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Beyond the Great Disruption: confidence is finally returning to Europe

Yet none of the crises that fractured the EU in 2016 have been resolved – can its resilience remain?

The paradox of 2017 was that while the European Union failed to solve any of the crises that were tearing it apart the previous year, the interplay between these crises created, miraculously, the conditions that helped the bloc to survive. The union is as fragile as ever, but its chances of enduring are much better than they were a year ago.

 In 2016, the unthinkable – the disintegration of the EU – started to look inevitable. A combination of shock, despair and fatalism had paralysed Europeans’ political imagination. For the first time in the history of the European project, a member state had voted to leave the union. And the member state that was heading for the door was not some remote eastern European country, struggling in the periphery, but Britain – Europe’s oldest democracy and advocate of free-trade liberalism. “EU leaders were terrified,” wrote the commentator Mark Leonard, “that other member states could succumb to the same combination of economic uncertainty, cultural anxiety, and political alienation that propelled Britain toward the exit.” The election of Donald Trump as US president in November 2016 was yet another surprise from hell. European elites felt abandoned and betrayed by history. A united, liberal Europe was an American project – the European movement had even been funded by the US government – and now, suddenly, President Trump was making it clear that the world America created after the fall of communism in 1989 did not suit the superpower any more. German chancellor Angela Merkel summed it up when she said that “the era in which we could fully rely on others is over to some extent”.

So, unsurprisingly, after 2016 – the year of the Great Disruption – 2017 turned out to be more of a kidney stone of a year for Europe: it brought pain, but also relief. The disease was not terminal. And although none of the numerous problems that have fractured the union – the eurozone crisis, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the plight of refugees – have gone away, over the course of the year, European economies grew confidently, unemployment declined and opinion polls across the continent registered restored trust in Europe’s future. Unexpectedly, in 2017, it was the pro-Europeans who took the initiative. The Cambridge Dictionary crowned “populism” its word of the year in 2017. In 2015, that word was “austerity”, while in 2016, it was “paranoid”. Paranoia born of austerity led to populism. And in 2018, populism is unlikely to disappear. The outcome of the Italian elections in March could change the mood in Europe again. But what made 2017 different was the emergence of pro-European populism: a political movement that coupled the idea of Europe with the demand for change.


In the 19th century, European high society fell in love with the quadrille, a dance in which participants continuously changed partners and roles. The dance was particularly popular in Vienna, where changing partners and moderating ambitions was how the Habsburg empire had survived for centuries, regardless of its declining military might and unimpressive economy. Dynastic marriages were the Habsburg version of the now fashionable idea of “soft power”. It was the awareness of its own vulnerability that contributed most to the success of the Habsburg monarchy in keeping its empire, while losing power and influence. Some historians tend to believe that had the central powers won the First World War, this empire would have survived intact and probably expanded.

 In the last decade, the EU has been practising a dance that very much resembles the 19th century quadrille. The union was dancing with the eurozone crisis of 2009-10; it was taken out of balance by Russia’s annexation of Crimea; it was spun by Brexit
and it was profoundly destabilised by the refugee crisis. All had a deep impact on the way Europeans see their future. Each could have brought the end of the European project. Yet, contrary to the expectations of the Eurosceptics, the union has survived and its chances of enduring have increased.

 The financial crisis came first and made many western Europeans fearful that their children’s lives would be worse than their own. The EU no longer acts as a convergence machine that makes struggling countries richer and narrows the gap between the wealthiest and poorest members. In 20 years’ time, even if the reforms in Greece work, the income gap between Germans and Greeks will be similar to the one between West Germans and Greeks on the day in 1981 when Greece joined the EU. What is worse, the euro crisis did not simply ruin the economies of countries such as Greece and Spain; it split the union between debtors and creditors, a dangerous division that mocks the very idea that the EU is composed of politically equal members. The relationship between a creditor and a debtor is never one characterised by equality.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict has also had far-reaching consequences. It has put into question the naive belief of European elites that in the 21st century, war has been consigned to the dustbin of history – and that what really matters is economic strength and the power to attract investment. The policy shift in Washington, DC brought about by Trump’s election makes clear that Europeans cannot rely on the US for their security, as they have done since 1945.


But there was one issue, in particular, that shattered the very foundations of the European project: the refugee crisis. Two decades ago, the Hungarian philosopher and former dissident, Gáspár Miklós Tamás, observed that the Enlightenment – in which the idea of the European Union is intellectually rooted – demands a belief in universal citizenship, meaning people should enjoy the same rights regardless of the passport they carry. But universal citizenship requires one of two things: either people enjoy absolute freedom of movement to search for jobs and higher standards of living, or the huge economic and political disparities between countries need to disappear, allowing people to enjoy their rights equally in every place.

Neither of these is going to happen soon, if ever. We live in a world in which people move more easily between countries than at any time before. And it is becoming almost impossible to distinguish between migrants and refugees. In a world defined by rising wealth inequality between states and within states, where social media enables people to peek at the ways even the most distant others live, migration has become the new revolutionary force. This is not the 20th century revolution of the masses, but a 21st century exit-driven revolution enacted by individuals and families. To succeed, this new revolution doesn’t require a coherent ideology, political movement or even leadership. A simple crossing of the border into the EU is more attractive than any utopia. For so many of today’s damnés de la terre, change means moving to a new country, not altering your government by staying put.

In the 1990s, the EU tended to view itself as a unique post-modern empire surrounded by countries desperate to join. Like other empires before, it promoted law, peace and trade. An unwillingness (or inability) to define its final borders was a key characteristic of the European project. However, the refugee crisis did not simply force European elites to define where the limits of the union were, but also to adjust their vision of “open borders” to the reality of a world where migration is the new revolution. If a decade ago, Europeans were preoccupied by how to transform their neighbours, the major concern today is to resist countries such as Russia or Turkey transforming the EU.

The refugee crisis also signalled the return of an East-West divide in Europe. In the aftermath of the influx of families escaping the horrors of the conflict in Syria and the postwar chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan, the post-communist countries of eastern Europe refused to take any refugees, and blamed Brussels and Germany for attempting to destroy their national identities. The defence of a Christian Europe of sovereign nations became the cause of central European governments. In the words of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, who in the 1990s was one of the symbols of the liberal revolution: “Twenty-seven years ago here in central Europe, we believed that Europe was our future; today we feel that we are the future of Europe.”


How has the EU succeeded today in recovering its appeal, while failing singularly to solve any of the crises that threaten to destroy it?  What is the source of the new, more optimistic mood in Europe?

The popular short answer is: Emmanuel Macron. His decisive victories in France – first in the presidential election in May and then in parliamentary elections in June – on a proudly pro-European platform have led many to believe that, rather than disintegration, further integration may now be possible. His victory was not a manifestation of some structural trend, but a reminder of the importance of leadership. It was a demonstration that political outcomes for most of Europe’s leaders are most often determined by talent, ambition and good luck.

After all, it was not some mythical pro-European majority or abstract liberal centrism that won the elections in France. Rather, it was a 39-year-old man who dared to jump head first into the political fray wen his chances of success were slim to non-existent. A man who decided to dream when others were in the mood to mourn, and who – contrary to the conventional wisdom among the establishment – recognised that the majority of people want change: not “no Europe” but a different Europe. Instead of distancing himself from the EU, Macron embraced it – albeit with a solemn promise to change Brussels. It was his success in engaging the anti-establishment sentiments of the public – along with the promise of an EU that protects – that defines the Macron effect. It is too early to know how long it will last, but it was certainly the French elections that instilled hope and self-confidence in Europe’s elites. Macron’s victory owes a lot to the fears and frustrations brought by Trump’s America and the reality of Brexit.

Just as they did in the 20th century, the US and Britain are on course to save Europe. Trump’s victory and the chaos of his presidency may have frightened many middle-class voters, but it has functioned as catnip for populist leaders. It was precisely the impulse of far-right parties in Europe to take a page out of the Trump playbook – the one that claims any moderation is a betrayal of the people – that was partially responsible for their disappointing results not only in France, but also the Netherlands. Trump’s victory emboldened far-right parties to move further away from the centre at the very moment when they had secured almost enough acceptability to win. Right-wing populists in Austria jettisoned their hard-won moderate image and adopted, once again, an angrier and more apocalyptic tone. In France, it was Marine Le Pen’s suicidal decision to ask for a referendum on the euro that stamped her defeat. It seems the post-Brexit uncertainty and confusion in the UK, and Trump’s frightening unpredictability, contributed to Europeans’ born-again sympathy for the EU.


Since 2017, Britain has been transformed in almost unimaginable ways. It has become provincial, disoriented and unimportant. What once was the greatest empire in the history of the world has started to resemble a rebellious colony. The irony of the Brexit negotiations cannot be lost on any observer with a sense of history.

For most of the second half of the 20th century, Britain was negotiating the dissolution of its empire. It was dealing with young nations keen to have power in the hands of their citizens, which at the same time were interested in transition periods when it came to trade. Britain was careful to negotiate the rights of its citizens remaining in the newly independent countries. As a whole, these were very asymmetrical negotiations. London’s advantage was determined by the higher quality of its bureaucracy and by its experience in dealing with trade issues. Also, as a rule, Britain had a consolidated position while its negotiating partners were internally divided and blinded by wishful thinking. In the Brexit negotiations, London has found itself in the position of its former colonies. It is impatient to get out of the European empire but it has to pay a high economic price for its “liberation”. It does not have enough experts trained to conduct successful trade talks and, unsurprisingly, Brussels is often as nasty and humiliating in negotiating with Britain as London was to its colonies.

In a paradoxical way, Germany’s crisis of self-confidence has also contributed to the new enthusiasm for the EU. It has become clear that Germany is neither as powerful in Europe as many feared nor as stable as many believed. For a long time, Germans have enjoyed a long holiday from history. While other European societies were torn apart by anxiety and anger, in Germany, most citizens were satisfied with their economic situation. Politicians and even the mainstream media were trusted and, as a result, Germany insisted on maintaining the status quo and was deaf to the problems of others.

Germany differed from its European partners the way a romantic comedy differs from a horror movie. But the parliamentary elections of November 2017 showed that the holiday was over. Germany is part of Europe’s new normal. It was the influx of refugees in 2015 – and the cultural and demographic panic this stirred – that put an end to German stability. The East-West divide is not simply between Germany and its post-communist neighbours, but across the Continent – and
even within Germany itself.

In Germany’s eastern states, those areas of the former communist republic, where there are far fewer settled refugees than in other parts of the country, the far-right Alternative for Germany achieved its best  ever results. And while on the surface, the East-West divide may be about migration, in reality the refugee crisis has made visible the deeply rooted resentment among former East Germans over the legacy of the fall of communism. It was the vote of the East Germans, more than anything else, that forced Berlin to understand that the East’s alienation from the European project is rooted not so much in the fear of foreigners who want to come, but in the trauma of Germans who have left. It is the delayed reaction to millions of eastern Europeans emigrating to the West in the past 25 years.

In East Germany, the population fell by around 15 per cent between 1990 and 2015. The mass migration from post-communist Europe to the West not only impaired economic competitiveness and political development, but also made those who decided to stay at home feel like losers. Those with roots have grown resentful of those with legs. It was the people in the most depopulated areas of Europe who voted most enthusiastically for populists.

The rise of Macron’s France has reassured some of Germany’s critics in central and southern Europe that not all decisions will be taken in Berlin. Meanwhile, the rise of the German far right has challenged its citizens’ illusion that they were the exception when it came to the European crisis. But though it was the Macron moment that changed the mood in Europe, it was the interplay between different crises that created the structural preconditions for the EU’s unexpected comeback. By allowing flexibility on budget deficit rules for countries which spend money on refugees (what constitutes such spending is to be negotiated between Brussels and member states), Europeans found a way to inject flexibility into the eurozone – mostly in Greece and Italy – without the need for formal rule changes.

While the refugee crisis united central Europeans and is mostly responsible for their growing opposition to Brussels, it was the Russia-Ukraine conflict that divided countries such as Poland and Hungary. This limited the space for joint actions against Brussels, and at the same time made it impossible for Hungary to use its veto against sanctions on Russia for fear of upsetting a delicate alliance with Poland. In short, that the EU is facing not one but many crises has brought to life different divisions and coalitions, opening room for manoeuvre. It has introduced the critical flexibility that the union so needed in order to rebalance itself.

The crises have also forced European societies to become more interested in one other. Germans became experts in the Greek economy; Poles and Hungarians took an interest in Berlin’s asylum policies. And western Europeans, for the first time since 1989, have started tuning in to what is really going on in central Europe. In 2016, it was fashionable to imagine the future of the EU while drawing historical parallels with the last days of the Habsburg empire. But at the start of 2018, understanding why this empire collapsed in 1918 appears less important than grasping why it didn’t disintegrate earlier – in 1848, 1867 or any number of other turbulent years. It is not 1918 in the EU any more than it is the 1930s. If the union is going to disintegrate any time soon, it will not be the outcome of historical necessity, but rather because of some sort of accident. For now, Europeans have reason to hope that “resilience” will be the word of 2018. 

Ivan Krastev is a political scientist, a contributing writer for the “New York Times”, and the chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria. His most recent book is “After Europe”

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Migration

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“They are leaving at an alarming rate”: European NHS workers on the winter crisis, austerity, and Brexit’s impact

“It’s a house of cards, and we’re getting closer and closer to the point where it’s all going to collapse.”

This winter, for the first time in five years, Joan Pons Laplana, an NHS project manager and transformation nurse from Norfolk, “went back to working the front line” because his hospital “had no nurses”. As was the case in many other NHS hospitals nationwide, wards were closed, non-urgent appointments and operations cancelled, and their resources focused on A&E.

“We managed to put a plaster to stop the crisis, but now we need to catch up with the patients and operations and everything,” he says. “And that's like a catch-22.” NHS England recommends a working capacity of around 85 per cent in hospitals to absorb the winter’s patients rise, but Pons Laplana’s hospital is “constantly” working at 90 per cent, he says. “It’s a high stress environment, constantly low on resources and doctors. And now we don't have enough staff.” He sighs: “It’s getting more and more difficult to deliver safe care. At the moment, we’re playing Russian roulette.”

Originally from Barcelona, Pons Laplana has lived and worked in the UK for 17 years. He is one of around 62,000 EU citizens who currently work for the National Health Service, according to House of Commons statistics. Amid the winter crisis and severe financial pressure, the NHS’s next big problem is already unfolding: the prospect of Brexit is driving European NHS workers away. Within England’s NHS services, EU nationals make up almost 10 per cent of doctors, more than 7 per cent of nurses and 5 per cent of scientific, therapeutic and technical staff. Almost 10,000 EU workers had already left the NHS when NHS Digital released its 2017 data last autumn.

“If none of the EU citizens were [in my hospital], I can say without any exaggeration: you could absolutely close tomorrow”, Dr Peter Bauer, 47, a consultant anaesthetist in a Brighton hospital who has worked in the NHS since 1999, tells the New Statesman. In his hospital, he says, the proportion of EU staff is “phenomenal”: “Well over 50 per cent of senior staff is European, it’s about three quarters of the people. It would be disaster.” Mary, a 37-year-old British nurse from London, says her clinic, which employs many Europeans, is struggling to find a cover for her colleague on maternity leave: “Recruitment has fallen massively since Brexit.” With the British government still unclear on citizens’ rights, it is unlikely to stop there.

The ability of competent, skilled European staff to move seamlessly to the UK from the continent, thanks to the EU's freedom of movement, has been “a boom for the NHS”, Bauer says. Recruiting elsewhere (something the NHS has already started doing) will bring additional costs, visa requirements and various other complications that freedom of movement was designed to avoid. “You need these people! If you can't recruit Europeans, you then have to go out of the EU, and it's much more costly and difficult. It's a house of cards, and we're getting closer and closer to the point where it's all going to collapse.”

“If EU citizens like myself decide to go, it would take about 4,200 years to close the gap.”
Peter Bauer, consultant anaesthetist, originally from Germany

Recruitment from European countries has fallen rapidly. For instance, the number of incoming EU nurses fell by 92 per cent after the referendum, contributing to a shortfall in those able to fill the 24,000 nurse vacancies in England alone.

“For the first time, we have seen a reduction in the pool of EU citizens working for the NHS, and that is critical”, says Bauer, who teaches at medical school and has observed the “mismatch of numbers” in terms of graduates – especially a lack of British graduates. “If you want to fill the increased demand with British graduates, you would have to hugely enhance the capacity of British universities to train doctors, and then you would have to put them through specialty training, and that would take decades.”  It takes “about fifteen years” to train an anaesthetist like himself. He laughs: “If EU citizens like myself decide to go, it would take about 4,200 years to close the gap!” Mary, the British nurse, agrees: “Come 2020, we're going to be in serious, massive crap.”

Jettie Vije, a Dutch national who works as a GP practice nurse in Norfolk, meets the “occasional old patient” wanting to discuss Brexit: “They say, ‘Isn’t it great that we’re leaving the EU?’” Vije has been in the UK for four years, which is less than the five-year threshold for settled status; so “great” may not be the best word to describe her situation “I try to keep it on the medical side and not to discuss whether leaving the EU is good or not”, she says. “I am here to do my job as a nurse.”

“I try not to discuss whether leaving the EU is good or not. I am here to do my job as a nurse.”
Jettie Vije, GP practice nurse, originally from the Netherlands

Every EU citizen in the UK knows others who have left. “On a daily basis, I can see that people are leaving”, Pons Laplana says. Portuguese workers at his hospital are “leaving at an alarming rate”. An Italian colleague of Bauer’s is applying to a job in France (“He is probably going to be gone very soon” ); another one, a Czech colleague, has gone part-time, working four weeks in Czech Republic and four in the UK. “The direction isn't for people to be drawn into the UK”, Bauer says.

Mary, the nurse from London, works with colleagues from all over Europe, from Spain and Portugal to Romania and Poland. “Just hearing the conversations they have...  They feel they're not welcome here anymore,” she says, citing one who just moved to Ireland. “Despite what we say and how much we appreciate them, it really doesn't matter” she says. “They're nervous, so a lot of them are leaving.”

The ones who stay behind aren't just losing friends and colleagues to a political decision in which they had no say. Like every Briton, they are attached to their life in the UK as they know it, and to one of its greatest pillars: their employer and health care provider, the National Health Service. As the recent winter crisis has made years of under-funding more apparent and more critical, just like Brits, they worry the NHS may not recover.

European workers have been part of the NHS and British life for years – in Bauer’s case, decades – and have witnessed different government policies. When Bauer arrived in the 1990s, Tony Blair had just taken office: “Over the first ten years, you could see how pumping money into the NHS was leading to a huge increase in the capacity”, he says. There were “more beds, more nurses and doctors”, and small things, too – like “more hand washing basins”. “As the coalition government, and then Cameron, took power, you could see how the investment was scaled back”, he adds.

The NHS is already in dire straits due to the financial pressures exacerbated by austerity. Last September, Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, estimated in the Guardian that the Health Service needed an emergency investment of £200m to £350m to avoid a winter crisis. It didn’t come – and non-emergency procedures were cancelled across the country in January. That shortfall is only the start however, and by 2020, the NHS will face a £20 billion funding gap. The Conservative manifesto pledge of an extra £8bn is considered by leading health think tanks and experts to be inadequate. Inflation and demand, which Bauer says “keep rising”, are deepening the gap.

“At the moment, we’re playing Russian roulette.”
Joan Pons Laplana, NHS project manager, originally from Spain

“When the demand is a lot higher than the funding, then there is a gap and that gap is getting wider and wider each year. That's what provoked the crisis,” says Pons Laplana, who has seen stress in his wards go “though the roof” with the pressures. “I reckon 50 of the team have been off at some point because of the stress”, says Mary, who had to take two weeks off around Christmas because she works in a department that treats life-threatening conditions and it all became too much. “We are GPs, we are counsellors, we are social workers... We're everything at the moment.” To add to the stress, the lack of funding and the nurses’ pay cap are making situations like Mary’s more precarious: she says she had to remortgage her house to pay for a £10,000 training that may allow her to be promoted. “To be able to make ends meet, a lot of the staff do extra shifts, some are working fifty hours to have the same quality of life that they had five, six, seven years ago, and pay the mortgages”, Pons Laplana explains. “But a lot of us are getting tired. Tired people make mistakes. And mistakes cost lives.”

These problems would exist without Brexit, but the decision to leave the EU will exacerbate the health services's problems in ways beyond simply driving workers away. The famed “£350m a week for the NHS” pledge wheeled out by the Leave campaign is credited with helping to win the election, but the drop in value of the pound and economic uncertainty mean that, as Bauer points out, “in actual numbers you're seeing so far a reduction of £350m a week” – less cash in the economy is likely to mean less cash for the NHS.

Mary says she is “immensely worried” about the possibility of the British government selling NHS contracts in a future US trade deal struck to make up for lost trade with the EU: “The essence of what the NHS is, care for all, that will go and the thought of that scares me to the bone.” Brexit, Bauer says, is an “unmitigated disaster”: not just because urgent issues like the NHS’ winter crisis are being overlooked by the “completely paralysed” government’s obsession with the UK’s departure from the European Union, but also because it will exacerbate such issues further. The Home Office’s tightening of migration rules will make it harder for the Health Service to hire critically needed staff, he sighs: “It's one more dimension of self-harm on Brexit.”

“EU workers are leaving at an alarming rate”
Joan Pons Laplana

For the EU citizens who are still here, the dilemma is twofold. Leave, because Brexit has made their future and right to work in this country uncertain? Or stay to see the Health Service they have put so much work in fall into pieces? “I worked very hard for three years to be in the managerial position I have,” Pons Laplana says. “If I go back, I will not have the same job. My home is here. My heart is British.” Vije doesn’t think it will come to her leaving, but until the deal is finalized, she cannot be certain: “I'm just waiting and watching.” Although Bauer doesn’t want to leave either, he has started on his contingency plan: getting German passports for his children. “I don't see a rosy economic future for them in the UK”, he says. “Britain is so divided now, the government is divided, the Tories are divided, Labour is divided, families are divided.” 

“Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” may work as far as the government’s negotiating strategy goes, but it also means EU workers are left in limbo. At a time when the NHS desperately needs staff, if the “really well trained, hard workers, well-educated” EU nurses and doctors to change their mind and go, they will be sorely missed, Mary says. “But then I think, what would I do?” She pauses. “Probably the same.”

Pauline Bock writes about France, the Macron presidency, Brexit and EU citizens in the UK. She also happens to be French.

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Migration