Addressing the European Parliament on 14 September, Polish finance minister Jan Vincent-Rostowski made the following, alarming statement:
We must save Europe at all costs. The danger of a potential war in the next ten years […] is a scenario we should contemplate. If the “euro zone” were to disappear, if it were to explode, then there is the risk that the EU may not survive. If the EU can’t withstand this shock, the whole European project will be in great danger, which will lead to a situation where, in a number of years’ time, we will have to face another great danger.
Many raised their eyebrows: a war in Europe? Unimaginable, especially since the great majority of Europeans were not alive during the last major military confrontation. True, in the early 1990s Yugoslavia went through a bloody collapse right on our doorstep. But back then everything seemed so remote, despite the fact that those unhappy places were only a few hours’ drive away. There are many possible arguments against the idea that a war in Europe could still break out. But how valid are they in the midst of the storm that has taken over the Union?
One argument is that “European leaders wouldn’t allow it”. But which leaders are we talking about? Twentieth-century visionaries? Certainly not. Not only would the collapse of the European project bring forth an entirely different type of leader, it would actually be hastened by them. We can already feel their presence on what are still the peripheries of the national political stages. However they are becoming increasingly active and influential.
The Flemish nationalists, for example, have been able to turn the formation of a Belgian government into an impossible equation. The Jobbik activists of Hungary, with their irredentist ideas, have strongly influenced the adoption of a constitution with a nineteenth-century flavour. The True Finns and the Slovak neoliberals of the Freedom and Solidarity Party (SaS), though minorities, have nevertheless persuaded their countries’ fragile governments to impose impossible conditions on the loans to Greece. For them, national pride is more important than saving Europe. In France, with the Front National threatening to steal votes from the ruling UMP, the latter resort to a ridiculous rhetoric about the Romanians, whom they present to their nation as being responsible for all possible evils. Likewise, the Dutch far-Right has pushed the government in The Hague towards an irrational position against the admission of Romania and Bulgaria into the Schengen Area. The examples could go on. Politicians of this kind are characterized not by a culture of compromise but by their claim to be defending the national interest at all costs and to be righting real or imaginary historical wrongs. What will they do once they are in power? Will they disappoint their voters, show weakness and negotiate? Or will they go to the bitter end?
Another argument: “There are no more reasons for a war in Europe”. That’s what we think. But the integration project and the economic and social success of Europe in past decades has merely covered up old tensions that can flare up again in times of crisis. Various ententes and holy alliances would then crop up, with the smaller weaker states gravitating around the “major powers”. As the single market recedes into memory, the economic subordination of small economies by large ones will begin. A kind of internal colonialism will take hold, with big companies being supported, now overtly, by the bigger states’ governments. Competition for commercial privileges will cause conflicts that are unimaginable today. Let us not forget the local problems either: rising tension between the Walloons and the Flemings, new momentum in the Basque, Catalan and Corsican nationalist movements, or renewed conflicts between Romanians and Hungarians or between Hungarians and Slovaks. Not to even mention the Balkans! The disappearance of the integration project will lead to the rediscovery of national projects. The problem in the Balkans is that each nation (be it Bulgarian, Romanian, Greek, Albanian, Macedonian or Serbian) wants to be “great”. But a great nation presupposes at least one small neighbour. And so the folly never ends.
Or the following: “European citizens are in no mood for war anymore”. Why would today’s European citizens want to die in a ditch instead of enjoying the best place to live in the world, with its generous salaries, long holidays, social benefits, good food, wonderful cities and countryside? Why would they follow the exhortations of leaders who aren’t quite right in the head? This would be true if it weren’t for the violence we have seen erupting in the great cities of Europe. Who took part? Members of a new generation with little access to the lifestyle of middle-class and middle-aged Europeans. Young people deprived of the possibility of finding a job that would allow them to have a decent life. Second-generation immigrants who have not been integrated and are experiencing an identity crisis. And all sorts of other rebels without a cause.
Many would join a real war if unscrupulous leaders offered them, for the first time in their lives, a purpose. The possibility of a “better and fairer world” would be dangled before their eyes, they would become intoxicated on nationalistic slogans or, more simply, they would be led to believe that they could rob and rape without suffering the consequences later. After all, these were all the ingredients of the Yugoslavian drama. Certainly, none of these things are likely today. But they are possible. Let us remember an old saying: be careful what you wish for because it may come true!