THE BLOG

The Purpose of European Purpose

27/07/2015 17:29 BST | Updated 27/07/2016 10:59 BST

It will take much more than an economic recovery to fix Europe. The recent referendum in Greece has been by far the biggest test of European character since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It has led many to ask whether the European Union and the Euro, projects that were supposed to bring member states together, are in fact tearing them apart.

Even if the Eurozone does eventually recover, the damage to the ideal or European unity will probably outlive the continent's economic misery and challenge the foundations of the European Union itself. The UK for instance, which unlike the Eurozone, has experienced impressive economic growth in the last three years, is as divided as at any other time in living memory. Last year Britain came within 400,000 votes of an irrational breakup. And a jingoistic exit from the EU may yet become the climax of a great British identity crisis that rumbles on irrespective of the county's growing prosperity.

The EU's member states, when combined, form a larger economic power than both China and the USA. The central idea of the Schuman Declaration, written in 1950, was quite brilliant. "The pooling of coal and steel production" between the French and the Germans would, Schuman argued, render another war between the two nations as "not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible." He was right. But now that a conflict between industrialised European countries is unthinkable and has been for decades, the Schuman declaration has lost its appeal. The document is a victim of its success. So the question now is whether European unity in the 21st century works for anything other than its own preservation. The current tide of Euro-skepticism suggests that many don't believe preservation is worth the effort. Unaddressed, this may prove to be Europe's biggest problem.

The EU still represents an unparalleled political and diplomatic achievement but has also become the perfect scapegoat for national politicians who can always find ways of taking credit for the good news and blaming Brussels for the bad news. But now the problem has been exacerbated by a new exodus of advocates.

European integration has always viewed with mild suspicion by those on the right, many of whom, like David Cameron, worry about migration and the erosion of sovereignty. But now the European project is hemorrhaging support among those on the left too. To them, European unity is becoming a vehicle for the kind of economic chauvinism of the Greek bailouts and the ascent of unpopular global trade deals like TTIP. So where might the EU cultivate the public enthusiasm it needs to survive?

Since Winston Churchill's famous "United States of Europe" speech in 1946, European leaders have quietly coveted the confident formalities of the US constitution. Washington DC has held hundreds of millions of people together, in semi-autonomous states, thousands of miles apart, since the end of the civil war. As has been pointed out, if a state such as Alabama were to go bankrupt, voters and taxpayers in New York would be infinitely more forgiving than their German counterparts. But the united state of American society isn't just the product of a seamless founding document. Much of what unifies America as a culture came from two seminal 20th-century political projects, one from the left and one from the right.

After the Great Depression, President Roosevelt's New Deal sought to link economic growth, and investment to national pride on a scale that had never been seen before. More than ever, Americans could take pride in far off developments. A New Englander could feel a patriotic connection between the construction of a dam in Utah and their own economic prospects.

Twenty years later, America set out to culturally define itself against the Soviet Union. One focus of this contrast was a mass celebration of democratic values, which helped to fuel the civil rights movement. The dynamics of American democracy were taught and practiced in every school and "Old Glory" could be seen hanging everywhere. Meanwhile, the rise of McCarthyism revealed that patriotic impulses, once unleashed, could take on a more insidious form. But what America needed were myths to hold itself together during one of the most divisive periods in its history, myths that celebrated the successes of America in an uncertain world. At their heart were iconic achievements in the fields of politics, cinema, and scientific endeavor, which climaxed in 1969 when Apollo 11 left the Stars and Stripes on the surface of the moon.

What these projects had in common was an attempt to unite the country on a cultural level. Europe is the home of much of the world's most impressive infrastructure projects, and it was Europeans, working together, who built the large hadron collider and landed a probe on a moving comet. Perhaps it's time to place such achievements and the ethos that inspired them, at the heart of a shared European identity.

In 2015, the focus of conversation among the European political cognoscenti has been about returning the continent to the state it was in 11 years ago. Essentially, this means turning the clock back to before the Eurozone became visibly problematic, before we could hear Putin knocking on the cold Ukrainian door and before immigration and to a time before mobility and immigration became an unavoidable issues. Instead of confidence, Europe is, understandably perhaps, projecting anxiety and undermining its ability to act assertively in a chaotic and evolving world. The danger is that during these times of crisis, an introverted and unwelcoming continent kicks water just to stay afloat while its destination disappears over the horizon.