7. EU Paradise Plagued by Populist Swarms

Adekeye Adebajo

The English poet John Milton’s classic Paradise Lost portrayed a vain God being plunged into a celestial civil war by a “radical” Satan, who instigated a third of the angels in rebellion against “Heav’n’s awful Monarch”. The Devil had also caused humankind to lose its immortal haven in the Garden of Eden. As the European Union celebrates (EU) celebrates its sixtieth birthday this month, its history could also represent a case of “Paradise Lost”.

Europe had been the epicentre of two hellish world wars between 1914 and 1945, before the continent was partitioned and forced to cede global preeminence to two superpowers: the United States (US) and Russia. However, the incredible economic integration of Europe which ensured an end to large-scale conflicts suggested that Europe now represented a case of “Paradise Regained”.

The EU can be seen as an effort to create a modern Tower of Babel by bringing together 500 million people in 28 countries, from Sofia to Stockholm, creating the world’s largest market and the world’s only truly supranational organisation. The Union has now become the world’s largest trading power, accounting for about 25% of the world’s gross domestic product.

Jean Monnet is generally regarded as the “Father of European integration”, becoming president of the High Authority of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) from 1952 to 1955. The ECSC also involved the six founding members of the European Economic Community (EEC): France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg.

The Treaty of Rome of 1957 established the EEC seeking to “lay the foundations of an ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe”. The basic bargain of the bloc was a deal between French agriculture and German industry as a way of bringing peace to Europe. The EEC saw immediate results: trade in industrial products doubled in four years and average growth within the Community in the 1960s was 5 percent. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was launched two years later, and at about $50 billion a year, has now become a profligate monstrosity of food mountains and corpulent farmers. The customs union was completed in 1968.

The Trente Glorieuses (Thirty Glorious Years) of sustained economic growth after 1945 delivered peace and prosperity to Europe. The 1970s, however, ended as a dismal decade, with oil shocks and a global economic crisis that led to “Eurosclerosis” in an era of stagflation. Even as Britain, Denmark, and Ireland joined the Community in 1973, member states seemed paralysed by indecision. Nevertheless, the first direct elections of the European Parliament occurred in 1979; the European Monetary System was created; and the European Court of Justice increasingly became a source of European law.

The 1980s saw a relaunch of European integration. Another visionary Frenchman, Jacques Delors, (1985-1994) took the helm in Brussels and embarked on a breathless process of integration not witnessed since the halcyon days of the 1960s. This led to the creation of a single market by 1992 and moved towards a single currency and common defence and foreign policy. European corporations were instrumental in this integration process. Spain and Portugal joined the union in 1986 (Greece had joined in 1981), and democracy-building became another important achievement of the EU.

Despite these epoch-making successes, reversals in popular referenda suggested that Europe’s leaders were not taking their populations with them on this journey without maps. The Yugoslav wars of succession between 1992 and 1995 further exposed the EU as an economic giant and military dwarf. However, the European Parliament’s powers were enhanced in 1997, and a European currency – the euro – was launched by 2002, as France looked to tie a reunified German Gulliver into a web of interdependence.

By 2007, 12 states from Central and Eastern Europe had joined, but the gloomy mood of the 1970s returned. The Iraq war of 2003 and the Libyan intervention of 2011 embarrassingly exposed the failings of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy. The organisation won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 but has been experiencing a serious financial crisis over the last decade. The decision by the British to leave the Union in two years, the dearth of visionary leadership, the rise of Islamaphobia, and the prospects for a populist victory in French elections in May, have all raised serious questions about whether this tower of Babel could crumble, leading to another “Paradise lost”.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation, and co-editor of The EU and Africa.

Business Day, 20 March 2017.