“Leaving the euro isn’t the same as leaving the European Union, but the differences are too technical for many people to parse. That’s the problem”

Leaving the euro isn’t the same as leaving the European Union, but the differences are too technical for many people to parse. That’s the problem.

The European Union hasn’t done a good job of explaining its purpose — it’s too opaque, too bureaucratic, too confusing — and its slow handling of the debt crisis, especially in Greece, where it acted fast so French and German banks could cut their losses, but left Greece asphyxiated, had devastating consequences for all. Decisions made for short-term financial stability have led to long-term political instability.

I’m struck by how the critiques of Europe from the right and left wind up converging. The Democracy in Europe movement, begun this year by the leftist Yanis Varoufakis, a polarizing former Greek finance minister, hits some of the same notes as Nigel Farage’s right-wing U.K. Independence Party, criticizing Europe as antidemocratic and less than transparent.

Still, the right appeals to nationalism and the left does not. The right sells a nostalgic version of national identity that resonates viscerally but doesn’t reflect reality, especially not for young people born into a Europe of Erasmus scholarships that let them study across borders, and EasyJet, which lets them travel around on the cheap.

These critiques of Europe from the left and right aren’t really ideological in the way that the 20th-century battles between communists and fascists were. Instead, voters have the sense that abstract economic forces are determining their fates, that their countries have given up part of their economic sovereignty to Europe — but that Europe, a vague construct, has not assumed that power and can’t act on it. Europe hovers in a kind of purgatory of semisovereignty. In this confusion, nationalists thrive.

It’s all terribly confusing: The idea of a united Europe was to allow citizens to prosper. When the economy was booming, countries wanted immigration. In recent years, the economic crisis hasn’t allowed citizens in many parts of Europe to prosper. Does this mean that a united Europe is to blame, or that global economic factors are? Or does the fault lie with entrenched local economic realities, like national labor contracts, which exist for older workers but are often an impossible dream for younger ones? Was the promise of growth overly wishful?

Rachel Donadio, “For a Notion of Strength in Connectedness, Defeat Comes Hard”, The New York Times (25 June 2016), A11.