Dec 16

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25 years later – Europe at the crossroads

cross-roadsIt was the best of times, it was the worst of times (…), it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

No other words than these, written by Charles Dickens over 150 years ago, can better describe the state of the union, the European Union, at present. Over 50 per cent youth unemployment and seemingly never-ending policy of austerity in Southern European member states, corruption and restriction of the press freedom in others, the threat of another (cold) war with the EU’s biggest neighbor – these are the challenges that our generation of Europeans has to face. These are daunting challenges and at first sight leave little room for optimism.

But our generation is not the first one, and with high probability not the last, with great challenges to deal with. A quarter of a century ago, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the mostly peaceful revolutions in the Eastern European countries, another generation had to make momentous decisions about the future of Europe. In the mood of celebration it is easy to forget that the road taken at that time – EU enlargement and deeper integration – was not the only possible and not the most obvious one. Whereas in Eastern Europe there was a lot of hesitation to accept German reunification, in the West there was not much willingness to finance economic development in the countries economically devastated by decades of central planning.

Now, over two decades later we are living in a very different Europe. Even if the government of one country is trying to stay in power by tinkering with the freedom of press, in all remaining member states, especially in those affected by decades of dictatorships, the freedom of press is a sanctity that few politicians put in doubt. A quick look at the countries staying outside of the EU shows how different it could have been, if different – possibly even at that time more popular – decisions had been made.

A look further into the past makes it possible to see the current challenges from yet another perspective. Over 70 years of peace between EU member states is something very new in the history of the European continent. Even if meetings of the European Council end with disagreements and sometimes even quarrels between some leaders, they replace the battles of Ypres, Verdun or Somme, which less than a hundred years ago decimated the European population. Places associated with massacres of the World War II now stand for reconciliation and cooperation, and the enemy country of the past has for many become the new homeland.

But relishing in the success of European integration should not make us complacent and passive – just the opposite: it should give us the courage and stamina to deal with new challenges. High rates of unemployment, low rate of economic growth, restricted freedom of press, corruption, and increasing immigration: these are important challenges that need to be dealt with by the European leaders. But for the sake of the future generations we have to dare to look further and take on the challenges which cannot be fixed by one generation.

In his book from 1980, Alvin Toffler wrote about the end of the industrial era, based on maximization and centralization and driven by fossil fuels. This era, with all its indisputable advantages of increased health and standard of life, has also its more sinister side. The fast economic development was made possible by the reliance on finite sources of energy, “the main subsidy of industrial development”. But as Toffler pointed out, “[t]he biosphere will simply no longer tolerate the industrial assault”. The increased impact of climate change and air pollution on our lives proved him right.

Toffler argued that the industrial era will be replaced by one based on computerization, individualism and more democracy and will be driven by decentralized, renewable sources of energy. But he was only one of many scholars arguing that a significant change in the way we live and develop needs to take place if we want to move forward. Now we have the chance to not only read about it, but also live through it. The information age is upon us, and it has a much bigger impact on our lives than anyone before could have thought. Never before was the access to information so easy and exchange of opinions so fast as in our times. This has been recognized by the authoritarian governments, which – mostly in vain – tend to limit access to the internet to stay in power.

But this new world we are building is still driven mainly by energy coming from centralized power systems based on non-renewable energy sources. It is especially surprising in a world replete with technologies which allow us to benefit from the never-ending sources of energy. Development of these technologies has been pushed forward by European legislation, which provided investors with security of investment in research and development and encouraged local communities and prosumers to take matters in their own hands – exactly in the spirit of Alvin Toffer’s “Third Wave” civilization.

But then something unexpected happened. The false trade-off between climate and jobs took hold of the European decision-makers. Many of them driven by the desire to win the next elections decided for the latter. While other countries – even the poorest, such as Bangladesh – decided to move forward, Europe is starting to lag behind, scared of the challenges that lie ahead. Instead of promoting distributed renewables and empowering Europeans and local communities, there is now more talk of new coal and nuclear power plants, benefitting mostly international energy companies.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times (…), it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair” – Charles Dickens’ words describe not only the current state of the Union, but also the roads in front of us. The dichotomies mentioned by Dickens are the worlds we create for the future generations. We can take the easy road and follow the current path of development until all resources are used up and Europe becomes even more dependent on authoritarian regimes to supply the energy driving its stagnating economy, or we can regain Europe’s leadership in the development of new technologies and help it free itself from the limits of growth once and for all. Taking into consideration the challenges of moving towards a low-carbon, renewables-based economy, the second option is the much more challenging one. But as a quarter of a century ago the previous generation took the more difficult road without being sure where it will lead, so shall we, especially since we know where the road of business as usual leads: increased pollution, climate change and exhaustion of natural resources.

Our generation has to make brave decisions, even if that means changing the long-established patterns of thinking. We owe this to previous and future generations.

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