Look at this colorful map of Europe. It indicates the number of patents submitted to the European Patent Office from 2008 to 2012. The states of Southern Germany are of a shining green, while Eastern and Southern Europe share a homogeneous red. Red represents the regions which submitted fewer patents, and green indicated the ones that turned in more. A Twitter user who shared the map, originally posted on this website, included a short caption: “This is perhaps the most important map of Europe.”
The map is telling, and it confirms the tendency described by historian Tony Judt in the closing chapters of his book Postwar. Judt wrote that the regions of the “common zone of European economic privilege” — Spain’s Catalonia, Italy’s Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna, France’s Rhône-Alpes, southern Germany, and so on — have become increasingly detached from their countries’ poorer areas.
This regional disparity has had a decisive effect in the construction of a European identity, since a new set of mental borders has displaced the traditional national divides: the well-educated, well-travelled elites with white-collar jobs are more likely to identify with their counterparts in other capital cities, rather than with the uneducated, non-urban populations of their own countries.
Judt already established the existence of two types of Europeans back in 2005, before the crisis deepened the regional disparity. On one end, what he described as a sophisticated elite of “men and women, typically young, widely traveled and well-educated.” On the opposite end, the sedentary and uneducated majority, who feel they have fewer incentives to praise European institutions.
Neil Fligstein, a contemporary sociologist, reached similar conclusions. To Fligstein, interaction is essential when it comes to identifying with a particular community; and while a European identity isn’t strong at any level of the social strata, the more likely to feel European are the “white-collar workers who have the opportunity to travel, speak second languages, and interact with people like themselves in different countries.”
Fligstein noted how, for a vast majority of Europeans, lack of mobility and language skills are still a major hurdle. “Europe so far has been a class project,” he wrote. “A project that favors the educated, owners of businesses, managers and professionals, and the young.”
Fligstein wrote his analysis in 2008, when the last-longing effects of the financial crisis were yet to be seen. Almost ten years later, the political and social effects of regional disparity have intensified and become a central challenge for the EU.
On one hand, some of the regions of the “common zone of European economic privilege” have become more aware of the setbacks of having to subsidize their countries’ less developed areas. The Catalan separatist movement, for example, gained supporters after 2012, when the Spanish government refused to negotiate a new financial agreement; the idea settled that the Catalan society would be less unequal without the burden of Spanish interregional solidarity.
Meanwhile, in some of the most punished regions, joblessness and lack of opportunities have been translated into resentment towards the Eurozone, which is perceived as an economic liability, or else towards the influx of migrants that intensified in 2015 — even though the regions voting for xenophobic political options aren’t usually the ones receiving more migrants, as seen in the case of eastern Germany in the 2017 federal election.
Both the rise of separatist aspirations and Eurosceptic populism pose a question mark to the process of European integration. Lately, several media outlets have addressed the urgency of fixing this reality, rather than relying on stopgap measures.
In October of 2017, The Economist ran a cover story which reflected upon the necessity of stimulating the places “left behind” by globalization — the “red areas” on the patents map — on the basis that these have become the hotbed for populism and Euroscepticism. As the article points out, in the former communist länder of Eastern Germany, a far-right populist party received support of 20 percent of the voters; it was France’s “economically battered north” that supported Le Pen’s xenophobic Front National; and while most London boroughs voted “Remain” in the Brexit referendum, the “Leave” vote triumphed in “areas of alienation” such as Teesside.
The Economist article reads the phenomenon of the “left behind” regions from a global standpoint, noting that globalization has widened the fissures within richer economies. Multinational companies seek cheaper labor and favorable legislation to advance their goals in developing countries; as a result, “those in poor economies grow richer while rich countries’ workers get poorer.”
The “brain drain,” or the emigration of the most capable people, is another major hurdle for the homogenous development of European regions, both in a national and international scale. As it can be inferred by the map of European patents, the entrepreneurs and the technologically savvy are likely to concentrate in the “green areas” of central Europe, or else move to their own country’s technological cores. This tendency adds up to the sense of abandonment of the “left behind” regions, contributing to the spiral of resentment and detachment.
Judt’s Postwar ends on an optimistic note, suggesting that the continent has learned from the chaos and violence it experienced in the 20th century, and that “the twenty-first century might yet belong to Europe.” It is indeed possible that all the setbacks experienced in latest years are just short-term imbalances, and that they will eventually settle down, in the common interest of not going back to the hellhole of unleashed nationalism and genocidal warfare experienced in the previous century. But in the light of recent trends, it would be wiser not to take any of the last decades’ achievements for granted.