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Opinion

Opinion: EU in crisis as it turns 60

It's a birthday party that sees many invitees in no mood to celebrate. Nonetheless, the EU is an incredible success story, and the current crisis provides an opportunity as well, writes Alexander Kudascheff.

The EU, the European Union, is in a crisis. Is it the biggest time of turmoil since its inception 60 years ago? Many see it that way, although the 1980s were a decade of crisis as well. At the time, it was referred to as Eurosclerosis, which was overcome by the then-president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors. He began to set up the single European market. Quite sensibly, nay cunningly, he did so neither via a grand proclamation, nor by declaring it a historic step, nor by publicly celebrating a rhetorical vision. Instead, he labeled it a project of 300 steps, which would, in the end, amount to the creation of the single market automatically. It is beyond debate that this was - within the then decidedly smaller European Community (EC) - a policy option invented by Brussels that could actually be implemented. A similar approach would be out of the question today.

Idealistic departure after the war

EEC, EC, EU - these three acronyms signify the development of the European Union from an economic community to a European community and eventually to a union. They signify an idealistic endeavor by a mere six nations after the devastating Second World War. This fledgling community, then, was slowly enlarged as Great Britain and Ireland were given access, followed by emergent democracies like Spain, Portugal and Greece. After further enlargements in which Eastern European nations joined, the current union is one of 28. However, it will soon lose Great Britain, whose population has voted for "Brexit."

"Brexit" - there is no better symbol of the current crisis. A country leaves the Union because this is what its people want. This had been beyond anyone's imagination. Since then - and this shows the seriousness of the crisis - Europeans have been riddled with self-doubt.

Kudascheff Alexander Kommentarbild App

DW's Editor-in-chief Alexander Kudascheff

This is reinforced by rampant right-wing populism, which puts EU advocates in a tight spot. In France, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, in various central and eastern European countries, rightists and extreme rightists chime in with calls for the EU to go - Brussels, the bureaucratic monster, has to be scrapped, the Euro rescinded. And these calls are heard - not by majorities, thank God. But there are those who prefer going back to the pseudo-idyllic environment of the nation state.

Despite its size, which reminds many of an "overstretched empire," the EU is nonetheless a unique success story. It has guaranteed peace in Europe. (And in order to appreciate what peace means, you simply have to travel to eastern Ukraine and talk to people there.) The single market and free trade have led to incredible prosperity. Solidarity of the wealthier nations has helped the poorer to catch up, to close the gap significantly. People can travel, the younger generation can study everywhere, and people can work and take up residence wherever they want. This would have been totally utopian 60 years ago, shortly after the disastrous Second World War - its coming true impossible to imagine for anyone.

Necessary reflection on the future

It's true: the EU of today has too many regulations. It is not sufficiently close to its citizens. It doesn't always succeed in making clear its purpose and its significance. Brussels is a spaceship. The euro does not work as its founding fathers (in their idealism) hoped it would. Safeguarding the external borders is not perceived to be a common task. There are economic North-South and West-East divides, in part because many countries were granted access prematurely. And often national governments are overwhelmed by the deepening and the development of the institutional EU, which leads to a cantankerous "no" and frequent blockades.

The Europeans will have to reflect on that. By the same token, they have to realize just how well off they are on the "old continent." Incidentally, thousands of young people across Europe are currently organizing in order to make the "Pulse of Europe" heard, to strengthen it, and in the process, to become a voice against the rightists (and sometimes also against anti-globalization leftists). In France, a dedicated European like Emmanuel Macron has a chance of becoming president. Germany has two candidates for chancellorship - Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz - who could not be more different, but they are both dyed-in-the-wool pro-Europeans. In sum, realistic hope remains that the German-French axis can once again develop into the driving force of a Europe that renews itself. The crisis provides an opportunity as well.

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