• The London Financial

Once Upon A Time In Europe

By Cristiana Sandeva, MA Political Economy of the Middle East at King's College London

Almost everything which used to characterise a "European" lifestyle is now not a covid-proof activity. Sitting at a café, going on dinner dates, enjoying a theatre play, a movie opening, a public gathering in a square in summer, visiting museums, travelling across the Schengen area, hopping on planes and trains and buses with an inexpensive ticket one just bought out of boredom. One could be from Poland, work in Germany, get married in Denmark, get tanned in Greece, gain weight in Italy, get high in the Netherlands, get drunk in Spain, get inspired in France and get back to work at a moment's notice. This was possible not only because it was allowed but also because a quality lifestyle in Europe was affordable. Someone working at a restaurant, at a hotel, in a shop, would be able to maintain themselves, their potential family, and to take two weeks off in August to go somewhere and enjoy time off from their modern middle working-class life. Twelve months since the first lockdowns started being implemented across the EU, the situation is worse than it has ever been and worse than any policymaker might have expected.

The total unemployment rate in the EU is 6.7 %, with 12 countries rating unemployment above 6%. Youth unemployment is 15.1 % for 15-24 year-olds and 9.1% for 25-29 year-olds. A year of distance learning for children and teens in primary and secondary education will likely prove detrimental to their mental health in the long run. And in the short run, it is proving to be a factor worsening social disparities. Families where parents used to work full-time jobs in one of Europe's key sectors - services - have been furloughed or fired and been unemployed for up to a year. Young people without higher education who would count on taking up unskilled jobs are unable to help their households, let alone move out. Young people with some degree of higher education who would count on taking up skilled jobs are unable to secure entry-level positions and enter the corporate job market.

The economic term which labels Europe's current condition is one from classic economic theory - depression. As of September 2020, Europe's GDP was announced to have shrunk by 11.8%, where depression is defined as a yearly GDP collapse of at least 10%. The depression in Europe is breathable, even through face masks. A study published by the Public Opinion Monitoring Unit of the European Parliament has recently shown that people across European countries all share a sense of distrust towards governments and incumbent material concerns about not making it till the end of the month - the most encountered terms throughout the survey are "uncertainty", "helplessness", "fear" and "anger".

The restrictions to the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine by Germany, France, Italy and Spain, with the low vaccination rate of the EU, compared to the UK and US, are all factors that are only contributing to the stagnation of the economy and the deepening of the depression. Social divides have risen more than seen before in the European Union, since its establishment, both within countries and among countries. People who were employed in the tertiary sector of the economy (70% of Europe's GDP) have been unemployed or working intermittently for a year now. Southern European states were affected worse than northern European states in the short-run and will be the ones to have to cope with the long-run consequences of lockdowns and travel bans, as the tertiary sector will be the last to resurrect.

Education, too, has been intermittent at all levels: not only has digital learning proven to be less efficient in educational terms, but it has also deepened the privilege gap. Bright students living in geographical areas with limited connection access (e.g. rural villages in southern Europe) and students living in low-income households have been forced into underperformance, becoming victims of circumstance. The worsening quality of education, together with the job market crisis and the growing gap between northern and southern Europe, will endanger the European Union as a whole shortly and might threaten its unity, with populist and nationalist parties advocating for unattainable recovery strategies likely to garner support in the coming years.

The class which has been affected most by the past year is the middle working class. Those who had everything and those who had nothing at all have not seen such a dramatic change for the best or the worst in their lives. Those who made ends meet and saved a loaf of bread for the future have now eaten crumbs they held; now, their lives are starting to crumble. Once upon a time in Europe, there was life, and there were lifestyles. In 2021, life for the people has been stripped down to existence, and lifestyles have become memories of the past. To exit depression, in economic and in psychological terms, aid and willpower are needed. European states need assistance from the EU, but the EU will likely need help from outside too. Willpower and hope will be required together with the external aid, but willpower and hope will not be enough to make for a substantial meal. From this year onwards, less Europeans will be able to look for job opportunities abroad. Brexit has meant that accessing the British job market for a foreigner will be as hard as accessing the American job market.

In a functioning European Union, the northwestern states would usually absorb the human capital of southern and eastern states, both the seasonal workers and the promising graduates. In a depressed EU, the system cannot be self-reliant and appears stuck in its own dead end. There is no panacea to cure the European Union. Still, a more efficient vaccination campaign and attempts to negotiate new schemes with the other leading western powers would be efficient starting points to implement a recovery policy. Along with that, European funds - both the general and country-specific ones - shall be utilised to foster a cross-country recovery. Instead of trying to save what is left of individual collapsing economies, a more solid European economic scheme could come out of this. The future of Europe as a Union might be either that or a dismantling. In the second case, the countries which would immediately suffer most would certainly be the southern and eastern ones, but the northwestern ones would also experience a shortage of human capital and diversity.

Once upon a time in Europe, there were lifestyles, variety, and comfort. Now there is depression. There are cures and therapies for that - but not all are equally effective and do not affect each sick patient in the same manner. How the EU will exit its first-in-a-lifetime proper economic depression will be an indicator for the union's future and its unity.

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