9 May 2020, London
On a bright and sunny Saturday morning, Maria, a 35-year-old Spanish photographer, sips her coffee on the terrace of a coffee shop in Camden Town, London. The front-page of her newspaper reads, “70 years on, the EU celebrates its survival”. It’s true that things had turned so badly, she thought. She remembered telling her parents she would be back soon, when she left her hometown Valencia in 2012 to flee record-high youth unemployment, just like most of her friends from University. She remembered her old photography teacher, who told her before she left: “things have to get worse before they get better.” How right he was. The 2014 European elections were an absolute bloodbath for the so-called mainstream political parties everywhere in the EU. Anti-establishment populist parties much worse than Italy’s Beppe Grillo had emerged everywhere, and were increasingly popular. Altogether, they obtained 213 of the 754 seats in the European Parliament, where populists like Nigel Farage were no longer the exception but the norm.
Maria remembered how the mainstream national and European elites had tried to calm down their electorates by stopping austerity policies altogether, something that even the recently re-elected Angela Merkel had accepted. But these coalitions of right and left parties everywhere in Europe angered voters more than anything else. The journalists were increasingly comparing the 2010-decade with the 1930’s. An optimist by nature, Maria refused to believe these prophets of doom and gloom. That was until the Spanish army occupied Barcelona in May 2016 to prevent the separatist regional government from holding a referendum. 23 people died in what had been the first (and sadly not the last) army intervention to maintain public order in Europe’s main cities since the crisis started.
Maria thought of going back to Spain. She even thought she would be forced to, when the British voted to leave the EU in the 2017 referendum. But as foreign companies started to relocate massively to other European countries to be able to continue to access the European Single Market, the UK government decided to ignore the result of the referendum and called a general election. Then came the French political crisis. Maria was in Paris in April 2017, when the outgoing French President François Hollande lost in the first round of the presidential elections, outvoted by the right-wing UMP candidate (27%) and the extreme-right leader Marine Le Pen (24%). The extremists had become so influent that the right-wing candidate had to pledge to form a Government of national unity to win the election, and declared a state of emergency in several cities on the eve of his elections. This was not the first time though, as riots happened regularly in several European cities.
Although she did not study economics, Maria quickly understood that the “New Economic Policy” agreed by European leaders in January 2018 would be a turning point. She had taken a nice picture of a panicked City banker with an edition of the Financial Times which read “EU declares pan-European sovereign default”. The banker told her he would soon loose his job as his company would probably go bankrupt, but he thought it was a good thing as it was obvious that European countries’ debts would never be paid back, and since the weak Eurozone countries had almost completed their structural adjustments, they would soon grow out of trouble. As it turned out, despite the failure of some major financial institutions, financial markets were soon very eager to buy sovereign Eurobonds, especially as they were backed by a much bigger European budget. The banker was right, Maria thought. Her parents were telling her how several of her friends had returned to Valencia by the end of 2018, as there were now plenty of job opportunities.
Politically, things were improving as well, as new right- and left-wing pan-European parties had emerged through the crisis and crushed the populist parties in the 2019 European elections, as voters gradually realised that the populists were part of the problem, not the solution. Maria had decided to stay in the UK, where almost one million of her fellow nationals now lived, although a lot of them were preparing to go back home. She was pleased to see a reversal of the Spanish Diaspora, which had driven 5 million Spaniards out of their country.
Maria finished her coffee and went for a walk around Camden Market to take a few pictures. As she wandered in the midst of a sunny and smiley crowd, she remembered her old teacher and thought, “yes, things got pretty bad, but now they are better.”