By Mariarosaria Iorio, Political analyst.
When I Was a University Student …
As a student in Naples, I faced many challenges, including, among other things, overcrowded university rooms, professors who only remembered me as my registration number (my number was 4,220), and unemployment waiting at the end of my studies.
When the Erasmus program (a European Union–funded program for student mobility in Europe) was publicized at the Istituto Universitario l’Orientale, where I was studying, I thought that my dream of studying abroad for a while could come true. Great!
I passed the exam and won an Erasmus fellowship to complete part of my studies at the University of Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium. I had no idea what to expect and had never heard of such a university. During my stay in Louvain-la-Neuve, I had a chance to travel from Brussels to Amsterdam, Bruges, and Antwerp by train. I met new friends and learned a new language (Spanish, with a Spanish friend who did not speak French).
The experience changed my life. It opened my eyes to the possibilities offered by a different country. It made me more critical of my own country of origin (Italy) and its dysfunction. It made me a European citizen!
It gave me the chance to gain confidence in myself, as I could adapt to and move around in different countries. I made new friends and discovered the open space of Europe. I felt the hope of “Yes, I can.” I became ready to fight for a better place once I returned to my own hometown because I saw that a different reality existed. But most of all, the experience made me a strong supporter of the European project. In fact, without Erasmus, I would have had no chance to study abroad.
Today, I live in Geneva, work in Brussels, and travel for work all over Africa. I feel disheartened by the mistrust I encounter and by the attempt of a few to make us go back to before European integration was achieved.
Although I understand those who believe in a national space that protects and guarantees a comfort zone for its citizens, I find something disturbing in that type of reasoning. Do we need to be protected from other human beings because we are unable to continue creating welfare? Do we want to be first to grasp the benefits of the welfare programs already in existence, which we do anyway? What are we afraid of?
When observing the dynamics of the world economy, it is inevitable to note that economic activity is transnational (including illicit economic activities such as mafias). How would a nation alone deal with the complexity of international economic activity as it impacts national employment?
My conclusion is that it is only fear that motivates such a discourse, which simplifies the reality and presents the world as a jungle from which Europeans should withdraw and be protected. Fear also motivated the results of the European elections, which were communicated on May 25, 2014, as well as the results of the vote against the free movement of European people, which took place in Switzerland on February 9, 2014.
While acknowledging the results, I wondered, What’s happening? After my incredulity subsided came a time for reflection and analysis. My first reaction was this: There is a link between European economic and cultural decadence and the fear of the “unknown” shown in the election results.
In fact, as the services economy develops, the control of European people’s movement is very difficult to implement. As a result of the vote of February 9, 2014, the Swiss Confederation has tried hard to fix immigration quotas for Europeans. It is an almost impossible mission.
As a result of these events, a number of thoughts came to my mind. I reviewed the major points I had heard from commentators on the election results and also thought about comments made by my friends.
Poverty Is Spreading All Over Europe
Does the fact that poverty is spreading all over Europe justify the fact that European people wish to “go back to the way things were before”? Before the euro, before free movement, before free trade, before Europe, and before globalization, was reality for Europeans less tough?
The pauperization of the European population is a fact. Poverty is touching middle classes and youth in a dramatic manner all over Europe (with an exception made for Germany). Youth unemployment is reaching incredibly high points. For instance, in Italy, the average of youth unemployment is 25 percent (which is the national average; in the southern part of the country, it is as high as 46 percent, as revealed in Istat [the Italian National Institute for Statistics] data communicated on June 3, 2014).
The middle class which had been driving European development, is now more and more pauperized. Thus, it has lost its pivotal role in social stabilization. The European elites’ optimism, mostly characterized by a faith in a federal Europe, does not account for the growing frustration of the working classes and average citizens who face the challenge of making a living without hope for the future of the European project.
Although they are not aware of the technicalities of the European project and experience difficulty in making a causal link between Europe and the solution of national crises, European citizens are subject to a lack of appropriate industrial and social policies.
Also, they see their incomes eroded by the high cost of living and cannot imagine their children’s future because of high unemployment rates, lack of competitiveness, and lack of creativity among European entrepreneurs.
As it goes with public hysteria, an “enemy” has to be found somewhere: the closest one after immigrants is Europe! So, while free-market political philosophy has not brought the welfare expected in Europe, socialist parties have lost their ideological basis.
They have given up on redistributive political aims and have turned toward social-liberal political philosophies. This centrist shift of socialist parties encouraged extremes to emerge and mobilize Europeans (naturally, with some nuances, depending on countries’ national realities. France is more on the right side of the political spectrum, while Spain is more on the left side). All parties claim to pursue the same objective.
Change This Europe! The Question Is, How?
Social dialogue between the capitalists and the working classes to boost growth and make a common project is a challenge, of course. The whole relationship between capital and work must be revised, along with the political thinking of European leaders. They should stop using Europe for their internal electoral purposes, which keeps a more substantial European integration in limbo. This is particularly true as it regards the shift from national to European competence in immigration policies, foreign affairs, defense, and economic and financial management, including employment. National politicians want to convince their electors that they can still impact economic trends, e.g., reduce unemployment.
In reality, in the global economy, national governments do have a smaller and smaller impact on such things. The time has come to admit this fact. It is time to acknowledge that further integration is the only solution. No European nation can face alone international competition—not even France!
Meanwhile, Europe must bring positive results, namely growth and employment. Social dumping in Europe is the result of a lack of serious economic policies at the European level. National states remain ambiguous in this regard. In Italy, for example, the European elections confirmed the Democratic Party as the party in power (it received 40 percent of the vote). Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minister, has used this result to reinforce his national statement on national reforms without clearly explaining his party’s project or his plans for the European project.
Italy Took Over the European Presidency as of July 1, 2014.
Is there a European project proposed by Italy, by the way?
Apparently, Italy will “help to change Europe.” It would be useful for Italian citizens to know what the plans are! Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi intends to boost demand-driven growth, competitiveness, and employment. These are definitely key issues. As a matter of fact, competitiveness is related to educational and production systems.
The questions that remain open are as follows: How to promote innovation in Europe in general and in Italy in particular? How again to give Europeans confidence in the future?
Matteo Renzi should take appropriate measures, including employment creation measures such as public works and identification of sectors with high employment potential, such as tourism (a totally abandoned and unprofessional sector at the moment); training possibilities abroad for youth and university students; and reestablishing contact with Italians abroad to use their competencies and networks to support the government’s action. At the moment, Italians are seen abroad as “privileged” instead of as exported human capital.
Deficit rules established by the European Commission caused the current situation. Is there a causality link between the European austerity rule of the 3 percent deficit and the actual stagnation of European economies?
It is because states have overspent and have not promoted or sustained innovation that Europe is in such a deep economic crisis. European institutions do not carry the responsibility for the current situation. Going back to the Europe of nations as well as to national currencies is not the solution, as production models have moved beyond nations.
Furthermore, this crisis results from the nationalist and fragmented approach of European nations in crucial areas such as employment and social policy. National politicians use the European process in their own national interest and shape their discourses on Europe depending on their own national political spectrum: Europe is the cause of national weaknesses when nations do not manage to follow through on electoral promises and when their incompetence to face challenges is shown, as in the case of immigration policies.
It came to my mind that Europe has to move toward deeper and faster integration by shifting from a midway approach (divided between national and European competence) to a more clearly democratically based European system of functioning.
If Europe were able to produce, export, and create welfare rather than poverty, then the immigration issue would be a nonissue, as the economy would be able to absorb both nationals and foreign workers. It is because Europe is lacking in growth, innovation, and welfare that the fear of the “other” is developing.
This fear is encouraged, particularly by the extreme right-wing parties.
In reality, in most cases, the immigration percentage remains low as compared to the total European population. Usually, immigrants are employed in jobs at the lowest level of the pyramid and for which no European worker has been available for a while.
However, this trend is changing in some countries, e.g., Italy, where Italians are coming back to jobs previously only performed by Eastern Europeans—for example, elders’ care.
In reality, immigration is the other side of the coin of the economic global structure. As it concerns non-European countries’ immigration, the relationship between immigration flows and development policies should be reassessed. Historical reasons, e.g., in the case of France and England, and geographical proximity, e.g., in the case of Italy and Spain, are the reasons for regular flows.
Either the dream of a better life or the wish to see “how it is someplace else” is the main motivation for immigration. The international division of labor is still a cause for the hopelessness of the youth population in developing countries. How can that change? It can change if local populations develop an awareness that a better future can only come if people fight for their rights and openup to the world, thereby leaving behind ancient habits and mental dependence on European colonial powers.
The movement of European people is a natural integration-process result that should not be discussed. It sounds like a surreal issue.
By having a right-wing-based European parliament, the European project will turn toward further liberalism and the weakening of European institutions, while bringing more competition among European nations. This is not what it is needed to face international competition and globalization (which will move on, whether Europeans like or not).
We indeed need a stronger Europe and a more integrated federal structure to face the world market and to create a more socialist Europe.
The European project opens enormous opportunities for youth and European citizens. It needs, however, clarification and transparency of at least four main issues, namely the following:
1. A deeper political integration process is needed. European leaders should now pass to the next stage, which is federal Europe. Traditional national competencies, namely immigration, defense, and foreign policies, should shift into the European sphere. European institutions should be strengthened and quality of staff guaranteed through technical competence rather than general intelligence tests. A clear commitment to the European cause should be part of staff recruitment requirements.
2. A campaign focused on the achievements and contribution of European funds and initiatives should be launched in all member states. European initiatives and work are not well-known enough to the general public.
3. An informational campaign to make technical issues such as the budget deficit plain would help decrease the populist space of right-wing parties.
4. The social and demand-driven economic project should be pursued. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has proposed a more demand-driven Europe. This is a very timely idea. The question is how to strengthen the employment-creation policies? In fact, creation of employment opportunities should be linked to innovation and new sectors’ development. Europe remains locked into a traditional-economy view.
5. It distrusts innovative ideas and does not encourage entrepreneurship. A European program should be launched to support and promote new ideas to be developed into businesses.
6. The national educational systems should be revised. In most cases, they remain focused on encyclopedia knowledge, thus discouraging children from creating and “thinking outside the box.”
I am a European, I believe in the future, and I want an open and justice-based Europe. It is possible. We should all work toward a more integrated and friendly Europe. Europe has come a long way since 1957. Its efforts shall continue to make Europe an actor of international relevance.
This article is an extract of the book Global Governance Trade and the Crisis in Europe. Available at: http://bookstore.authorhouse.com/Author/Default.aspx?BookworksSId=SKU-000978461