Defenders of the European Union argue that the institution may have flaws, but that it represents a noble ideal and for this reason the union must stand above everything else, like for example sovereignty, the will of the people in the individual nations and other petty and narrow-minded matters like national legislations. For the European Community and the European Union later granted decades of peace in the aftermath of the most devastating war in human history, the most widespread argument goes.

A noble ideal, though, as noble as it might be, cannot make us blind in light of the less pleasant realities the European Union today brings with it. The free circulation of people and goods is of course an excellent thing, but free trade and free movement do not have to become the alter on which one sacrifices other important things like democracy, freedom of expression and conscience and economic policies that actually make sense. Communism, the many and bitterly antagonizing branches of Christianity, Salafi Islam, racial purity, the crusade for the democracy in the Middle East, just to make a few examples, all stood for “noble ideals”, but their implementation in the real world brought nonetheless a great deal of suffering, tragedy and death. Noble ideals are not always enough to save humanity from itself.

In contemporary mainstream political discourse, however, any form of criticism of the European Union has become associated in the public consciousness to hideous things like populism, nationalism, Russian propaganda, fake news and outright ignorance. Arguably ungrateful electorates would not be able to recognise what is good for themselves, and everything good that has been brought onto them by the European Union over the past decades. In the minds of many, Brexit, just like the election of Donald Trump a few months later, could happen only because the electorate was manipulated by fake news and Russian propaganda.

Dismissing all disappoint and dissatisfaction with the European Union as symptoms of ignorance and gullibility, however, is not the most intelligent strategy either. Learning from one’s faults and mistakes is a necessary, albeit painful, fact of life. Stubbornly and scornfully refusing all criticism is a missed opportunity.

The fact that the very earthly realities of the European Union have not exactly looked up to its own lofty ideals is very evident in the face of the latest crisis provoked by the coronavirus epidemic, and this could be only the beginning of a severe economic recession. As ten years ago, when Europe chose austerity as a way out of the euro crisis, the deep divisions between the virtuous Northern Europe and the, conversely, not so virtuous South seem irreconcilable and are provoking a lot of bitterness and the resurfacing of old but difficult to do away with stereotypes about different national characters. Even one ex-President of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, has argued that this spirit does not really speak for a genuine community and has questioned the possibility of the European Union to survive.

Because while many celebrated the noble ideals of the European Union, for some member countries, the last decades have hardly been a success. It is not just Italy, that even before this latest emergency was still struggling to recover from the deep economic recession years than began in 2008 and was haemorrhaging hundreds of thousands of its young people that left the country every year in search of jobs and livelihood abroad, or even Greece, that was punished into austerity. Even for countries like France and Germany, arguably the leaders in the EU, growth had been anaemic, well below world averages, at least since the introduction of a single currency in 1999. The necessity of having a single monetary policy, largely dictated by Germany and guided its anachronistic fear of inflation, ended up stifling growth in many European countries. It would be utterly stupid of noble ideals kept blinding us from common sense and more reality-based ideas and policies. Even beautiful words become empty after a while.

Stefano Di Lorenzo