On Saturday, 4000 Berliners gathered at the Brandenburg Gate to make a political statement – Happy Birthday, Europe! They let loose blue balloons, carried blue flags with yellow European Union stars, and trampled a “wall” made of cardboard cartons. Saturday was the 60th anniversary of the Rome treaty among 6 nations which created the European Economic Union, the first step towards today’s European Union of 28 nations.
Not long ago, such a celebration would have been unlikely. United Europe has many problems. The economic difficulties of some southern countries, especially Greece, required international financial assistance. Unemployment and sluggish growth persist in many countries. Refugees from northern Africa and the Middle East have put enormous pressure on the more prosperous countries of western Europe.
Nationalist, so-called “populist” politicians and parties have won new popularity and power in the last few years by attacking the EU. The British vote to leave the EU was the heaviest blow against European unity. Marine le Pen of the National Front in France is one of the front-runners in the presidential election next month, whom recent polls give about 26% among four major candidates. Her platform is anti-immigration, anti-Muslim, and anti-EU. Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician who hates Muslims and is against non-white immigration and the EU, appeared on his way to winning their presidential election earlier this month.
Nationalist politicians have recently gained power in Poland and Hungary, and are part of coalition governments in Finland and Denmark. In the April 2016 Austrian presidential election, the Euro-sceptical and anti-immigration Freedom Party won the most votes in the first round.
Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD) was founded in 2013 as a critic of the pro-European policies of the German government, and has gradually moved further and further right towards opposition to immigration, homophobia, Islamophobia, and denial of climate change. It is the only German party which talks about leaving the EU. The AfD got 4.7% of the national vote in 2013 and 7.1% in 2014. National support in 2016 reached 12-15%, and seemed to be heading higher.
The election of Donald Trump, who made disparaging statements about Europe and selected advisors who have promoted the break-up of the EU, was a turning point in European politics, but not in the direction he favors. His apparent withdrawal of American support for a united Europe pushed Europeans to a more vigorous defense of their unprecedented international alliance and the values it promotes: tolerance, human rights, fluid borders.
Just after Trump’s election, a married couple from Frankfurt, Germany, decided with some friends to demonstrate support for a united Europe. In February, 600 people came to a meeting. On March 5, there were public demonstrations in 35 cities under the name “Pulse of Europe”. The first theme listed on their website is “Europe must not fail.” Their method is also clear: “Let us become louder and more visible!” That is exactly what Europeans have done recently. The Pulse of Europe website now lists 53 German cities and 14 others, where every Sunday a pro-Europe demonstration takes place.
The tide has turned against the right-wing parties. The Austrian Freedom Party lost to a Green politician in the presidential run-off in December 2016. Wilders’ support in the Netherlands peaked and fell, and his second-place finish and lower than expected vote totals have been cheered across Europe. Support for the AfD in Germany has been dropping since January.
A major survey in 2015 of European public opinion shows majority support for the EU: 71% of citizens wanted their country to remain in the Union. Within the 28 nations of the EU, 59% preferred more integration, 16% were satisfied with current levels, and only 24% wanted less.
A few nights ago, I saw a big poster in the center of Berlin: “Only those who don’t value freedom can cast doubt on Europe.” It’s part of new advertising campaign for Berlin called “#FreiheitBerlin” or “Freedom Berlin. ”The quotation comes from Nicol Ljubić, a novelist with Croatian background, who lives in Berlin. Like many people across Europe, he associates freedom with a united Europe.
Of course, everyone has some complaint about the EU, some criticism of policies hammered out among 28 nations. But the threats to European integration, from outsiders like Trump and insiders like Le Pen and Wilders and the AfD, have made people here in Germany and all over Europe more willing to become louder and more visible, saying not only “Europe must not fail,” but also “Europe is good.”
Europe is good. Three times as many Europeans as Americans trust their national legislatures. One-sixth as many Europeans as Americans are in jail, probably related to the fact that one-fifth as many murders occur. Health care is universal and Europeans live longer. According to the “World Happiness Report”, Europeans are the happiest people in the world. Americans do pretty well, too, ranking 14th, about the same as Germans.
Such comparisons are not meant to prove that Europe is better than the US. But they do show that Europe, more and more united over the past 60 years, is not a failure, as American conservatives often assert. United Europe has created peace and prosperity across the continent for 60 years.
Happy Birthday, Europe!
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, March 28, 2017