Notwithstanding the long-term visions of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson Thomas Paine and other exceptional individuals, the wonderfully patriotic propaganda one often finds in American schools about how united the 13 colonies were against King George III has little to do with reality. What largely characterized the colonies was that they were beset by rivalries, jealousies and religious and linguistic disputes with little economic or political cohesion. Several almost went to war with each other over trade tariffs and forms of government. It took nearly a century, with one brutal civil conflict in between, to forge what is now a relatively cohesive community sharing – more or less – the same economic, political and legal system, plus a single currency.
While the United States periodically seems to approach the abyss egged on by self-righteous religious or xenophobic zealots, it continues to survive – and adapt, usually for the better. One only need remember the 1957 Civil Rights Act or the election of its first mixed-raced president in 2008. So why should one assume that an economic and political union of 28 European states, some wealthy, others backward, speaking 24 languages and with Christianity, Islam and Judaism its main religions, should get it right in less than five decades? Not unlike America’s own 238 years of history, the EU is very much in a learning process.
Without doubt, billions of euros are being spent or misspent every year to satisfy individual member states rather than the common good. And certainly, not unlike Washington, Brussels seems to promote a distinctive top-down approach that has little to do with ordinary people on the ground. Yet despite its numerous shortcomings, many of which could – and should – be overhauled, the European project has already achieved a lot, much of it below the radar. Such changes range from shared efforts to create uniform medical and other technical standards, curb invasive species destroying our agriculture, eliminate costly mobile phone roaming charges, abolish unnecessary and expensive trade tariffs, allow passport-free travel and the development of effective passenger rights at European airports.
Brussels’ failure – and that of other member states – is that it has neglected to bring the EU to its own citizens. There are too many governments, lobbies and those with hidden agendas out to pick what they can from the European cash pie. And this is exactly what the right-wing backlash in the 2014 European elections has revealed. This weakness now needs to be acted on. It is time to for the EU to explain the learning process to the electorate.
Switzerland, too, has much to learn – and benefit – from the EU. For one, it could start eliminating its own costly cartels. But the Swiss also have much to offer, notably new technologies, quality education and even conflict mediation. Perhaps, too, its contribution could include advocating a more effective system of direct democracy within the EU that ensures local communities have a voice that is listened to not only in their own capitals but also in Brussels. The right wing in Switzerland may take succour from the resurgence of the right in the EU, but it will be well advised to ensure closer ties with the EU, so as to convince its ideological allies of the need to boost the introduction of more direct forms of democracy within their countries and the EU as a whole. This will improve the accountability and performance of the EU’s institutions, which will result in more inclusive and rational decision making, in a way that avoids the potentially catastrophic splintering of the Union. Failure of the Swiss right wing to engage with the EU at such a level and instead pandering to the lowest common denominator – xenophobia – could trigger EU break up on an exaggerated assumption – the problem of immigration. This will not serve Switzerland or the EU well.
Edward Girardet, firstname.lastname@example.org