Though the demise of the European Union may not immediately be in the offing, Brexit has shown that nothing can be ruled out. Christoph Hasselbach looks at six things the EU has done that are important to him.
“The EU was a noble idea for its time,” Boris Johnson, one of the “Leave” campaign’s most visible proponents and now potentially the next UK prime minister, said on the day of the Brexit referendum. “It is no longer right for this country.” Forty-eight percent of voters disagreed with him on Thursday, and the percentage of people in the other 27 EU member states is likely much higher. In fact, many citizens of member states could not imagine a future without the European Union. The relationship offers much – even things that we may never have known were made possible by the EU. Here are six things I would miss if there were no more European Union.
At the beginning of the 1980s, as Poland was under martial law and many were afraid of Soviet troops marching in, I took part in the transport of aid to the country. Just about every 50 kilometers (30 miles), a tank blocked the street and we had to stop to show our special permit to get through. Border controls took hours, first on Germany’s internal border, then even longer on the border between East Germany and Poland. They bullied us; we were at the mercy of the state. Today, you can freely drive from Germany to Poland across the Oder River without even needing to stop. The difference in free movement over the course of just a few decades is so phenomenal that even today it continues to blow my mind.
I have done a lot of travel, especially to Great Britain. In the 1980s and ’90s, flights were still too expensive and so I traveled by train to ports in Belgium, France or the Netherlands and onward to England by boat. That required continually changing money: I often had four different currencies on me – German marks, British pounds, French francs and Belgian francs – and that was for a trip that was just a few hundred kilometers. When I travel to the United Kingdom today, I only have to take two currencies; in supermarkets in France, I can compare prices with those in Germany and immediately know whether I can afford to buy that bottle of Bordeaux and if those strawberries are a rip-off (or vice versa).
Universal power cords
It is not until 2017 that electronics firms will be required to offer a universal power cord or charging cable on smartphones, tablet computers and mobile phones. The tangled mess of the various cords will thus be over – and the environment will get a little relief, too. That’s thanks to the EU, even if it did take a long time. Although the bureaucracy may appear exaggeratingly stiff at times, not every standardization it prescribes is awful. Now, Brussels, create a universal system for electrical outlets across the European Union, please: There are still too many different outlets.
Study abroad and exchange programs
I spent the winter semester of 1986-87 at a university in Spain, a newcomer at the time to what was still known as the European Economic Community. The country had just begun to implement the EEC’s academic structures, and so I had to organize my semester abroad myself. It worked, challenging my self-initiative as it did, but it was also a bit risky: There was nothing and no one that I could rely on. Today such exchanges are easier to take part in, have clearer structures and can be found EU-wide – meaning that many young people take part in order to get to know their neighbors and learn other languages.
Cross-border bank transfers used to be so expensive that it didn’t make fiscal sense to wire small sums. And these fees continued for a long time – until just before the new millennium was ushered in. Though the European Union is not always driven by the concerns of consumers enough to work toward their interests instead of the banks’, it worked in this case. Give us more like that!
Not only do the citizens of EU states elect their national parliaments – since 1979, they have directly elected members of the European Parliament. And their influence on EU law is continually growing. At the same time, the number of people who vote in parliamentary elections is dropping. As a correspondent, I reported on the 2009 elections and got to speak to an observer from Africa who said that many African nations have yet to achieve truly democratic and free elections. He was so shocked that so many citizens of EU states did not exercise their right to vote. I found that shameful, too. I would truly miss the European Parliament, with its somewhat colorful figures, diversity of languages and broad spectrum of opinions.