“Waterloo” – Painting by Denis Dighton: British Hussars of Viviene’s Brigade
For several decades now, Europe has been a global symbol of stability, economic cooperation, and an infamously cumbersome bureaucracy. Setting aside the current conflict in Ukraine and the actions that followed the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, the last major international war on European soil ended decades ago – no small feat in a continent that has been at war with itself (and the rest of the world) for the better part of two thousand years. Europe’s various member states, to their credit, have for the most part been able to let their tumultuous histories remain in the past. But while Europe’s governments have mostly let bygones be bygones, every now and then an issue springs up.
A Different Kind of Monetary Struggle
June 18th 2015 marked the bicentennial of Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815 by a British, Dutch, and Prussian-led force at Waterloo – at the time a part of the Dutch Empire. Today the site lies in Belgium, and is the cause of a new challenge to Europe’s much-lauded unity. This time, a bureaucratic battle over commemorative coinage.
While the United Kingdom’s commemorative £5 coin drew little attention, Brussels was forced to scrap 170,000 newly-minted but yet undistributed €2 coins depicting the end of the battle. The complaint, filed by Paris, cited an “unfavourable reaction in France,” with the French telling Brussels that Napoleon’s defeat “has a particular resonance in the collective consciousness that goes beyond a simple military conflict.”
While the Belgians ultimately scrapped all 170,000 copies of the coin – at an estimated cost to the state of nearly $1.7 million – they announced on June 8 the introduction of a new commemorative coin, this time in €2.5 and €10 denominations. European banknotes are uniform in appearance across the customs union, but while EU regulation allows any member nation to veto the mintage of any new regularly denominated coin, Belgium invoked a little-used stipulation that member states can unilaterally mint a coin if an irregular denomination is used. The new coins, of which Belgium plans to create approximately 70,000, will be legal tender in Belgium only and are widely expected to be bought up almost entirely by collectors.
Critics of the French have pointed out that France is itself selling commemorative non-legal tender coins in Belgium at the base of the Lion’s Mound. France’s complaint, therefore, came as a surprise. As Belgian Finance Minister Johan Van Overtfeldt rightly points out, Europe “has plenty of other issues to deal with and challenges to overcome without wasting time and energy on this.” But while not in and of itself a major conflict, this latest case of European bickering is indicative of other challenges facing the Eurozone today.
In 2014 Eurostat reported 626,000 persons seeking asylum in the EU, up by 195,000 from the year before – the highest levels since 1992. Applications from Syria, Eritrea, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Iraq, Serbia, Nigeria, and the Gambia are all on the rise. 122,000 of these applications originate in Syria, where European leaders have struggled to decide on a unified response that takes into account cost, ability to shelter refugees, and the conflicting sentiments and allegiances of EU member states.
Asylum-seekers departing from Northern Africa for ports in Greece and Italy have led to a heavy burden on those countries’ already-struggling infrastructures and economies, a blow made double by European regulations which award funding to countries based on asylum applications (which are highest in wealthier, Northern European nations) rather than based on share of border responsibility (adversely affecting Southern nations such as Spain, Greece, and Italy).
In addition to refugees, Europe has faced higher oil, gas, and energy prices – partially, though by no means entirely, a result of its deteriorating relations with Russia. Recent movements for national sovereignty have shaken the trust of many Europeans, notably in Scotland which saw nearly half of its citizens vote for sovereignty. Right-wing nationalist and populist parties are emerging from the political shadows across Europe, making major gains and gaining public attention in countries from the United Kingdom’s UK Independence Party to Greece’s Golden Dawn. In Switzerland, the Swiss People’s Party achieved a record 29% of votes in 2007.
Unsurprisingly, Europe is also facing increasing issues with both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. While the media’s portrayal of a mass ‘Jewish exodus’ from Europe may be exaggerated according to reports by Huffington Post, VICE, and the Israeli paper Haaretz, there is no denying that the condition of Europe’s Jewry is also in decline. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that his country was “preparing and calling for the absorption of mass immigration from Europe.” The not-misplaced fear of European anti-Semitism was reinforced by France’s Interior Ministry, which reported that 51% of reported hate crimes in the country were perpetrated against Jews – despite Jews accounting for less than 1% of its population. In Greece, more than two-thirds (69%) of adults admit to harbouring feelings of anti-Semitism, which might explain the sudden popularity of its anti-immigration, anti-Macedonia, and anti-America Golden Dawn party, whose Euroscepticism has grown steadily more popular in Greece.
Greeks, however, are far from the only Eurosceptics on the continent: 2012’s Eurobarometer survey reported that just under 60% of Europeans did not trust the EU as an institution. Perhaps most worryingly, this distrust was as high as 75% in the UK – a state whose exit from the Eurozone would spell disaster for the union as a whole.
Choosing a Path
The French are often the subject of jokes, and Belgium’s response to Paris’ perhaps misplaced condemnation of the commemorative Waterloo coin was – as the online community quickly noted – hilarious. But less funny are the deep (and arguably widening) rifts between the union’s member states. The European project is at a crossroads, and its leaders need to make a choice: either take genuine steps towards aiding the union’s struggling economies and promoting acceptance of all its people, or allow long-standing nationalist tendencies to tear the continent apart.
Patrick O’Donnell is a student at McGill University, majoring in Political Science and Sociology. He previously attended the United World College in New Mexico, USA.