PARIS – The euro, many now believe, will not survive a failed political class in Greece or escalating levels of unemployment in Spain: just wait another few months, they say, the European Union’s irresistible collapse has started.
Dark prophecies are often wrong, but they may also become self-fulfilling. Let’s be honest: playing Cassandra nowadays is not only tempting in a media world where “good news is no news”; it actually seems more justified than ever. For the EU, the situation has never appeared more serious.
It is precisely at this critical moment that it is essential to re-inject hope and, above all, common sense into the equation. So here are ten good reasons to believe in Europe – ten rational arguments to convince pessimistic analysts, and worried investors alike, that it is highly premature to bury the euro and the EU altogether.
The first reason for hope is that statesmanship is returning to Europe, even if in homeopathic doses. It is too early to predict the impact of François Hollande’s election as President of France. But, in Italy, one man, Mario Monti, is already making a difference.
Of course, no one elected Monti, and his position is fragile and already contested, but there is a positive near-consensus that has allowed him to launch long-overdue structural reforms. It is too early to say how long this consensus will last, and what changes it will bring. But Italy, a country that under Silvio’s Berlusconi’s cavalier rule was a source of despair, has turned into a source of real, if fragile, optimism.
A second reason to believe in Europe is that with statesmanship comes progress in governance. Monti and Hollande have both appointed women to key ministerial positions. Marginalized for so long, women bring an appetite for success that will benefit Europe.
Third, European public opinion has, at last, fully comprehended the gravity of the crisis. Nothing could be further from the truth than the claim that Europe and Europeans, with the possible exception of the Greeks, are in denial. Without lucidity born of despair, Monti would never have come to power in Italy.
In France, too, citizens have no illusions. Their vote for Hollande was a vote against Sarkozy, not against austerity. They are convinced, according to recently published public-opinion polls, that their new president will not keep some of his “untenable promises,” and they seem to accept this as inevitable.
The fourth reason for hope is linked to Europe’s creativity. Europe is not condemned to be a museum of its own past. Tourism is important, of course, and from that standpoint Europe’s diversity is a unique source of attractiveness. But this diversity is also a source of inventiveness. From German cars to French luxury goods, European industrial competitiveness should not be underestimated.
The moment when Europe truly believes in itself, the way Germany does, and combines strategic long-term planning with well allocated R&D investments, will make all the difference. Indeed, in certain key fields, Europe possesses a globally recognized tradition of excellence linked to a very deep culture of quality.
The fifth source of optimism is slightly paradoxical. Nationalist excesses have tended to lead Europe to catastrophic wars. But the return of nationalist sentiment within Europe today creates a sense of emulation and competition, which proved instrumental in the rise of Asia yesterday. Koreans, Chinese, and Taiwanese wanted to do as well as Japan. In the same way, the moment will soon come when the French want to do as well as Germany.
The sixth reason is linked to the very nature of Europe’s political system. Churchill’s famous adage that democracy is the worst political system, with the exception of all the others, has been borne out across the continent. More than 80% of French citizens voted in the presidential election. Watching on their televisions the solemn, dignified, peaceful, and transparent transfer of power from the president they had defeated to the president they had elected, French citizens could only feel good about themselves and privileged to live in a democratic state. Europeans may be confused, inefficient, and slow to take decisions, but democracy still constitutes a wall of stability against economic and other uncertainties.
The seventh reason to believe in Europe is linked to the universalism of its message and languages. Few people dream of becoming Chinese, or of learning its various languages other than Mandarin. By contrast, English, Spanish, French, and, increasingly, German transcend national boundaries.
Beyond universalism comes the eighth factor supporting the EU’s survival: multiculturalism. It is a disputed model, but multiculturalism is more a source of strength than of weakness. The continent’s fusion of culture makes its people richer rather than poorer.
The ninth reason for hope stems from the EU’s new and upcoming members. Poland, a country that belongs to “New Europe,” is repaying the EU with a legitimacy that it had gained from Europe during its post-communist transition. And the entrance of Croatia, followed by Montenegro and a few other Balkan countries, could compensate for the departure of Greece (should it come to that for the Greeks).
Finally, and most important, Europe and the world have no better alternative. The Greek crisis may be forcing Europe to move towards greater integration, with or without Greece. The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas speaks of a “transformational reality” – a complex word for a simple reality: divided we fall, whereas united, in our own complex manner, we may strive for “greatness” in the best sense.
Investors, of course, are hedging their bets. Having ventured successfully into emerging non-democratic countries whose frailty they are starting to fear, some, out of prudence, are starting to rediscover Europe. They may well be the wise ones.