“We take ten minutes for lunch, while they spend three hours. You earn money here by working hard, and there by paying bribes. Our hard earned cash has been flowing southwards for years. The money is earned in the north, only to be squandered away in the south.”

The preceding litany may appear typical of a eurosceptic in northern Europe. However, I actually discovered it in an old notebook dating from 1990, when I travelled throughout the former Yugoslavia by train. The speaker was explaining to me the why the northern republics were keen to extract themselves from this “twisted” federation.

The former multiethnic state of Yugoslavia was in many respects a mini version of Europe. Wages in the north were as much as three or four times those in the south. In stark contrast to the north, the south suffered considerable unemployment. And in much the same manner as today’s Euro nations, there was a distinct sense of powerlessness in the former Yugoslavia towards “distant” authorities, which people felt did not really represent them. While the EU is faced with a democratic deficit, however, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia – a communist multiethnic state conceived by Tito (1892-1980) – was in fact a single-party state.

While today’s northern Europeans curse Brussels, Slovenians and Croatians back then viewed Belgrade as synonymous with everything that was wrong: it’s Belgrade’s fault that our money is being drained away; Belgrade is a patronising, incompetent jumble of bureaucrats. The former Yugoslavia also had a single currency, the dinar, which was symbolic of those “distant authorities”. It was a widely held opinion that unification with the other peoples was simply an ideological project straight off the drawing board, and therefore an unnatural setup.

Destruction of Yugoslavia — anything but planned

The northern republics put up with paying contributions as long as prosperity continued, and as long as the inhabitants failed to notice much of their further entwinement with the other regions. This all changed in the nineteen eighties, however, when Tito passed away, an economic decline commenced, and the north was obliged to save the south from bankruptcy. The current northern European slogan “not one more cent to the garlic nations” is eerily similar to the Slovenian one of that time: “no more funds for the biftek (beefsteak) zone”.

The populist revolt apparent in a number of EU nations is also similar to that in Yugoslavia a quarter of a century ago. There are clears similarities between politicians like Le Pen or Wilders and Franjo Tudjman or Slobodan Milosevic. To a man, they made their breakthrough on the back of nationalist discourse which had previously been taboo. And each of them took advantage of people’s frustration at authorities’ attempts to wrest both power and money from “their people”.

There is no point in debating the point whether the Dutch freedom Party (PVV) or the True Finns have their sights set on ethnic cleansing. This was not Milosevic’s intention either: he was first and foremost simply an opportunist politician with a pretty short-term view. And while he bore quite considerable responsibility for the destruction of Yugoslavia, it was anything but planned.

Big shots in the European Union also appear to bear awkward similarities to the Titoist apparatchiks. Both seem rather unpleasantly surprised at signs of unpopularity, time after time. Both categories of administrators appear to have become enveloped in a sort of cocoon, which they are loathe to leave.

Diminishing democratic support for Europe

The Presidency of the European Council is similar to that of Yugoslavia in the nineteen eighties in terms of its rotation. The Yugoslav presidents had the same sort of standing in the federated republics that Herman Van Rompuy does among us, namely that of one who is appointed far from his own circles. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the Eurogroup, is renowned for the following comment: “We all know what to do, we just don't know how to get re-elected after we've done it.” These are the sentiments of an administrator who fears the populace – if we first have to establish democratic support, then it will only lead to further delay and compromise.

However, diminishing democratic support for Europe could have a far more detrimental effect than simply delay. One lesson that can be learned from the collapse of Yugoslavia is that monetary union in an area where there is an economic divide between north and south is bound to face threat unless people are meant to feel jointly responsible for it in a manner that at least appears in some way democratic. In times of plenty, they have little difficulty accepting such unity. When times become hard, however, they are inclined to view it as the cause of the problems.

The most substantial difference between the former Yugoslavia and the European Union is that the latter comprises democratic nation states. Populists and nationalists can only survive in a field of opposing democratic forces. It has often been suggested that the federation might have actually survived, if only there were greater democratic support for it, it had a more democratic political system, scope for open debate and freedom of the press.

Elected politicians representing the European nation states could create this support and render monetary union something the inhabitants themselves opt for, rather than it being imposed upon them. Otherwise, every time there is a crisis or setback, the electorate will simply view – justifiably or not – all policy as something ‘imposed by Brussels’, much to the benefit of anti-European forces. And while this is unlikely to lead directly to the implosion of the EU, it will undoubtedly cause further dissatisfaction and obstruction, which can only be appeased if the merits are clearly evident and borne out by elected politicians.