March 20, 2017
The outstanding successes of the European Union are its historic contribution to peace and reconciliation across the continent, its post-Cold War role in the ongoing transformation of 14 former dictatorships into democratic market economies, and the legal framework it has produced for its citizens. That framework is far from perfect but it protects consumers, workers and the environment, and underpins the single European market – an economy larger than that of the US and twice as large as China’s.
This is all at risk. The union may not survive a series of major threats. Its institutional structures need reform – the decades-long process of intergovernmental haggling is not fit for purpose. Public confidence has also drained away. Now, less than a third of Europeans “trust” the union and euroscepticism has become a continent-wide trend. Marine Le Pen’s Front National topped the poll in the 2014 European Parliament elections in France with 25% of the vote. One third of MEPs belong to eurosceptic parties.
Nor has Europe dealt adequately with the migration crisis that is placing an appalling burden on Italy and Greece. Only Germany and Sweden have stepped up to the plate, and the European Commission has struggled to gain acceptance for a common, proportional response to accommodating refugees. Meanwhile, the euro crisis rumbles on. The austerity inflicted on Greece and others has failed to resolve fundamental weaknesses, and worse, exacerbated wealth disparities.
Now there is Brexit. The departure of one of Europe’s three largest economies and its most important military power is a crisis in itself. Britain might just survive Brexit, becoming a right-wing Conservative dreamland, a low-tax friend to corporate elites in which a squeezed public sector offers crumbs to the poor and weak. But can the EU survive? Facing so many existential threats, what can be done?
EU governments must do what no British government has ever done – explain the benefits of the European Union to their people. They need to talk about everything from securing peace and promoting human rights to removing mobile roaming charges and cleaning up beaches and rivers.
Reform must address institutional weaknesses and begin a process towards constructing a genuine a European Republic. This must reflect citizens’ priorities, be democratic, participatory and responsive to regional needs. It must encourage social entrepreneurship, and involve NGOs, grass roots cooperatives, and green and youth movements. A European Republic must commit to defending public goods such as fair trade, human rights, the environment, and human security.
An EU meltdown would pitch Europe backwards towards interstate competition, rivalry, and even the conflict it was initially set up to prevent.
In Europe and the US, populist politicians peddle simple solutions to complex global problems. Europe must find its own popular vision. It must articulate an alternative to nostalgia and nationalism, which too easily descend into xenophobia and barbarism. Reform will take time, but unless the conversation starts now, it will never happen.
The union once had a vision for a federal, social Europe. This was unachievable because of the primacy of intergovernmental bargaining based on national self interest rather than the common good. Only a shared vision that understands Europe’s global weakness can build on its strengths.
The next French president (presumably Emmanuel Macron, not Le Pen) must forge a political union with Germany – a genuine economic union, with common taxation. The vision should be for a European Republic of democratic and cosmopolitan citizenship. Other states may join this crusade for a social Europe based on solidarity among European peoples.
The EU needs a strengthened European Parliament to be the principal legislative forum, backed by a reviewing chamber of regional and sectoral interests. State veto on community policy should be abolished with qualified majority voting in all areas.
Law making should promote environmental sustainability as the absolute priority and a condition of World Trade Organisation agreements. A reformed EU can once again be the soft power that shapes policy in other jurisdictions, raising the profile of human rights as a political and borderless issue, and insisting on product and labour standards for goods exported to Europe. It must also commit to common defence and security, fully compatible with, and contributing to, NATO. Free-riding on the US is no longer feasible. Britain, out of self interest, must engage in this.
The United Kingdom has long been Europe’s awkward partner. It has been the staunchest advocate of the neoliberal ideology that has undermined social Europe, the strongest defender of tax havens and the most resistant to common taxation. It has, with France, maintained the worst elements of the Common Agricultural Policy. The UK opposed the political union that should have underpinned economic and monetary union. It has been the most vocal opponent of common defence, so perpetuating duplication and waste through vanity projects and protective procurement in the defence industrial sector, and thereby undermining NATO capability and European security.
With the UK out of the way, the union can become what it should be – a genuine European Republic. Trump and Putin want Europe to fail. That alone should focus minds.
*Simon Sweeney is a Senior Lecturer in International Political Economy and Business, University of York