homogenise culture. If that is happening, it's not because of the EU, it's because of globalisation. It would happen anyway with or without the EU.

Dave said...

You might be right about that but haven't we gone far enough in terms of economic harmonisation. Did we need the same currency for example? Particularly as we are a globalised world and each country also looks beyond the EU for trade now.

Daniel said...

I don't think the EU wants to make everything the same from Kiruna to Lisbon, but it does happen to a certain extent because the single market allows big companies to open the same shops and provide services all over the place. But this would happen even without the EU thanks to globalisation. Funnily enough I also feel Dave's deep sense of sadness when looking at the European project which I passionately believed in and loved ever since I could remember. It seems such a shame to me that we never seemed to be able to develop a sense of European nationhood, as that would have solved so many of our problems, allowing us to create a real political union, which is what you need when times really get hard. After a decade working for the project, I also feel a bit foreign now I'm back "home" in that most reticent of EU member states, the UK. But I haven't given up hope yet. I've wondered so many times how the EU could possible survive this or that challenge, and we're still here.

Edward said...

The EU project won't fail as long as mega international corporations exist. Never underestimate the power of human greed

Brian said...

Well, progress is slow as Europeans just aren't as opportunistic as Americans (or Asians for that matter). I also think Europe is still several generations away from having a young population that really has any kind of concrete "European" identity. It all comes down to education, really. Most Europeans don't even learn about EU civics in school. It's a very long-term project and what's happening now is a bump in a very long journey to becoming a united superpower (and even then, what's preventing the U.S., China or another more opportunistic economy from taking that seat?). For many Europeans, I sense world leadership is not a priority...

Terry said...

I'm sad to read this, but I understand the sentiment. When I think of all the crises, one after another, I have to catch my breath as each one is a proverbial kick in the ideologies. But then I remember: Euro crisis, migration crisis, terrorism crisis, Brexit crisis, Ukraine crisis, Syria crisis...they're not crises, they are manageable problems. There is only one EU crisis: the inability of nations to take collective responsibility and collective action.
-There is a migration crisis because some countries believe that if they close their eyes 4 million desperate people will go away.
-There is a euro crisis because some countries believe that if they close their eyes hundreds of billions of euro in debt will go away.
- There is a Ukraine crisis because some countries believe that if they close their eyes Russia will go away.
-There is a Brexit crisis because the British believe that if they close their eyes the continent of Europe will go away.
Ironically, the EU will remain, because no matter how hard some people close their eyes and try to believe in the nationalist fairy story...that's all it is. The EU will remain because it is the only solution to it's problems: leaders just need to open their eyes to see it.

Jordan said...

it's utterly depressing when you see the refugee crisis and then this latest terrorist threat and realize that we're on such an amazing continent that just can't get its shit together.

Antonis said...

The most accurate thing I've read recently on the ... state of the Union. Unfortunately. Spot on!

Fidel said...

Dave Keating I like your honest view and agree with a lot of your statements. It's a good analysis. I don't agree with others, you know well in particular I do not loose hope about Brussels. I still find this city is one of the few areas with a large international community that does believe in a common future for Europe, imperfect as it is, it's one of the few examples of a city that is truly European and not the capital of a nation. I think people like you enrich us all and hope you will stay. And if you go back at least you'll be able to tell your fellow Americans about our imperfections but I also hope some of our qualities.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this delicate topic with us.

On a different note, rather than writing a book on what went wrong in Europe, you should challenge yourself by writing a book on how to improve it. Nobody wants to read yet another book that slags Europe off!

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you should reconsider your frame of reference. This should not be a question of choosing either the USA or Europe. The challenges are to the West, or rather to those countries both within and outside the Euro-Atlantic area that embrace the notion of rule of law by a democratically accountable government as the core value of political culture, not rule by a self-appointed arbiter of religious or ideological dogma. Man has the greatest potential to do evil and wrong when he is accountable to no one -- a stark fact that applies equally to the EU's democratic deficit as it does to the profession of journalism.

Anonymous said...

Try England old chap, we've still had a parliamentary democracy on our island since 1688 and a Monarch who has reigned for so long that she was also Head of State when Winston Churchill was Prime Minister. Every single other member of the EU, with the possible exception of Sweden, was a failed state during the twentieth century and had to have their political institutions replaced with European ones. Yes, every country (pace Sweden). Germany - facist; Spain facist; Italy facist; France, Benelux, Greece etc - unable to defend themselves; Poland, Czechslovakia, Hungary - dominated first by facists then communists.

Anonymous said...

For someone who studied European History as an undergraduate to continuously compare what he calls "Europe" with the USA is incredible.

Hadn't he noticed that the potential for union among nations so diverse as in Europe was very slim, compared to his nation -the USA- that formed itself into a union because of relative commonality of the peoples populating it?

Unknown said...

Keep in mind, this entire thread of thoughtful debate has occurred without anyone name-calling. There is (relative) security here, but we have a monopoly on hot-headed idiots.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately this EU-enthused American who arrived in 2004 has not had the opportunity to note how relations between European peoples had deteriorated over the previous 30 years. As an intensive traveller throughout it, it has been impossible to ignore this development.

The author's touching use of the word "Europe" as an imaginary national political unit strikes me as quaint. To me, this is clearly the result of integrationist decisions taken from a bubble (Brussels where the author lives) by a legislature that nobody voted for, on behalf of swathes of peoples who have little in common.
As if a shared white European ethnicity would magically translate such diverse peoples into a nation is the height of flabby Brussels thinking.
Therefore it is hardly a wonder that so few people think of themselves as "European" in the Brussels sense. Similarly it is unsurprising that voter turn-out of the rubber-stamping 'EP' elections was always low, and has plummeted at each election.

He now spends as much time in Berlin. Like 'Brussels' Germany as a whole occupies an exceptional and un-typical place in Europe (the real Europe). The German population has had it drilled into them to see themselves as "Europeans" and not Germans, as a type of penance for their misdeeds. Of course this does not make them any less German, however much their zeal my convince them otherwise.
How on earth are other Europeans supposed to identify with this uniquely German form of atonement?

Perhaps his years in Brussels have blinded him to that fact that what Brussels has created is more of an old pre-democratic European Empire along the Hapsburg lines, rather than a Union.