Europe: The sick man of the Earth

, by Thomas Cassar Ruggier

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Europe: The sick man of the Earth
Satirical map of Europe, 1914. Hamburg : Druck u. Verlag W. Nölting, Kaiser Wilhelmstrasse 93

During the development of the European states system, there was a time when Europe lived under the shadow of the Ottoman Empire. Led by ambitious Sultans, most famous being Suleiman the Magnificent, the Empire rammed heads with other European powers. Within its territory, it maintained a system of government that gave the Empire the ability to control the different groups of people that lived under its reign.

In the 19th century, the situation of the Ottomans was as follows: a corrupt failing system; royal family disputes; and a military that was too weak to exercise authority over Istanbul, to the extent that territories within its empire were able to go rogue. So much so that the Russian Tsar Nicholas I coined the term ‘Sick man of Europe’, to illustrate the weakness of the Ottoman Empire, used as a geopolitical plaything by European powers. In this very simplistic overview of the history of the Ottoman Empire, one can pinpoint parallels with Europe’s situation after World War II.

While the Ottomans were slowly losing their grip, Europe was busy becoming a force to be reckoned with. Bubbling with nationalism, the nation-states of Western and Central Europe were fast industrialising and busy making the 19th century the era of European World dominance. In global political terms, colonialism was the name of the game as South America, Africa and Southeast Asia fell under the control of European states. This period of mightiness, however, came at a cost, as the acute nationalism advertised by national governments that catapulted Europe to global dominance also sowed the seeds of the continent’s own demise. The technological advances that made life more modern and easier also brought destruction and misery through two World Wars.

The Europe that we know today is the product of the post-world war scenario. After two wars that caused havoc on an apocalyptic scale, Europeans have built a system of cooperation through the integration process. Through this we have succeeded in creating a system that is unique in itself, a union that is not an international organisation, nor a state, but a combination of both.

We have successfully created a Europe that rejects war.

However, the modern European system is being challenged, a challenge which is bringing the multinational European Union to a similar situation as the multiethnic Ottoman Empire.

A corrupt failing system

By and large, it would be a mistake to say that the entire system of Europe is corrupt and failing, as a blanket statement. Even though Europe has a corruption problem, unlike the system we are comparing it to, Europe has checks and balances.

This, however, does not remove the fact that the political system is being challenged from the ground up. At the grassroots level, we are witnessing a massive tectonic shift in the party system as people are opting for populist parties, parties which exploit the electorate’s emotions and hijack the democratic system.

The series of crises that began in 2008 opened the floodgates for the populist tide as people were able to find justification for their distrust towards politicians. However, in my opinion, this situation runs even deeper and it all stems from ideology.

Ever since neoliberalism began to be the centerpiece of government policy, mainstream parties abandoned ideology and adopted a catch-all party system. As the centre-left and centre-right began to homogenise towards the centre, a vacuum was created; a vacuum which was then filled by other parties when crisis became the norm for the man on the street.

When it comes to the European level, the situation is further complicated. While the upper levels are also changing due to the aforementioned shifts in the party system, people are also opting for nationalist parties due to the perceived bureaucracy of the European system.

In this situation, the reasons for Europe’s birth are also the reasons for its possible demise. Being a system that orbits around cooperation and consensus, the EU requires a certain amount of complicated procedure in order to effect change. From a PR perspective, this in itself makes the European Union boring and unattractive for the average person.

While there are certain areas that could easily be reformed, what makes the matter even more difficult is the fact that the European project was formed by passing through the ranks of the political elite. The Europe we know of was created through international relations, and therefore one can argue that the democratic nature of Europe is still undeveloped.

Royal family disputes

The issue of royalty should not be taken too literally. However, given that the phrase is synonymous with the elite I think you can see what I am getting at. This scenario comes in two forms: the dispute between the elites that believe in European integration, and the dispute between pro-integrationists and the nationalists.

Given the systemic change that we are seeing on the ground level, there will obviously be a knock-on effect at the European level. While governments in Hungary, Poland and Italy are excellent examples of nationalist populist administrations, we are not seeing the destructive rampage that we imagine, that is to say, an end of the Union. Instead, we are seeing a character change within Europe, a shift from liberal democracy to illiberal democracy, with an absence of checks and balances that is best exemplified by Viktor Orbán’s Hungary.

While these type of governments are naturally a setback for the liberal order, the worse disagreement is in reality the one between pro-integrationists themselves. The fact that it takes time for pro-integrationists to decide on what Europe they want weakens the integrationist position, whilst populists, nationalists and Eurosceptics have a simpler aim – our country first. Although this means that they should, logically, be in disagreement with each other, the logic of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ then prevails.

A weak military

This should be taken figuratively as much as it should be taken literally.

In a figurative sense, the military is a symbol of authority, and when it comes to states that go rogue and disregard European values, it very much seems that EU institutions are not really up for a fight. While symbolic decisions have been taken, it does not seem that the EU will take action against a state which defies its seemingly weak authority.

On a literal note, Europe is not the ‘energetic’ foreign power it once was. Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating for a return to colonisation, but World War II has obviously made Europeans allergic of the military. Relying on a foreign power (USA) should not be our go-to option. Though alliances are indeed needed on the global stage, European elites should at least let go of their nationalist ego and strive for more military cooperation.

Europe in itself is unique. It has done the unthinkable by uniting nations together and is a bastion of democracy and liberty. However, we must not estrange ourselves from reality.

From a global point of view, compared to other superpowers Europe is weak both from the inside and the outside. Its weakness is causing a character change within its soul. We will either emerge as a reformed liberal Europe or go back towards division.

Sick man of the Earth

To an extent, we already have an idea of what reforming Europe should entail. While we have a Europe that is economically integrated, the party system remains fragmented through the control of national parties. While we do have European party federations that bring national parties together for cooperation, the psycho-emotional boundaries that define the political map of Europe are still embedded in our minds. This means that although we have political cooperation between national parties, the national parties do not directly correspond to their groupings, and do not actively help each other’s campaigns on the ground in terms of logistics, finances and the like. It is this that is keeping us from getting things done – the fact that from a political standpoint, we do not get out of our comfort zones. This restricts us from further reform in a whole range of fields.

I am not advocating for a total replacement of the current model, only overcoming the flaws of the system while respecting state loyalty. Europe cannot be built in a day. However, if we do not change how the party system works, then Europe will remain the new ‘Sick man of the Earth’.

Your comments
  • On 21 December 2018 at 13:07, by Dunstan Attard Replying to: Europe: The sick man of the Earth

    Excellent piece perfect for a basis of discussion on where the upcoming MEP elections/Brexit fit in all this. A massive topic that of course can not touch on all the historic elements that lead to current political pieces of the jigsaw. Bottom line; the far right was for decades planning the downfall of Europe as a spring board to take over yet now, seeing their popular support on the increase, are relying on gaining a majority the EU parliament as an easy way to implementing their ideas on Europe. If they fail, liberal Europe will implement their own reforms in the hope that the far right/left momentum dilutes itself.

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