NEW YORK – Xenophobia and extremism are symptoms of societies in profound crisis. In 2012, the far-right Golden Dawn won 21 seats in Greece’s parliamentary election, the right-wing Jobbik gained ground in my native Hungary, and the National Front’s Marine Le Pen received strong backing in France’s presidential election. Growing support for similar forces across Europe points to an inescapable conclusion: the continent’s prolonged financial crisis is creating a crisis of values that is now threatening the European Union itself.
When it was only an aspiration, the European Union was an immensely attractive idea that fired many people’s imagination, including mine. I regarded it as the embodiment of an open society – a voluntary association of sovereign states that were willing to give up part of their sovereignty for the common good. They shared a common history, in which the French Revolution, with its slogan of liberty, equality, and fraternity, left a lasting legacy. Building on that tradition, member states formed a union based on equality and not dominated by any state or nationality.
The euro crisis has now turned the EU into something radically different. Far from being a voluntary association, the eurozone is now held together by harsh discipline; far from being an association of equals it has become a hierarchical arrangement in which the center dictates policy while the periphery is increasingly subordinated; instead of fraternity and solidarity, hostile stereotypes proliferate.
The integration process was spearheaded by a small group of farsighted statesmen who subscribed to open-society principles and practiced what Karl Popper called “piecemeal social engineering.” They recognized that perfection is unattainable; so they set limited objectives and firm timelines – and then mobilized the political will for a small step forward, knowing full well that when they achieved it, its inadequacy would become apparent, requiring further steps. That is how the European Coal and Steel Community was gradually transformed into the EU.