The European Union at 60: The Future Will be Brighter Than Many Expect
On March 24-26, the sixtieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome was celebrated in Rome. On this occasion, the twenty-seven member state representatives solemnly renewed the promise for a European Union as a project of peace and shared prosperity. The original treaty was signed on March 25, 1957, giving birth to the European Economic Community (EEC), which through various intermediate steps led to the creation of the European Union in 1993. The birthday celebrations were accompanied by many critical voices. As the twenty-seven EU leaders met in Rome with Pope Francis, who received the member state representatives with only British Prime Minister Theresa May absent after the Brexit decision, newspapers across Europe ran eschatological headlines such as “The EU Meets with the Pope to Celebrate the Funeral of Europe Were it Was Born.”
Yet these cheap shots aside, the European Union is likely to continue its existence and to meet new challenges. In the past sixty years, the EU has been a successful economic, political, and cultural unifying space; a social laboratory setting examples of pluralization, civil society, publicly regulated market economy, inclusive democracy, and transnational integration; one of the biggest single economic spaces in the world with sometimes slower, but sustained growth; and one of the areas at the forefront of technological innovation and demographic change. Europe is bound to further transform and to grow at many levels. In doing so, its future will be much brighter than expected by many observers today. There are a variety of reasons for such expectation. Let us take a brief look at some of them.
- The EU has been more successful than it’s given credit
During its sixty years of existence, the EU bloc was more successful than depicted. Yet every time it made a step towards more advanced patterns of integration—from the European Economic Community in 1957, to the European Community in the 1970s and 1980s, to the European Union in 1993—many observers arguing largely from the perspective of traditional national states construed and shaped by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries expected its partial or total failure: that it would sooner rather than later fall apart. This has been a recurrent topic until today, particularly in academic, economic, and political circles of the U.S. But the reality is, that every time the European Union (the only converging meta-national continental arrangement of its kind in the world, and as such, a child of the advanced second half of the twentieth century) was said to be lost, according to the prophets of doom, it went on to become bigger and stronger. Over the years, the European integration model of polycentric and multilevel governance was successful against the bets of many outside its realm, since it was, and remains, a historically young and new experiment that due to its complexity, many outside still do not understand. All signs indicate that it will continue to proceed against all odds.
One strong point of the European Union is its convincing long-term vision that has just started to be put into practice. As the former EU commission adviser Jeremy Rifkin, pointed out, the “European dream” of “unity in diversity” as reflected in an unprecedented, peaceful union of previously opposed nation states (now featuring freedom of movement of persons, services, and goods, and a common currency shared by eighteen of its member states), created a never-before-seen unification process between different cultures, histories, and identities without a hierarchical super-state. The “European dream” is and remains to be the most daring socio-economic and political project in modern history. Overlooking the events of the past two centuries, including the most recent years, this project has proven to be a necessity, not a fashion. It anticipates the needs of the greater, coalescent world, which getting smaller, will be forced to find similar arrangements of cohabitation and integration between previously conflicting nation states on different continents. This means that the globalized world will resemble the European Union much more than t China (with its forced unitarianism) or the United States (as the first experiment of a “society made of the whole of humanity”).
- The EU remains relevant
There are facts that underpin these claims. Even after Brexit, (which in its concrete steps may take a decade to be finalized), the European Union will remain one of the biggest single markets and unified economic spaces in the world with twenty-seven nations, 450 million citizens, and a combined GDP of 16 trillion (PPP), despite being barely recognized by global national players such as the US and China, which still count Europe in nations. Greater Europe, still including the UK, is setting the standard in terms of its financial sector. In times when global banks and the UN are trying to create international standards for Impact Finance away from speculation and into in the real economy, and when global Sustainable Investment is up 25 percent compared to 2015, Europe accounts for over half of the $22.89 trillion global assets in sustainable investment. Ironically, the EU with its sixty years of life is much younger than the U.S. (founded in 1776). Today’s EU faces the same deep (economic, monetary, political) skepticism by America and China that the U.S. itself faced by the side of European nations after sixty years of its existence in the first half of the nineteenth century. Such skepticism is not uncommon, but it is perfectly normal. Yet it says nothing about the factual quality or the perspectives of the project.
- Europe’s young new leaders will overcome populism
The European Union remains the most equilibrated geopolitical space during a time of inequality, which is threatening the socio-political systems of many societies around the globe. With its redistribution of funds, the EU will be the counter-project to the UK’s and the U.S.’ growing social inequality that gave rise to damaging populism. Although there is a rise of populism and anti-cosmopolitanism throughout the Union too, the tide could be turning soon. The impact of populism has been successfully limited in Austria in the presidential elections of December 2016, and in the Netherlands’ general elections of March 2017. It is likely to be tamed also in other nations by a new generation of young European leaders determined to bring the middle and lower class voters back to voting the centrist people’s parties, which were created by these classes after WWII. In the past few years, voters of the middle and lower classes increasingly voted class-unspecific, thus paving the way for populism, but are likely to re-align in the coming years by learning from experience.
The future of Europe will rely on a new generation of young, moderate, educated, and inclusive politicians who have already began constructing a new center against populism. Hope carriers for a new middle ground have been emerging across the Union: Emmanuel Macron in France, Matteo Renzi in Italy, Christian Kern in Austria, and Jan Śpiewak in Poland. There will be a new generation of politicians in Eastern and Central Europe, free from the burdens of communism and the post-communist transformation years. Europe’s young and moderate leaders are equipped to work better together in order to improve the cooperation between their states, while the anti-European populists may find better conditions to further expand their influence in re-nationalized countries disconnected from this development.
- Europe’s younger citizens are enthusiastic about the EU
Now more than ever, the youth in the EU-27 is clinging to Europe. It has been positively mobilized by Brexit and the ascent of Trumpism. Its outlook has become more European while certain countries in southern Europe have become more bleak. The EU is pumping billions of solidarity funds into its crisis nations, and the youth will remember this after the situation lightens. In Central and Eastern Europe, Eurocritical governments are facing Euroenthusiastic societies, with Poland and Hungary as leaders of this trend. In contrast to what Breitbart media claimed, Euroscepticism has been marginal both among the Polish citizens and among the 800,000 Poles living in the UK. Even the Eurocritical governments in Poland and Hungary are far from aspiring to “Polexit” or “Hungarexit,” which makes any comparison to the UKIP and France’s Front National misleading. To the European youth, the Brexit referendum showed the degree to which Euroscepticsm goes hand in hand with violent nationalism, manifesting itself for instance in numerous attacks on Polish citizens in the UK. According to the figures released by the UK Home Office, hate crimes soared by 41 percent after the Brexit referendum, largely committed by those supporting the UK leaving the EU. Both the European Union’s and the UK’s youth remain united in their firm statements against any form of violence, be it pro or contra the EU, although admittedly part of the violence against EU citizens was committed by younger UK citizens, some of them stemming from disadvantaged groups.
- The EU is reforming the way it operates
The reforms of the free movement principle, and of the cooperation procedures regarding pressing timely core issues, such as the refugee and security crises, envisaged by the EU-27 in Rome, may strengthen the Union towards a more just, differentiated, and balanced cohesion. The post-Brexit principle that the future EU will address the “big picture” questions (among them the basic protection of rights and a stronger joint foreign and global policy), leaving detailed regulations and partial issues to the single member states, may turn out to be an important stabilizing factor. This would only be a logical continuation of the EU’s principle of differentiated integration that the bloc has been applying for decades now.
- Brexit may be good news for both Britain and the EU
In the end, Brexit may be good news for both the United Kingdom and Europe. As European Commission head, Jean-Claude Juncker, pointed out immediately after the vote on June 23, 2016, Britain never felt fully part of the European Union, not to speak of the fact that many English citizens did (and do) barely feel European. In particular, before Brexit, English nationalism (mainly within the Tory party) had espoused far-reaching ambivalence towards the European integration, and toyed with jingoist sentiments of England’s imperial greatness. As a consequence, EU issues of further integration were increasingly poisoning the internal British political climate. As former premier, David Cameron, pointed out, this was the main reason he called for the Brexit referendum. With a consensual, clear, and clean separation, negotiated as Juncker announced “in a friendly and fair way,” a better partnership and progress for both Britain and the EU may be achieved, setting Britain free while in turn dissolving its decades-long blockade against a “more perfect union” of the other member states. Now serious progress in the can be made.
The continent’s institutions and infrastructure will be strengthened by taking EU institutions back to its founding members from Britain Throughout the UK’s membership, many European institutions and headquarters had been moved to the UK, which have now vowed to move back to the continent. The respective brain influx will help modernize the Union. Among the institutions moving back to the EU are the European Banking Authority, the European Medicines Agency, and the European Union Youth Orchestra, all formerly based in London. That doesn’t touch upon the Gibraltar question which may remain contested.
- The EU is learning from its mistakes
The EU is learning from its mistakes and will continue to do so. It has realized, for example, that its role as a global bringer of civil and human rights criticizing the whole world is not in tune with the cracks in its own normative credibility. For instance, despite the important role of human rights in the political discourse of the EU, it is well documented that third countries with poor human rights records are still frequent recipients of European weapons and military technology.
New self-limitation comes with new global self-assertion, and the expansion of influence. Former EU commission chief, Romano Prodi, is smart to propose that France transfer its UN security council seat to the EU, thus sharing responsibility and duties with its European partners and strengthening Europe’s global role as a bloc. Whether this is realistic in a short-term is secondary; the important aspect is it will ignite broad debate on Europe’s future role in the world.
A joint European army as a response to outside threats and terror, proposed by considerable part of the post-Brexit member states, is also good news for European integration. The practical debate on the issue has already begun. Interestingly, one of the more EU-critical governments—the Polish one—has suggested that the EU should become a nuclear power.
- International development fosters European integration
The authoritarianisms at Europe’s borders, such as in Turkey or Russia, and the election of populists, such as Donald Trump in the U.S., are paradoxical motors of European integration towards a “real” union. The Russia-Ukraine conflict, Turkey’s authoritarian turn, and the Trump administration with its protectionist and exclusionary trends will bolster the EU’s identity and its novel type of governance. Simultaneously, the reasonable voices within Europe’s outer partners will return, such as the signaled by Turkey’s premier Binali Yildirim, who in March called for moderation and good relations. While any protectionist policies are likely to hurt Europe economically, the EU could look for ways to deepen trade relations with countries abandoned by the US. For instance, after the Trump administration pulled the plug on the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP, the biggest trade agreement in history signed in February 2016 involving twelve of the Pacific Rim countries including Japan but not China), this might also be a chance for the EU to accelerate the current talks between the EU and Japan on their own Free Trade Agreement (FTA). The negotiations have been lasting for three years and involved sixteen rounds. Some experts expect the EU-Japan FTA to boost the European GDP more than the envisaged Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US might (0.8 percent against 0.5 percent).
- A sound future debate has started
Finally, a sound joint debate on the future of the EU has started. Juncker’s five future scenarios for the EU presented on March 1 are ultimately strong. They can form the basis for a constructive debate about feasible models of concrete joint progress. The EU of the coming years needs to be open to dialogue on alternative paths of development. In addition, it must avoid all TINA discourse (There Is No Alternative), as such reasoning puts pressure on the EU’s diversity and weakens its legitimacy even further. Under the conditions of a new dialogue, Juncker is right to expect the EU to grow again after 2018, driven by a new generation of optimism.
But there are prerequisites for such positive outlook. In the Italian national celebration preceding the Rome EU-27 celebration, with the two chambers of the Italian parliament united in honor of the EU on March 22, Italian president Sergio Mattarella stated:
“Often conscious, by the side of its leaders, of the necessary steps to take, Europe is at the same time also often insecure about which joint route concretely to embrace. We now need long-term visions, with the capability to experiment new and partly bold paths. Or by inverting words attributed to [Italian writer, painter and politician] Massimo d’Azeglio we could say: ‘Now that the Europeans have been made, it is necessary to make Europe.’ In fact, it is the persons, in particular the youth who already live in Europe, who are the guarantors of the irreversibility of European integration. We must direct the attention and the engagement of the Union towards them.”
And that means, transformed into concrete actions:
- Fix youth unemployment, particularly in the Southern states of the Union. A positive trend is already visible in this sector but more needs to be done.
- Proceed towards a new culture of inner-European debate by strengthening the participation of the youth, independent of party affiliation or ideology, and by overcoming TINA debates.
- Strengthen those elected democratic institutions who are directly related with the citizens such as the EU parliament thus “completing the still unstable union towards a more balanced one,” as Mattarella put it in another occasion. Also, europeanize the European Parliament by eventually creating joint electoral lists for parties from different countries, as it is long overdue.
- Fix the outer borders in order to tutelage the openness of the internal ones according to the Schengen agreement of open borders, for example by providing more competences and more funds to the European outer border protection agency FRONTEX. Illegal mass migration to Europe has to be stopped in order to expand and refine controlled legal immigration.
- Fight terrorism in more professional joint ways by better exchanging data and information. More competences, better funding and more personnel are to be given to the EU Intelligence Analysis Centre INTCEN.
- Establish a better coordinated foreign policy by strengthening the European External Action Service. Better coordination as well as better funding are long overdue, for example with regard to the economic and political relation to China still dominated rather one-sidedly by a few EU members to the disadvantage of others.
- Solve the double split between East-West and North-South within the EU. One measure could be the current proposal of the EU commission to introduce a new fiscal framework enforcing public spending as a countercyclical instrument. That would please both the Southern and Eastern member states while putting some additional burdens on the others. The quality of negotiations remains decisive in this realm.
- Fix the Eurozone by increasing the capacity of the European Central Bank (ECB) which should be able to act independently and openly. The condition for this is that the ECB has to respect and integrate the views and needs of those member states which tend to continue the austerity course, with reasons as good as those which don’t.
- Put a much stronger focus on the development of a common European public sphere, including a joint civil religion. A specific transnational European civil religion should be based on the ideals of the origins of European democracy in the French revolution of 1776, i.e. on humanism, reason, secularism, and enlightenment as trans-national and trans-cultural ideals. Such ideals should particularly be able to unify the youth by providing a strong joint inspiration and a shared idealism beyond borders, traditions and language barriers.
- Generally, make the EU more efficient in its decision-making but also more democratic and more coherent in its ideals by establishing a joint public sphere through massive investment in the creation, development and diffusion of transnational European media. A rejuvenation of the EU should be attained based on more information about joint issues combined with more access and participation rights for EU citizens. The absence of a mature joint public sphere remains one of the week spots of European integration.
Overall, the European Union, on its sixtieth birthday, must rejuvenate itself. It has to realize that U2 Singer Bono was right in asserting at the congress of the European People’s Party on March 7, 2014 in Dublin that “for all this progress, for all these achievements, nearly sixty years after the Treaty of Rome, Europe is an economic entity that still needs to become a social entity. Europe is a thought that needs to become a feeling.” Among others, German chancellor Angela Merkel seems to have understood this. As she assessed at the Rome celebrations, “we have to provide new energy to the European project by strengthening its ideals.”
As Austria’s chancellor, Christian Kern, put it in occasion of the Rome festivities, the European Union today is mainly two things: First, a project to better represent European interests in the world; second, on a higher level, a peace project. Yet new institutional steps need to be undertaken, new integration initiatives implemented and existing institutions revamped. Even though the EU has always been a work-in-progress, the time has come for the latter to be revisited. If Europe’s home work will be done properly, and if mind and heart will join and cross the bridges between European nations to form a true “unity in diversity,” a unity in which difference is not assimilated but freely brought together in pride and hope by the new generations, the future of a more conscious, more balanced, and more united post-Brexit EU may be much brighter than expected. Such an EU may be the inspiration for others, including the U.S., it aspires to be. Or as Jeremy Rifkin put it: “We Americans used to say that the American Dream is worth dying for. The new European Dream is worth living for.”
Roland Benedikter, Dr. is Research Professor of Political Analysis in residence at the Willy Brandt Centre for European Studies of the University of Wroclaw, Research Affiliate of the Global Studies Division (SGS) of Stanford University and Global Futures Scholar of the European Academy for Applied Research of Bolzano-Bozen. Author of “Italy: Matteo Renzi’s Reform Agenda 2014-16 and the Path from the Second to the Third Republic” (Springer International, forthcoming summer 2017).
Ireneusz Pawel Karolewski, Dr. is Chair of Political Science at the Willy Brandt Centre for European Studies of the University of Wroclaw, and Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Potsdam. Co-Editor of “European Identity Revisited: New approaches and recent empirical evidence” (Routledge 2016) and author of “Citizenship and Collective Identity in Europe” (Routledge 2010).
A brief version of this article was published by the London School of Economics LSE EUROPP blog on March 28, 2017.
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Published on April 4, 2017