Monday, July 24, 2017

The EU - from the Bottom — What a crazy belt buckle taught me about the EU

Like Mayor Jahns in Hugh Howey’s “Wool”, EU leaders should take a trip down the silo to find out whether they are removed or not. They could be surprised how much hope there still is for the EU and its promises. But they are running out of time.

My family and I just returned from a vacation on the Italian island of Sardinia. Like most tourists we visited the markets and bought little gifts for the kids and friends, mostly handcrafted things. As I am writing this, I am getting more concerned about the bull head belt buckle my son chose causing severe injury.

As the trader adjusted the belt for my son, we got to talk about our families' respective histories. Her parents had left Sardinia for Argentina where she was born. Indeed, she was named Argentina after her parents' new country. They emigrated because they literally had nothing to eat after WWII. After several years, they returned to their island, a decision Argentina now regrets. As she punched holes into the belt we just purchased, she went through a litany of Italy's economic woes, which according to Argentina were even worse on her home island. 
Rising prices, no jobs, especially for the young, the tide of immigrants who in her own words had it even worse than the Italians. It turns out, her own situation mirrored what is going on in the country and especially in Sardinia. Argentina claimed she could give us a bit of a discount this time, but wholesale prices for the next batch of goods she expected had just been raised. Other than tourism, there were no opportunities for the people of Sardinia. She continued that the island’s economy could not compete against the mainland in anything. The farms were too small and inefficient and only some rich islanders were able to reap the benefits of what the tourist industry brought to Sardinia. At this point, she sort of stopped herself as if she feared anyone else was listening.
Argentina has two sons in their early 20s. The older had emigrated to Rome, as she put it. After dropping out of a computer programming program, he is now scraping by on a job with the fashion retailer H&M which only hires the very young on temporary jobs. These jobs don't require companies to pay any benefits it seems. The younger one sat somewhat listlessly next to her, guarding the cashier and helping out. I had the impression this was not because Argentina needed his help but wanted her son to have something, anything, to do.
"The EU is not a union", Argentina said at some point. It was interesting that she didn't necessarily blame the Italian state. Yes, she did complain about how badly it handled the current situation but I believe what Argentina expressed was something like lost hope in something bigger that didn't deliver what she - and presumably others - hoped for.
On the upside, people still expect something from the EU. I saw more EU flags flying from official buildings and hotels than in most other European countries I visited. The downside is that the EU is running out of credibility. While the attention is on Brexit, unless the EU manages to conjure up tangible improvement for people like Argentina and her family, it will become the victim of local politics.
Argentina is educated, she has been around and seen things. Based on her comment on immigrants she doesn't strike me as someone who would easily fall for an extremist party. However, if people like her see her family's efforts to simply make a living, if not to advance, thwarted by corruption, the establishment hoarding opportunities for themselves vis-a-vis the state's and the EU's inability to reform, then all it needs is a local champion with a simple message to bring down one institution after the other.
Since 2016, a lot of things happened that only in 2014 most pundits and politicians would have dismissed as impossible. If politicians spent a little more time down the silo, they would have heard from Argentina and others about long term trends that many pundits simply missed.


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