Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 29 January 2020

The European project needs a major rethink

Paul Hockenos says the European Union has to redefine its role post-Brexit
The European Union is at a crossroads but who will take it forward?
The European Union is at a crossroads but who will take it forward?

The irony could hardly be greater – or more telling. On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the European Union’s founding, in Rome where its original treaty was signed in 1957, the continent’s most decorated and essential institution plans to announce a new blueprint for its own future. This vision, though its details are still hazy, will veer away from the Rome Treaty’s stated aim of “ever closer union” between the community’s members – a goal that has guided the EU through six decades of peace and, largely, of prosperity, too.

The original force behind the notion of a politically and economically united Europe has brought the bulk of the continent far in the direction of a single entity, as its framers intended, but not far enough to finish the job. The idealism of the post-war decades has evaporated and with it the willingness to surrender sovereignty in order to reap the benefits of a war-free, stable, liberal order. Until a new motivating ideal is found, the Europeans must scale back their ambitions around a lesser consensus.

The fact that the EU’s leaders have acknowledged that the historic project is in deep crisis and needs fixing is an encouraging step in the right direction, and testimony to the extent of its troubles. The final straw was Brexit, the United Kingdom’s shocking vote last year to leave the EU, which its parliamentarians are now pursuing just as their electorate instructed. Brexit came on top of multiple crises, not least the rise of far right-wing political parties across the EU, whose euroscepticism is central to their platforms and wins them adherents by the armful. Interestingly, their critique of the EU is not entirely off base. They call it distant, undemocratic, unresponsive to its citizenry and bureaucratic. But their nationalist solutions – to abandon the project and, effectively, to return to a Europe of the 1930s, would surely only make matters worse.

The euro crisis, which still lingers in southern Europe, is emblematic of the union’s plight.

A full-fledged monetary union and common currency among sovereign states is possible. But, as just about any economist will tell you, for it to work there has to be a very high degree of integration between its constituent economies. Most of the Eurozone members baulk at such a radical handover of traditional state powers, but are unwilling to forgo the obvious advantages of monetary union: a seamless single market boasting currency stability, exchange-free tourism, low interest rates and prestige on the world stage.

Like the euro, the EU is caught in the middle of a citizenry that craves the benefits of its membership but is unwilling to pay its full price.

This is why the EU’s leaders, a group dominated by the Rome Treaty’s founding signatories Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, propose some version of “multispeed Europe” that openly acknowledges that some countries want to integrate more closely than others on a given issue. It’s also called “Europe a la carte” and is not a new idea. For years, there has been such distinctions in the EU. For example, with the Eurozone, which 17 countries out of the EU’s 28 (27 once the UK actually leaves) belong to. This “Europe of concentric circles” will remove the straightjacket of consensus that makes progress on so many issues today virtually impossible.

But the admission that this modus Vivendi will be the rule and not the exception, as is currently the case, implies a very different EU than envisioned in the Rome Treaty. Now there will be two tiers: those out in front and those left behind. The same smaller countries, such as Poland and Hungary, that are profoundly unhappy with the dominance of the larger, western European countries, will have even less of a say than they do now. Their veto power on key issues will disappear and with it the formal equality between all members. The EU’s glaring democracy deficit will yawn wider. With the multispeed EU, Europe’s fissures will grow into permanent divisions, possibly making the EU less, not more, attractive to its discontents.

And this kind of tinkering – foremost a path of least resistance – will not have any remedial impact on the euro’s problems. The monetary union will remain neither fish nor fowl: neither a real monetary union nor a big free-trade zone. Until it makes up its mind, the next eurocrisis is right around the corner.

Indeed, the European project needs more than a new form, it needs a new purpose, an idea that rallies people behind it. One intriguing political utopia is that of a European Republic, espoused most eloquently by the German-French EU expert Ulrike Guerot. The republic means tearing down the EU as we know it and rebuilding from the bottom up.

But for this magnitude of undertaking Europe’s current politicos are too small and limited. They understand that the EU is at a crossroads but they’re unwilling to rebuild it in a way that will take it another 60 years into the future.

Paul Hockenos is the author of the forthcoming Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin

Updated: March 20, 2017 04:00 AM

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