The European Union has been on its knees for half a decade now, reeling from low or negative economic growth rates and obscenely high levels of unemployment. The result has been the partial fracturing of Europe into states, mainly in the north, that have weathered the crisis, and states, mainly in the south, that in some cases have seen catastrophe close to the statistical levels of the Great Depression. In the southeast, Greece has been the hardest hit country, and Bulgaria is periodically on the brink of political chaos. These divisions, in turn, mirror those of former geographically based empires: Carolingian, Prussian, Habsburg, Byzantine and Ottoman.
Nationalism, often in the form of far-right anti-immigrant parties, has also seen a resurgence -- a troubling indication of demons from the past that Europe's elites thought they had vanquished in the course of the Cold War and especially in the years following the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Obviously, this development is in large measure due to the economic crisis. But there is much more to it than that, and it has to do with human psychology. Norman Manea, the exiled Romanian writer and Bard College professor, writes about how, "The modern world faces its solitude and its responsibilities without the artifice of a protective dependency or a fictive utopian coherence," so that, as he intimates, all sorts of exclusivist, tribal-like mentalities survive into the 21st century, allowing people to find meaning within some type of protective solidarity group. We tend to associate this with blood-based or religious rebellions in places such as the Middle East or Africa, but an economically downtrodden Europe is not immune from this lugubrious development.
Of course, nationalism itself is not necessarily bad, as the University of Maryland academic Vladimir Tismaneanu explains in his 2012 book, "The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century": "It is often described as archaic, antimodern, traditionalist, in short reactionary. Other interpretations," he goes on, "see it as a driving force of modernizing liberation, an ideology of collective emancipation, and a source of human dignity and pride." We have seen the uplifting side of nationalism in certain aspects of the Ukrainian revolt against the domination of Vladimir Putin's neo-czarist Russia. We have seen the reactionary side of nationalism in the anti-immigrant movements across Europe. And because Europe's population is graying, increasingly more immigrants will be needed over time to supply European economies with workers. So we might expect this right-wing fervor to continue, if not to grow.
Thus, the reasons to be pessimistic about the European project are several. The unwieldy bureaucratic machinery in Brussels, saddled as it is with competing national interests, is unlikely to achieve the reformist energies required to return the Continent to healthy and sustained growth. The developmental differences between, for example, northern Europe, Iberia and the Balkans are just too profound for a one-speed Europe to emerge in the foreseeable future. The United States, busy with Asia and the Middle East, is unlikely to provide Europe with the same robust sort of a security umbrella in the 21st century as it provided in the decades following World War II, no matter what President Barack Obama says at the moment. Finally, the very alienation common to postmodern life, alluded to by Manea, will require the survival of group identities that will often enough be reactionary.
Indeed, in geopolitics, necessity is more important than desire. And an economically drifting, more viciously nationalistic Europe -- insufficiently protected by the United States -- reflects bureaucratic, psychological and strategic necessities. And yet, even if desire does not trump necessity, it still matters significantly. This is where the European Union has a future.
The drawing power of the European Union has been most succinctly explained by Yale professor Timothy Snyder in his 2003 book, "The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999." The latter part of his narrative explores how an enlightened, late-Cold War and post-Cold War Polish nationalism saw the possibilities of historic reconciliations with its neighbors, such as Lithuania and Ukraine, in the context of a European Union that emphasized the benefits of states over the drawbacks of nations. States, in this case, signified legal entities ruled by impersonal bureaucracies that treated all citizens as equals, and thus promoted individual rights over group rights; nations, in this case, indicated ethnic or religious phenomena that saw people as part of groups and thus treated some people as more equal than others.
Of course, the American security umbrella over Western Europe throughout the Cold War allowed for the formation and the development of the European Union in the first place. Without NATO, there could have been no European Union, in other words. But it has been specifically the European Union that has provided the vision and bureaucratic framework for a country like Poland to, so to speak, escape from a difficult past into a more humanistic and universal present. For a favorable geopolitics is not enough: An immense domestic machinery and specific program is required to take advantage of it. That's what the European Union originally represented to Poland, and lately to many of the demonstrators in Kiev's Maidan Square. And that's where the evangelizing force of the European Union lies -- in a future that promises something different from the past. Never underestimate the power of symbolism, especially in a media age.
Thus, in forecasting the future of the European Union we have to be careful about taking realism too far. Realism can be self-limiting because, just as there is more to life than self-interest, there is more to national life than national interest. Individuals and whole peoples will often aspire to a higher truth that is not necessarily pragmatic. Universalist motivations may not be necessarily prudent, but they can nevertheless drive politics. That is why a geopolitics that is all mechanics will often be proven wrong.
To wit, the protesters in Maidan Square in Kiev were supposed to fail. They were supposed to have become demoralized by apathy elsewhere in the country. They were supposed to be altogether compromised by the far-right protesters who belatedly joined them. For what the original protesters in Maidan Square did was not necessarily prudent, expecting to topple -- with uncertain support from the West -- Putin ally Viktor Yanukovich's gangster-like regime. But they eventually succeeded, partly because they believed in a vision of Europe synonymous with that of the European Union. Even if the European Union did not entirely want to push east, many of the demonstrators did.
This is why I do not believe that the European Union is merely a phase in history. Rather, it is the beginning of a regional grouping of sorts, united in universal values, that, while not ever truly united from Iberia to the Black Sea, will be a pivotal factor in Europe indefinitely. This will especially be the case in future years as Russia loses dominance in energy markets, suffers from a declining population and calcifies further under autocratic rule. The vision of Europe's elites a decade ago was too ambitious, but that does not mean at all that the age of the European Union is past. The European Union has a brighter future than Russia does.