As 2015 came to an end, two cities on opposite sides of the world shut down due to safety concerns: alert levels were raised to their highest, schools and business were closed, and transport was restricted.
Both city shutdowns made international headlines. Both city shutdowns did not come as a surprise to experts – each had shown a dangerous trend in the past. Both cities are capitals and begin with a B. But that is where the similarities end. One of the shutdowns was reported as the predictable and somewhat inevitable, though regrettable, consequence of spectacular economic growth. It made headline news, but only briefly, and it was not accompanied by much analysis. The other shutdown was accompanied by analyses of whether it was the capital of a "failed state" (Politico) and a continent "that doesn't even matter"(Foreign Policy). Optimism triumphs in one of the cities, while stark realism is the modus operandi in the other. The two cities are, of course, Brussels and Beijing. Brussels was shut down due to an "imminent threat" of terrorism while Beijing was shut down two weeks later due to air pollution.
The two shutdowns and the reaction to them provides an opportunity to examine the contrasting narratives surrounding Beijing and Brussels, and for the purpose of this article, the gloomy narrative surrounding Europe. This year has been a catalogue of crises for Europe. In fact, the newer crises threaten to induce collective amnesia vis-à-vis the older ones. A brief recap is in order.
The crises started in January with the election of Syriza in Greece, a party that nobody knew what to do with. Fast forward several months and Greek banks were closed, capital controls imposed, Greek voters rejected a bailout proposal by the European Commission, and analysts put a Grexit at 50-50.
This was promptly forgotten due to the refugee crisis. By the end of April over a thousand refugees had drowned in the Mediterranean and hundreds of thousands had arrived on the shores of Europe. The arrivals increased as the year went on. In the third quarter of 2015 alone more than 410,000 first time asylum seekers officially registered in the EU.
The EU institutional response has been impotent, and responses from national governments have varied from admirable to outrageous. Unfeasible promises were made, walls were erected, and predictably racism reared its ugly head. Most significantly, after almost two decades of success, Schengen – the paragon of European integration - began to crack as border controls were reinstated between several countries.
The migrant crisis briefly took backstage when the Paris terror attacks occurred, all the more invidious because the city was still hurting from the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January of this year. Throughout the year the different fears of terrorism and migrants combined to create a toxic political cocktail, contributing to the rise of nationalist parties throughout the EU.
In addition to anti-immigration policies, many of these parties are anti-Brussels. The Front National may be the best known of these parties, especially after their recent victory in the first round of the regional French elections in December, but they are only one of many. Poland, one of the clearest EU success stories of the past years, has a new governing party which is openly Eurosceptic and symbolically removed the EU flag from their press room. In Hungary, Prime Minister Victor Orban has closed borders with Serbia and Croatia and brought razor wire fences back into vogue. In the traditionally liberal states of Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands nationalist parties are topping the polls. And to wrap it all up, David Cameron announced a UK referendum on EU membership.
Economic malaise, unheard of levels of immigration, terrorism, and the rapid rise of nationalist and borderline xenophobic parties: 2015 has been such an awful year for Europe that crises on its borders (except ISIS) are mostly dismissed. Fighting in Eastern Ukraine, civil war in Libya, autocracy in Turkey, Crimea? Where is that again?
The different crises in Europe are particularly pernicious because their drivers are both internal and external, both economic and cultural. And because none of them are even close to being resolved: the Greek debt-crisis for example has not gone away, no matter how much it is relegated in the news. These crises have led to a spate of scathing opinion articles in international media outlets, leading to questions of whether the EU is splintering and whether Europe is still relevant as a continent.
In times like this perspective is necessary. To provide some much needed perspective let us compare Europe to the two other economic giants, China and the USA, before talking a brief look at some of Europe's forgotten difficulties of the past 25 years.
Time to return to the opening of this article and the respective city shutdowns in Beijing and Brussels. Imagine if the "airpocalypse" experienced in Beijing had occurred in any European capital. The pollutants experienced are more than fifteen times higher than the World Health Organization's threshold for what is dangerous. Visibility is limited to several hundred meters for days on end. This human disaster causes direct suffering to hundreds of millions, yet is treated as an almost inevitable consequence of China's meteoric economic growth. This growth is the reason for Chinese optimism. If even half of the smog levels were experienced in a European capital it would be taken as yet another piece of damning evidence that Europe is helpless and in decline.
Double standards in the media are nothing new and it is facetious to compare Brussels and Beijing because of their myriad differences, but the real point is that a bit of global perspective is helpful when analysing the current European crises. Hundreds of millions of Chinese are willing, or economically driven, to live in cities that are daily poisoning them, yet many Europeans still envy Chinese economic growth (while per capita GDP in China is still at less than one sixth of Germany). Of course, Europe is no pollution free paradise: Brussels is actually one of the most congested and polluted cities in Europe and London even scores higher than Beijing on the harmful chemical nitrogen dioxide. However, annual "off-the-charts" pollution levels accompanied by smog that limits visibility to less than 200 meters in dozens of major cities is unthinkable in Europe. For all the hoo-hah around last year's airpocolayspe in Beijing, one would be forgiven for not knowing that Beijing is not even in the top ten most polluted Chinese cities.
A more fair comparison for Europe is the United States. Terrorism, Immigration, and nationalism have been themes of 2015 for Europe. What about in the US? Europe is reeling from terrorist attacks, but it remains a much less violent place to live than the US. Earlier this year President Obama tweeted "Here are the stats: Per population, we kill each other with guns at a rate 297x more than Japan, 49x more than France, 33x more than Israel." Naturally this tweet resulted in bickering about the methodology used, and indeed it is difficult to compare violence rates between different countries that use different definitions and data sets. However, depending on your calculations and definitions there have been between 4 and 355 mass shootings in the US in 2015 alone, and you are between 5-20 times as likely to die a violent death in the US than in Europe.
As to the rise of xenophobia, racism, islamophobia, and the building of walls in Europe, two words are all it takes to show that these issues are shared on both sides of the Atlantic: Donald Trump. What makes this example supremely illustrative is not simply that many of his statements would make Victor Orban blush, but that he is the most popular candidate of the Republican Party, a party that represents almost half of the American electorate. Trump's views strongly resonate with millions of Americans. Making sense of immigration, multiculturalism, globalisation, and re-emerging nationalism is not so much a European issue as a Western, and arguably a global one.
As a final note, it is also important to remember recent history and some of the more difficult chapters in European history of the past 25 years to keep expectations at the right level. With all the anti-Brussels rhetoric today it is easy to forget that in 1989 Britain and France were opposed to German reunification and wanted to keep the country split. Prominent academics predicted instability in Europe and the likelihood of a nuclear arms race between different European powers. A Greek pensioner may still wish that Thatcher had been able to keep Germany split, but the idea of a nuclear arms race between Germany and France is now scoffed at.
It is also easy to forget that Europe experienced a war and genocide only twenty years ago. In 1995 European powers stood by helplessly as the Bosnian War and Srebrenica unfolded. Action was only possible when the US took the lead. A united Europe has always been a weak international actor and to think that it has lost relevance as a global player is to misunderstand the role of the EU. The EU is the largest economic zone in the world and that by itself is enough to make it extremely relevant globally. But the EU has always had a mediocre record of foreign policy and that is unlikely to change.
Finally, atrocious as the Paris attacks were, the Madrid bombings in 2004 were more deadly and occurred three days before a general election. Much more importantly, with all the talk of terrorism it is disturbingly easy to forget that the real killers in Europe are heart disease and stroke, and that this year more than a hundred times as many people will die in traffic accidents in the EU than from terrorism. Terrorism breeds hysteria, but silent killers are much more lethal. In 2003 more than 70,000 Europeans died from a heat wave, but that has long been forgotten.
To conclude, 2015 has not been kind to Europe, but then it has not been kind to many parts of the world. European integration is fragile but is has always been fragile. Xenophobia is a problem in Europe, but it is equally a problem in the US. Terrorism is a real threat, but a statistically miniscule one compared to dozens of threats we routinely ignore. All things considered, the EU remains one of the richest and safest places to live in the world, which is part of the reason why so many refugees dream of exchanging Homs for Hamburg and Baghdad for Brussels.