Europe’s ‘global village’ façade has been faltering lately. Despite its many cosmopolitan institutions, members of the European Union still most fundamentally resemble an uneasy league of squabbling villages rather than unified members of a single international entity. With increasingly disunited responses to systemic economic trouble and changing demographics, that squabbling has also rarely been louder. We ought to be more honest about that. Admitting modern Europe’s shortcomings and their connection to nationalistic loyalties is better off acknowledged than denied. Denial, although tempting, risks empowering the very nationalists that most threaten long-term European prosperity and security.
Southern Debts and German Bets
Although right-wing populism is big in the press right now, no explanation of today’s nationalistic sentiments can be justified without the more subtle ways that a localized sense identity co-opted EU politics during the economic crisis back in 2011.
When it comes to economic trouble, few narratives have ever been more invitingly accepted than that of a ruthless, German-inspired spirit of austerity, or its twin, southern European laziness. But austerity and economic decline are more of a systemic issue than a Germanic or Mediterranean one. Still, inter-European distrust and its’ subsequent austerity measures are blatant proof that village politics remain in a powerful position to hinder continental goals.
From the beginnings of the Euro-crisis in 2011 all the way up to the present day, German-encouraged austerity was less a matter of ruthless power tactics, and more of a cautious response to a cash-concerned citizenry. Well aware of their need for votes, Germany’s leadership limited the scale of bailouts absent promises of reduced spending, because EU recovery packages are hardly popular among the frugal citizens of Europe’s largest economy (and the world’s 4th largest). Second, when countries like Greece really do suffer from corrupt polices and cooked financial books, offering immediate and unconditional assistance is hardly an incentive to make meaningful reform and not end up in the same position further down the road.
That alone, however, does not make austerity a sound policy for the European Union as a whole, especially not for Southern European countries whose populations should never have been punished for corruption among their countries’ highest levels of government. The very fact that — in the short term — it is politically and economically advantageous for Germany to promote practices that incentivize slashed social programs in crisis-hit countries when social programs are most direly needed is both disturbing and unsustainable. More importantly, it highlights how voters, taxpayers, and job-seekers in the European Union still very much see themselves as members of their country first, and the EU second.
Today, Southern debts are as bad as ever and Greece remains in relative economic ruin. There also remains a huge hesitancy not just among Germans, but all EU citizens to believe that helping the Greek economy would also help their economies back home. This is not to say that they are right or wrong. It merely demonstrates how an increasing number of Europeans are thinking. Perhaps more disturbing is the prospect that its not the global village that many are seeking to preserve, but the economy, customs, and cultural biases of the local village.
As narratives about corporate greed, EU ineffectiveness, and a threatened sense of local identity intertwine, Europeans have grown angrier and less certain about their futures. People typically stay put in this borderless EU, and when they do move elsewhere, it’s often begrudgingly.
When compared to the United States, movement among citizens within different parts of the European Union for work or for other reasons is far less common (not counting holidays, of course). Europeans don’t only stick to their home countries, but even their home regions if they can help it. Major exceptions to this only really occur among the educated young, most of whom are moving from weak economies in Southern and Eastern Europe to the stronger economies of Northern Europe and – you guessed it – Germany. Even within Germany, migration from poorer areas in the east to job centers like Munich in the west leave behind ghost towns in provinces such as Saxony.
Like most European countries, Germany’s birthrate is below replacement level, creating a looming population crisis where the sustainability of both economic growth and public pensions are uncertain. What Germany has for combatting this problem that many European countries don’t, however, is an arsenal of large and profitable businesses with global reaches —- and they’re constantly hiring. Most of them are also already highly adept at bringing in and integrating skilled professionals from other countries.
This combination of reluctant movement among Europeans and under-staffed super economies such as Germany’s inevitably lead to rich regions getting richer and poor regions getting poorer. If you’re a young person from Spain who studied engineering but cannot find work due to horrific youth unemployment, you have to move to a culturally different area in order to put your professional skills into practice. This could be a place as close as Catalonia, where the business climate is far better than the rest of Spain, but another high likelihood is that you’ll have to head to Germany. You might even, albeit maybe reluctantly, remain there.
When looking at EU citizens alone, the amount of young people entering Germany compared to the amount leaving places like Spain isn’t only shocking, its nothing short of a brain drain. The young people left behind in poorer areas are typically lower skilled, under-employed, and rightfully upset. Meanwhile, anyone who has traveled through poorest areas of the EU, whatever the country, is sure to have seen their fair share of ALDIs, LIDLs and other German discount stores littered along the highway.