In recent weeks I’ve been working on a new edition of  ‘The European Union: A Very Short Introduction’ (OUP, all good bookshops, etc…), since one of two things have happened since the 2007 edition came out.

The exercise has been a good one for me, asking me to step back from the more parochial concerns of my various research interests and consider the bigger picture of European integration.

Indeed, it has forced me to ask how I understand and frame the current situation, which looks decidedly poor. An economic and financial crisis that has run almost uninterrupted since the previous edition came out; the constitutionalisation project laid out at Laekendashed on the reefs of public opinion and elite non-engagement; a stalling of the EU’s role as a global leader in environmental protection and trade liberalisation; even a questioning of fundamental aspects of the EU, such as free movement. All of these can be taken as emblematic of the Union’s downfall and collapse. Certainly, to read of the constant disagreements about such key actions as supporting failing Eurozone economies and to witness civil unrest on the streets of more than one capital city makes it hard to be optimistic.

And yet, I have found myself being just that. The basic logic of integration, of working together to find common solutions to common problems, and of providing mutual support in a globalising world, still holds true.

This is not to say it’s pretty or cost-free, but rather that the underlying necessity remains and ultimately I have confidence that this will work its way through. I recall that the Union has had a history littered with failures: the European Defence Community; the Empty-Chair crisis; British renegotiation of the treaty and then the budget; ERM’s collapse; the Constitutional Treaty (indeed, all treaties since Maastricht). This should suggest that there is a capacity to find solutions in the longer-term, even if it has made some rather blase about stumbling into a new crisis.

One could argue that ‘this time it’s different’, given the scale and scope of the problems and of the potential solutions and one would have to concede this to some extent: even what has been agreed so far, from the SixPack to the EFSF and ESM (opening its doors this week) to the Fiscal Compact – all will have far-reaching impacts on the lives of millions, both inside and outside the Eurozone. But this should not mean that no solution is possible. If we look around, we might find a number of more positive signs.

Firstly, we see an emerging debate about strengthen economic and fiscal union, which has the potential to resolve some of the fundamental challenges posed to the Eurozone. Secondly, we see that solidarity between member states does remain: Merkel’s visit to Athens was intended to support, not undermine, the Greek government (albeit with limited success). Thirdly, we see how David Cameron has evaded a definitive commitment to a British referendum, suggesting an understanding of the potentially very deep costs that could incur.

So as I have turned to the book’s conclusions, I have largely retained their positive tone, for I do genuinely feel both that solutions are possible and that those solutions will involve an European Union that continues to play a significant role in our lives.

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There is an embarrassment of riches that could be discussed this week, even under this heading: from ACTA to referenda, the issue of the EU seems to be gaining media profile, if not public interest.

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My German colleagues were certain: Germany was going to kick Greece out of the euro: but which one? I considered it unprecedented luck being in Berlin on the day of the Greece v. Germany football match for the semis of the Euro 2012 championships, during my participation at the EPSA annual conference. Walking alongside the former East and West Cold War borders, fans had been gathering by the Brandenburg Gate early on to watch the game on the big screens. I was surrounded by thousands of Germans in full attire of flags, face paint and other team paraphernalia and had to remain under the radar about my national identity. The outcome of the game was humbling but the excuse was that a small team like Greece was taking up one of the strongest teams in the world. Nonetheless, the message on the posters on Karl-Marx Allee was clear the following day: Ouzo and Out! (Yet still in the Eurozone.)

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Yesterday’s elections in Greece and France might be seen as a vindication of what little strategy European leaders have presented to date:  the former’s confirmation of New Democracy suggesting a desire to engage with the bailout agenda; the latter opening up the way for a new growth agenda.  No more big challenges until the German federal elections in late 2013 and the job’ll sort itself out.

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During a roundtable discussion on elections last night here at Surrey, I was asked what the impact would be of Hollande’s election on the existing European-level agreements on austerity.  After some metaphorical beating around the bush, I replied that I thought the impact would be marginal, akin to a child who gets some crayons and is allowed to draw a pretty picture while the grown-ups get on with the real business.

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As is often observed, a week is a long time in politics, and this has been a particularly long week.  From the EU’s perspective, the high points have been the re-election of the pro-EU government in Armenia and the failure yesterday of eurosceptics to get the hashtag #NotoEU trending on Twitter.  Not particularly glorious for such a symbolically important week.

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Perhaps it’s been the two weeks of unrelenting rain here, but it’s been hard to be too optimistic about the EU of late.  David Cameron’s remarks at the weekend about being less than halfway through the Eurozone crisis have only been reinforced by the poor economic figures, tetchy ECOFIN meetings, potentially deeply problematic elections in France and Greece, not to mention the fall of another government (this time in Romania).

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What is happening in Greece?

The economy is collapsing. Society is also under great strain, as many people are becoming too poor to look after their families. Unemployment is now more than 20%. Many parents are taking their children to orphanages because they can no longer afford to feed them. The numbers of homeless people are growing day by day. Many of these are people who used to have good jobs and seemingly solid incomes before they lost everything in the recent crisis. Many observers are comparing this situation to the Great Depression of the 1920s/1930s.

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To pick up on the theme of last week’s post, I have been thinking more about the message that the installation of technocrat governments in Greece and Italy sends out.

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As we wave (slowly) goodbye to both Papandreou and Berlusconi, it’s worth reflecting that neither departure solves the current eurozone crisis in of itself.  Instead, it merely removes some barriers (both real and imagined) to salvaging something from the whole sorry episode.

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