Bojan Pancevski / Aug 2018
The author in front of the 'Europa' building in Brussels. Photo: Camille Vande Putte
Bojan Pancevski reported on European and EU affairs from Vienna and Brussels between 2009 and 2018, when he moved to Berlin to cover Germany.
When I arrived at Europe’s centre of power, it was a dingy construction site.
This was late 2009. Yet another grand structure – the so-called Europa Building – was being erected in the EU headquarters complex on Schuman Square, eating further into the fine urban tissue of Bruxellois art deco. The ground was covered with mud in the constant drizzle, soiling the expensive shoes of eurocrats poised between running a continent and sauntering to lunch.
Brexit had not yet entered the dictionary of mangled euro-speak. The visionaries who believed in it were mainly UKIP MEPs led by Nigel Farage, some of whom spent their days boozing and cracking lewd jokes at O’Farrell’s, a dank drinking hole over the road from the European Parliament, having clocked in to claim their per diem before trotting across the cobblestones for the first pint.
The global financial downturn was starting to engulf Europe, and the euro faced a crisis. The pound felt like a safe haven, so UK pundits were sharpening their quills to (wrongly) forecast the end of the common currency.
Yet hardly even the most gloomy of doomsayers were predicting that, soon, ethno-nationalism would reclaim its place in European politics amid a surge of populist parties across the bloc. Coming from Yugoslavia, a country that vanished down the abyss of ethnic conflict, the EU appeared to me at the time a necessary stage of European evolution that helped keep such forces in check.
Back then, Matteo Salvini was a little-known Italian MEP who had joined forces with Mr.Farage; at the other side of the institutional divide, a chubby German chap called Martin Selmayr was a low-profile Commission spokesman.
Fast forward eight years, and what a change. Britain, a country that once shaped Europe, is stumbling out of the EU with some incongruence. Old Brussels hands invoke Vietnam war flicks to compare poor Theresa May to a bloated corpse floating down the Mekong river, flanked by Brexiteer ministers using her as cover from enemy fire.
Within the Eurocracy, UK officials were revered as the Rolls Royces of the EU’s civil service, which has now come under the command of Mr. Selmayr, the former spokesman. They are presently reduced to scrambling for Belgian passports.
Mr. Salvini, now a deputy-prime minister of Italy, EU's founding member, is chirpily tweeting quotes from Benito Mussolini, complete with a smiley face, on the anniversary of the dictator’s birthday. The EU's parliament turned out to be an incubator of populist politicians, who, once derided as marginals, are now injecting their policies into the continent's mainstream.
While O’Farrell’s has gone and Mr. Farage’s lot will soon be gone too, the Europa Building, now completed, defies them as a monumental symbol to European unity. It’s lantern-like structure lights up after nightfall, encased in a glass cube made of recycled windows from all over Europe.
Like everything EU-related, it is slightly dysfunctional and extremely expensive, costing taxpayers €321m. Although that pales beside the £350m a week Boris Johnson, before his brief stint as Foreign Secretary, insisted the UK would save by leaving.
German influence in the EU peaked during my time here, turning traditional French dominance into distant memory. The British notion that the EU is run by remote control from Berlin is a caricature, but it is true that nothing significant can happen in Brussels any longer without Germany’s tacit agreement. The unwanted refugee quotas, the toothless regulation of toxic diesel engines, the rubber-stamping of controversial Russian gas pipelines - a bit of German lobbying goes a long way here.
And yet German officials – including those at the very top - often complain in private about the EU’s inflexibility, rigidness and pig-headedness. Their language is as colourful as any Brexiteer’s. Outsiders feel the same: I once heard Barack Obama’s chief trade negotiator explain, with some gusto, how the word “pragmatic” was used pejoratively in Brussels.
Even the most pro-EU leaders sometimes grumble in private briefings about the bloc being an unwieldy club that is becoming ever-harder to run efficiently. But it’s their club. It exists because they need it, and because it works, however complicated and frustrating.
Most of them don't question it: to these Europeans, the EU is an axiom. And they are determined to make Brexit the proof of it. As Angela Merkel told fellow leaders last December, Britain’s departure will have to be managed in a way that shows the difference between being inside and being outside the club.
The crises, however, are becoming legion: the euro crisis, the Greek crisis, the migration crisis, the Brexit crisis - and the structural crisis of illiberal democracy that is fuelled by each of them, and could eclipse them all.
None of these crises has been really solved nor are they likely to be. The EU doesn’t do solving, it does managing and muddling through.
One of them, or all of them, might yet unravel the whole thing. But I doubt it. With America becoming ever more distant, and China inching ever closer, the alternatives hold little appeal. Starry-eyed drivers of EU integration, such as Mr. Selmayr, love a good crisis, true to the dictum of Jean Monnet, the original spiritus rector of the European Project: "Europe will be forged in crises, and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises."
Meanwhile, Europa, the building, glows in the Carolingian night, a flare of hubris to some, to others a beacon of hope.