The following article is based on extensive conversations with former Prime Minister of Italy and President of the EU Romano Prodi.
ROME: Europe is not just made of the accounting of the banks, the debts and compound interest owed by “delinquent” states to a community of financiers because of mismanagement, inefficiency, or corruption.
Europe is also made of a very volatile mix of double-digit unemployment in some states, growing fear of incomprehensible edicts issued by technocrats in faraway Brussels, and a mounting wave of migrants from the south and east willing to take any job and eager to smash all that is left of the security of the decades-old welfare state.
These two pulls have been so far irreconcilable, each with reasons and logic of their own, incomprehensible to the other side. Bargains between opposing sides have been struck only based on tough haggling over details, but no prevailing goal, ideal, or political agenda has been put forward to tackle both horns of the dilemma and drive the European people forward from the present social and political quagmire.
The violent protests in Greece and the uneasy truce achieved between the Greek parliament and the European technocrats speak volumes to the difficulties still ahead. Hence, a century after World War I, Europe seems ready to repeat the same mistakes that brought the continent from one conflict directly into the jaws of another even more murderous one.
Radical anti-European movements are springing up everywhere in Europe, placing themselves on the right or the left, and no country is left untouched. Their appeal and electoral success is only relative to the perceived danger and threat from Brussels—a greater sense of peril leads to stronger radical parties, less threat fosters weaker radical parties.
In Italy, the danger is certainly great. In the last administrative elections, only 50% of the people went to vote. This is very different from the “normal” 50% of voters in the U.S. In America, voters have to register and may lose one or two days of work to cast their ballots—to vote is a right, not a duty, and 50% voting has been common there for many decades.
In Italy, over 80% of the people used to vote only a few years ago. Voting is conveniently arranged on a weekend, with the ballots a few yards from home and no need for any registration or waste of time. If people don’t vote, then it is because they do not feel represented by the present political offerings.
These are moderates who do not want to vote for the parallel and opposing populist forces now led by Matteo Salvini on the right and Beppe Grillo on the left, but they are also dissatisfied with the lackluster performance of Matteo Renzi. Salvini and Grillo make no mystery that they want to take Italy out of Europe and are deaf to the arguments that this could lead to a national and global economic and political Armageddon. Italy, unlike Greece, is too big an economy to be entirely saved or totally expelled from the euro without immense costs for everybody.
Still, if Italian moderates will not commit to vote for the only relevant moderate force now in the country (the PD lead by Renzi) and abstain from the ballot, the minority but more militant right or left could win the elections and come to power, almost like the Fascists did in 1922.
We forget that the euro was launched at the end of a world war, the cold one that had began 70 years ago, right after World War II. It was in fact the answer to the end of that war, just like the Marshall Plan was. The euro, with hindsight, was launched with many mistakes—it was not as comprehensive and well thought out as the Marshall Plan. The euro put too much weight on the economic side and too little on politics, and it was expanded hastily to countries just recently liberated from the Soviet yoke. But there is still time to amend those errors.
The Marshall Plan forgave and restructured debts of winning and defeated countries and in return asked for massive political reforms in each nation, linking the old continent closely to the US as the guarantor that centuries of continental wars will not return. The same logic ought to be applied here. The “root of evil” in Italy for instance is certainly political, not economic. The political system the nation chose some 70 years ago was geared to preventing fascists or communists from coming to power. Now the present reform bets on the idea that the majority of Italians are moderate; but, as we saw, dramatic, exceptional circumstances may push Italians elsewhere. Still the solution is not Italian; it is European, and it can be achieved and found once again with the help of the Americans.
All three world wars (I, II, and Cold) were fought in Europe and about Europe: World Wars I and II were about Germany, and the Cold War was about the USSR. Now the world has become much bigger than Europe. New super-states are growing fast in the East. There is China now, tomorrow there will be India, the day after there might be Indonesia, and then maybe Nigeria, Brazil, Mexico, et cetera. Each European nation is too small to cope with these new super-states, and even as the U.S. is refocusing from Europe and the Middle East to Asia, it might want and need partners to handle this burgeoning brave new world.
This might be the seed to found a new Europe and give substance to a floundering euro. But most importantly, this could be a red thread to begin to rebind Europe against the threat of mounting unemployment, declining living standards, and ballooning neo-fascist or neo-Leninist sentiments.
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