A friend of mine is convinced that Europe is heading for war. His view is based on the fact that the United Nations is standing by limp as Kosovo moves to build an army, violating a 1999 UN resolution. He’s convinced that if they do that, war with Serbia is inevitable.
I’m not clear on how that local war might become a continental one but another friend thinks that Brexit is a disaster primarily because the European Union (EU) has prevented war in Europe. He talks about how both his grandfather and his father fought in the First and Second World War, respectively, and how he believes he avoided having to fight in a war because of the existence of the EU.
I’m not sure whether I agree that war is on its way but I do think there are enough reasons to worry.
For me, the biggest reason is how the liberal elite (or the “urban elite”, as my first friend calls them) is deaf to what the rise of so-called populism is telling them. People are not happy with their lot and absent any clearly defined enemy they’re thrashing out at whatever they can. That has tended to be by supporting any politician that offers them easy answers in a world made too complex for nation states by the free movement of capital - in other words, globalisation.
Proof of deafness came from a third friend. She’s considering a political career. She’s smart and well-connected and I think she’ll do well. However, over dinner she made the comment that people who voted for populists were “stupid” as they’d made themselves poorer. This dismissal of people’s discontent really worries me. Although it may well be the case that people lower down the socioeconomic gradient acted against their economic interests, reducing their actions to a single, derisory word illustrates the very disdain that people are rising up against. It also illustrates a lack of understanding of how people think.
The U.K. is trapped in a Brexit echo chamber right now; it’s very hard to get any news beyond the minutia of the “negotiation”. But if we looked further afield we’d see that there really is trouble out there. Hungary is an autocracy. Poland isn’t much better and has even restricted access to abortions. Italy has had enough of being the “migrant sponge” of the EU and only just beat off the worst of Germany-mandated austerity. France has realised it wasn’t a beacon of hope in Europe by voting for Macron (as it told itself and anyone else listening) but the desperate last throw of the neoliberal dice, a gamble that the yellow vests are making clear hasn’t worked as they continue to protest against “the President of the rich”. And even usually-reliable and generally-socialist Sweden has shifted to the right. Trouble. Trouble. Trouble.
Going back to Serbia, I don’t really understand why the country has been left to fester after the Balkan wars. Surely, Europe learnt its lesson after doing that to Germany after the First World War? Apparently not. So, I wouldn’t be surprised if the region becomes the spark to set alight Europe’s broader kindling (although, again, I’m not sure how it’d become continental). As for Brexit and the EU, I think the idea that the latter has prevented war has become increasingly nostalgic as the EU’s focus has become economic and political consolidation, rather than cultural and social solidarity. Indeed, this change in focus may well be furthering the anger across the nations in the EU, rather than the other way around.
Going back to the deafness and trouble, it seems pretty clear to me that we need to go back to understanding people and communities rather than being obsessed with supranational structures. I’m not saying we do the former over the latter; we need both. But right now, I don’t think we have nearly enough of the former. Indeed, I think the obsession for the latter reflects a mistrust of the former.
So, are we heading for war in Europe? I guess, despite my earlier ambivalence, my answer is, “probably, yes”. With some luck, we’ll see the initial spark and do something to prevent its spread. And by ‘something’ I mean truly reflecting on the world we’re building. But even as I write that, I don’t believe it. The ‘something’ we’re more likely to take is military and economic (sanctions), not self-reflective. Such is the knee-jerk way of the political elite right now.
So, perhaps the “probably” in my answer is wishful thinking.
Happy new year and all that.
Dr Pritpal S Tamber MBChB
My work is all about improving health and health care through evidence. It spans medical publishing to community health, taking in technology and innovation, and is influenced by growing up in a working-class community. For more, see my homepage.