How Europe's 'unity in diversity' is cracking slowly

Europe lacks even one extraordinary leader who can steer it through the crisis

Beethoven’s uplifting Ode to Joy is the European Union’s anthem. Its exuberance is arguably appropriate. Compared with most others, Europeans experience a free, stable and prosperous way of life, “united in diversity” and where, the ode exults, “even the worm can feel contentment”.

But now the continent braces a winter of public discontent. People are frustrated and fearful. A sure sign of public dissatisfaction is that across Europe, ruling parties—centre, right and left—are plummeting in opinion polls. Every country has its specific troubles—Sweden battles crime, France faces street protests, Britain copes with strikes. But one crisis rages across all countries—inflation. The cost of living crisis has eroded Europe’s comfortable quality of life.

Imaging: Bhaskaran Imaging: Bhaskaran

Covid-19 and the ongoing Ukraine war has pushed Europe into extraordinary times. But the consensus is that Europe lacks even one extraordinary leader who can steer the continent through this crisis. Let alone solutions or solace, leaders seem incapable of even offering rhetoric. The Germans have a word—dunkelflaute—the dark lull, when the sun sets and the wind is still, when you are literally in the doldrums. It is a metaphor for Europe’s current state of mind—and its energy crisis. Winter unfolds the full impact of the absence of cheap Russian energy from European factories and homes.

France discusses power cuts. Lights are switched off or turned down low even in luxury Parisian showrooms, reflecting the dim mood of the nation. Britain is too proud to admit rationing. Instead, it urges citizens to come home from work and shower, use dishwashers and washing machines after 9pm when peak energy consumption subsides. British experts advise, “Don’t waste energy by heating the whole room, just heat your body—wear sweaters to keep warm in unheated rooms.” Households are asked to sacrifice necessities, not luxuries.

Facts lie buried amidst the battlefield ruins of this war. Russian gas serviced 55 per cent of German needs. Now, Germany’s dirty coal consumption has skyrocketed from 8 per cent to 23 per cent. Europe is committed to green energy, but 95 per cent of solar panels come from China, reportedly the next battle ground. Europe now pays four times more for imported American LNG. President Biden’s green subsidy to American companies threatens to ruin European industries. European MP Tonino Picula says US actions are “regrettably protectionist.” French and German finance ministers flew to Washington to persuade a self-absorbed United States that such subsidies provoke European wrath. Discontent spreads from citizens to bureaucrats, who now give off-the-record interviews to western media complaining about “American war-profiteering”, asserting “the country that has benefited most from this war is the US that is selling weapons and gas at much higher prices than ever before”.

Thus far, Europe is united over the Ukraine war, but differences fester. East European countries—former Soviet republics—are hostile to Russia, but Italy and Hungary want good relations with Russia. Some ordinary citizens privately air their disapproval of the war but are reluctant to go public due to the current culture of political correctness. Leaders who criticise the war are ignored or mocked. In a recent interview to the French newspaper Le Parisien, Pierre de Gaulle, grandson of the legendary 20th century French statesman Charles de Gaulle, lamented the West had “unfortunately let (Ukrainian President) Zelensky, his oligarchs and neo-Nazi military groups lock themselves into a spiral of war”. Time heals, but it also unravels. Europe’s ‘united in diversity’ is cracking slowly into ‘disunited in adversity’—where even the worm turns.

Pratap is an author and journalist.