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Will the European Union's centre hold?

media European Parliament Strasbourg Hemicycle DRwikipedia

May 9 is Europe day, the anniversary of the Schuman Declaration that proposed to place French and German production of coal and steel under one authority that was to become the corner stone of the European Union.

Since the signing of the 1957 Rome treaty, the EU has grown from its initial six states to 28. Nineteen of them now use a common currency - the euro- and 26 are part of the visa-free Schengen area.

But there was also Brexit and increasingly loud populist voices calling for the end to the EU.

Europe Day 09/05/2017 - by Jan van der Made Listen

The EU’s long and turbulent history may have, ironically, been a brainchild of British leader Winston Churchill, when he said, one year after World War II: “We must recreate the European family in a regional stature, calling it maybe the United States of Europe.”

It first became an “economic community”  and in its current version the “European Union,” but it was not an easy process and it is still not finished.

French Foreign Minister Robert Schumann put flesh to the idea and proposed, in his May 9, 1950 declaration given in the Clock room of the French Foreign Ministry at Quai d’Orsay:

"The Franco-German production of coal and steel as a whole [should] be placed under a common High Authority, within the framework of an organization open to the participation of the other countries of Europe.”

This pooling of production was then to serve as a foundation for economic development “as a first step in the federation of Europe."

The ultimate goal was to “change the destinies of those regions which have long been devoted to the manufacture of munitions of war, of which they have been the most constant victims.”

Europe 70 yerars on

Today, it is more than 70 years later and in the last decade the EU has been torn apart, first by the financial crisis then by Brexit. Two countries in particular were affected by the financial crisis: Greece and Ireland.

“It is clear that the people of Northern Ireland given the choice, would rather have to be a part of the EU rather than of the British Union for all sorts of historical reasons,” says Roger Cole, an activist in Dublin who was not a friend of EU integration, but seems to have come around.

“I think that actually a lot more Irish people are supportive of Europe than there might seem, given how badly they were treated with the financial arrangements forced upon them by the EU with having to pay off all the bankers.”

But he acknowledges that that there has been some economic recovery. “So that helps also to make people in Ireland more positive towards the EU.”

In Greece, where many people feel they are sinking into a quagmire of debt,  more debt  and EU imposed reforms in exchange for more money to pay off the money used to clear the debts, enthusiasm for Brussels is disappearing.

“There’s a special relation between Greece and the EU," says Ionanis Andreadis, of the University of Thessaloniki.

“Because of it, the the attitude of the Greek citizens towards the EU and the euro is polarizing. Before the financial crisis, in 2009, some 80 percent of the people favored the EU. Now it is not even 50 percent.”

Upsurge in nationalism

Meanwhile, the nationalist movements of France and the Netherlands have been looking at the British example set by the UK Independence Party that resulted in a referendum and the now inevitable departure of London from the European family.

But voters in both the Netherlands and France have opted to remain EU-friendly, after the pro-EU liberal party remained the biggest party in Holland while in France  Marine Le Pen, a supporter of Frexit,  was beaten by 66 to 34 percent by middle-of-the-road candidate Emmannuel Macron.

“We are now in a situation of Mr. Macron got the presidency in France,” says Bernd Huettemann, the general secretary of the European Movement Germany.

“We can say after the big shock of Brexit last year and many threats from populist and nationalist movements, I think there is a silent majority in favor of European integration. Now you can also see that in opinion polls.“

But the prime reason for the existence of the EU was to prevent war and the most important alliance was the one between founding members Germany and France, countries that were engaged in the bloody world wars in the beginning of last century.

But how big an incentive is the threat of war for people who have been living in peace for over seventy years and never experienced it?

"The tendency to say that young people don’t understand Europe because they never went through a war I think is totally wrong,” says Huettemann.

“Many young people in youth organizations clearly know much more about what Europe brought to them. It is not just about Erasmus, it is also about peace. People watch news, they can see on the internet what is going on, they saw what happened in the Crimea.”

He points at the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s, “so Europe was not always able to prevent war. But inside the EU itself, it is the longest period of peace and people know that.”

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