It was always a lofty idea -- maybe too good to be true.
As it was conceived, the European Union would unite a growing body of member states with a web of treaties and a single currency -- a kind of dollar for the United States of Europe. This currency would be a shared point of pride and a common medium of exchange for people who didn't communicate easily, preferring their mother tongues over the English-as-Esperanto that had grown in popularity across a couple of decades. The European Union would lower boundaries across a sprawling continent still divided by memories of war. It would be the glue to bind scattered pieces of the puzzle created by geography-meets-rulers of all sorts (versus religious strife, versus an entrepreneurial fervor to spin out countries -- Slovakia, etc.). Designed to create one stable and prosperous European market, the European Union worked terrifically at first -- or it did an amazing job with spin.
Now years of progress have blown up in the form of an ongoing debt crisis -- a kick in the shins to the European brand, to say the least. The European Union now leans more toward sharp-tongued recriminations than love notes. And with its snail's-pace approach to resolving problems, so much of what's good in the old Western world is under threat as economies stall and budgets are cut. As just one example, I've always admired the European model of emphasizing the importance of the arts, but so much Euro angst could very well lead to slashes in arts endowments in the next two years. It has already eaten away at the übersponsors of artists, the Dutch, who have treated creators as national treasures, buying their works and loaning them out to citizens of The Netherlands. If Europeans are more worried about their families, incomes and homes, the arts could take a hit as governments prioritize the basics at the expense of the finer things of life.
In spite of Europe's years-long shift toward economic decline and political gridlock, the continent endures as a newsmaker and a style leader. I once lived and worked in Amsterdam (as head of the Department of the Future for TBWA/Chiat/Day) and love that city still. I remain a champion of European sensibilities and can't read enough about the cultural evolution as north and south blend into a collaborative culture -- or not. When I don my trend-spotter hat, I often look first to Europe -- the cyber-spoon (Amsterdam, Stockholm, Oslo and Helsinki), Middle England and the French creative giants specifically -- to understand what will soon be global mainstream news. But with elections growing ugly in France and with London preparing for the Olympics, mine aren't the only eyes on Europe. Most people these days, however, are less likely to look to Europe for inspiration than to pause and gape at its train wreck of an economy. (Speaking of trains: When I took one from Zurich to Milan this summer, it sure didn't feel like one Europe as much as Swiss point of departure on the Italian national railway.)
I am assembling these observations and a presentation to share at the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona in April, so my challenge is twofold: Decode European trends, and make them relevant to American business students who don't normally grasp that the United States of Europe is in the midst of its own culture war, being played out with the tools and in the media mix of the 21st century.
Since the outbreak of the crisis in early 2010, E.U. leaders have held 18 summits -- leading, at last, to the drafting of a treaty that pledges to better stick to budget discipline rules. The European Central Bank has pumped more than €1 trillion into the banking sector to stave off disaster, so for the moment the European Union hasn't hit the wall. Markets are even relieved that Greece has persuaded most of its bondholders to swallow losses of up to 74 percent of their holdings in the biggest restructuring of government debt anywhere, ever. So now Greece qualifies for a €130 billion (US$170.6 billion) bailout from the European Union, ECB and International Monetary Fund. But the injection only buys the European Union a few more years, likely not enough time to heal all the new wounds that the euro crisis has torn open between member states and citizens. I worry about whether the European Union can fill such a big bill in a small amount of time. Mending a continent and encouraging economic growth while paying down debt and preventing national politics from pulling it apart are no small tasks.
As the European Union is discredited around the world and within its own jagged borders, even Europhiles are turning into Euroskeptics. I see a growing number of Europeans who are fed up with remote bureaucrats making one-size-fits-all rules; they say Brussels, we say D.C. Northern and southern economies are trading insults, and several states are staring down record unemployment -- it hit 10.7 percent in the 17-nation eurozone in January and rose to 23.2 percent in Spain, where one young person in two is out of work. Several European countries risk entering the same debt default territory as Greece.
What's next? Will the European Union implode under the weight of its own mess? Will it hold out long enough to rewrite the rules of collaboration and cooperation to realign its major powers? Whatever happens, the piecemeal approach of shoehorning European countries into cobbled-together agreements hasn't proved out stronger country brands. The European Union is not working, and the E.U.'s "United in diversity" motto just isn't holding true.
I wonder: Is all this discord -- on the surface and just under -- threatening to ruin what I and the rest of the world love about Western Europe? And is this conversation in Arizona ever more important because Europe's crisis could turn the world order on its head? Europe's response to immigration could force hard new questions around security and tolerance in the trendsetting (not for the right reasons) state of Arizona, where the battle over immigration has its citizens polarized and the rest of the United States watching.