An opinion poll on global threats might not seem an obvious cause for celebration. Last week, the European Commission nonetheless declared itself cheered by the results of Special Eurobarometer 372. Respondents had ranked various looming disasters in a satisfactory manner.
Europeans, it appears, are increasingly discerning about their environmental and financial meltdowns, their water shortages, demographic collapses, pandemics and nuclear proliferations, even if they are still disappointingly poor at spontaneously coming up with new global threats of their own (Question 1a).
One issue the poll did not probe though: just how fed up is the public with these constant existential crises? The apocalyptic tenor of EU politics – nervous politicians praying for European salvation and prophesying war – is becoming rather draining. The newspapers are full of commentaries on the relentlessness of our crisis-driven politics.
Of course, politicians dislike the suggestion that they use disaster as political capital. But if they deny being apocalyptic in their handling of these challenges, they are actually blocking out a large part of their shared heritage. European culture is rooted in the politics of disaster and salvation.
Rewind 500 years and there was a widespread mood in Europe of resignation and fatalism. Greek philosophy had proved persuasive in its claim that a golden age had passed, that the world was decaying, and that to try to alter the situation would be to tempt fate.
This thinking was increasingly opposed by a strain of radical Protestantism which leaked into politics through events such as the English Civil War. The secular notions of apocalypse and salvation that emerged spawned the modern idea of progress. Self-improvement, it was now argued, would permit humanity to stave off disaster.
The battle between sceptics and progressives has been running ever since. But it has retained a distinctly old-testament flavour. Just as biblical salvation could not come without terror and calamity, so it seems political progress today cannot be achieved without fear and crisis.
Take those Eurobarometer results. EU officials actually congratulated themselves on the worsening of climate fears since the Copenhagen summit. They interpreted this not as a sad indictment of the EU’s diplomatic performance at the 2009 talks but as a useful catalyst to more progressive policies.
Academics point out other oddities in the way politicians deal with crises:
1. the initial reactionary response. Just as biblical disasters were interpreted as a judgment on the state of humanity, so crisis today triggers a drastic stocktaking of existing progressive policies. The demographic crisis, for example, caused a reassessment of even common-sense measures such as improvements to healthcare and the labour-force participation of women.
2. the radicalism which follows. In order to restore faith in progress and the obligatory notion that we will be better off than our parents, a radical rethink is ordered. The desire to reassure voters about their children’s prospects after the financial crisis has, for example, powered the British government’s most radical economic policies.
3. the refusal to accept the unfairness of disaster. Biblical disasters hit only the wicked while the good were saved. Modern crises, by contrast, are distinctly unfair, affecting the innocent and allowing free-riders to escape. It is thus imperative to impose reason and justice on them. Sinners, such as bankers, must be converted or punished.
Back at the Euro-crisis, these symptoms are clear. Sinner states are being punished. The policies that launched the Euro have been written off, and radical new measures proposed. Where political progress has been achieved, it is only with the aid of a relentless series of disasters. And all the while, from the sidelines, the sceptics wait for the Euro’s collapse and rehearse their told-you-so’s.
The deadlock in the Eurozone as a showdown between northern European Protestantism and Greek-style fatalism? That would be a little too neat. But the EU would certainly save a lot of time and money if those who believed in the inevitability of a break-up were a little less fatalistic and if those pursuing further integration did not make progress quite so contingent upon disaster.