A new vision for a union of Europe
This article was initially published on the University of East Anglia websiteThe media has provided us with plenty of opportunities to explore both the Remain and Leave arguments, especially in terms of economy, immigration and sovereignty, so I won’t revisit these over-discussed issues. Instead, I will highlight how the EU (and we, its citizens) have lost sight of its initial vision, and how it is not meeting our aspirations and on occasion making many of us, European citizens, unhappy with it as it is now. But I would also like to share how I feel the way forward is more – and different – union of Europe.
We lost sight of the EU’s initial vision for peace and democracy
My primary issue with the EU is the feeling that it sticks to tackling highly technical, specific issues, as opposed to providing long term thinking and vision for the continent as a whole, a project for us to face new global challenges together in the best possible way. The EU’s limited, very technocratic measures and decisions affect deeply different aspects of everyday life and local traditions – such as French cheese production, for example! – while there is a form of disconnection with the measures taken by elites in the absence of a real public debate. Further disconnection is facilitated by the fact that elites tend to seek short term fixes to problems, and don’t hesitate to blame the EU and its faraway technocrats for what goes wrong. I am certain none of this was part of the initial plan of the founders of the EU; so how did we get to that point?
The instigator of the European project, Jean Monnet, had a vision of a union, which would make the historical rivalries between countries such as France and Germany irrelevant. To him, the European Union was not about each country negotiating for their own individual advantage but about all countries looking together for what would be the “common advantage”. Based on his experience and knowledge of the mechanisms of multilateral treaties and arrangements, he didn’t believe simple cooperation between independent, isolated states was enough to build lasting peace. He believed the best way to achieve that was to merge some of the interests of the protagonist countries and that the common interest thus created should be managed by an overarching structure, to which sovereignty over these issues would be transferred (integration), ultimately leading, over time, to a form of federalism. The initial spirit in which these discussions were engaged among the countries most affected by the two world wars was optimistic, with a real hope it would lead to a state of sustainable peace and economic growth.
Very early on in the European construction, the more political aspects of cooperation were met with opposition and rejected (Euratom and European Defence Community projects in the 1950s), partly due to the fact that the different countries had too divergent interests and historical legacies to agree on common policies in such crucial areas. The protagonists of the process therefore set aside these more contentious political issues and focused instead on highly technical aspects of economic cooperation.
The elites negotiating treaties on our behalf have lost sight of the initial vision of peace, democracy, and cooperation. They have repeatedly postponed sensitive conversations on political integration, even though politics is a crucial element of any community sharing a common space and setting common rules. Running ahead with economic integration without backing it up with political consensus and integration has its problems. Adopting a common currency and opening borders cannot be beneficial without also adopting common fiscal and social policies, which are highly political issues: the social contract (taxes in exchange for services) is the result of a long process of political negotiations between the state (the elite) and the people (the citizens) to define the kind of society they want to form. The European construction was the work of elites and they forgot to involve the people in the in depth debate.
They have also surfed on the wave of neo-liberalism by integrating into the Maastricht treaty of 1992 and subsequent treaties the prescriptions of the Washington Consensus – policies to ensure macroeconomic stability, which include austerity, and reforms and deregulation to enhance competition. Policies and approaches that have proved to widen wealth gaps and contribute to inequalities and from there, to political and economic instabilities, as even the IMF acknowledged recently. The EU, as it is now, follows – and leads – the worldwide trend of neoliberal policies, adopted in a top down approach, and creates grievances in its population. In this context, the financial crisis of 2008 and the associated unemployment led to a very normal, human reaction: looking for a scape-goat, leading to a crisis of identity and the rise of intolerance and hatred of “the other”, whoever that “other” is. This crisis of solidarity is visible in the rise of communitarianism, violence, rejection of migrants, and far-right voting. All things antithetical to peace, cooperation, and democracy, to the initial vision of Europe.
We can’t design a new, more humane, more respectful system without a form of European union
The world is locked into a global economic system ruled by the market, where competition and growth are everything and are at the expense of care and dignity for less privileged and more vulnerable human beings, generating increasing inequalities, instability, suffering and grievances, and a loss of empathy and humanity in the way solutions are sought and implemented.
Since the 1980s and the Washington Consensus, economic policies haven’t changed much, as can be seen in what we have done to Greece in the past few years: harmful austerity. In this global system, today, even left wing elected leaders can’t lead a left wing policy because it leads to a loss of competitive advantage on the market, which would harm the oh-so-sacred economic growth of the country; and neither debtors, nor us, citizens, would put up with it. European leaders blame the EU; but the EU mechanisms have been designed for the union to remain competitive on the global stage (whether the right mechanisms have been adopted or not).
Only major powers are in a position to challenge that global system and try to control (reform? revolutionize?) it to some extent. Together, the EU forms a market that is too important on the world stage for other actors (the US, China, etc.) to ignore or avoid. If the EU were to choose as a block to impose harmonized social policies, social safety nets and social insurance, identical in all its countries, other major economic powers would have to make do its rules.
This is why, despite my frustrations with the EU as it is now, despite my anger at what our politicians and ourselves, as voters, have made of this project / allowed it to become, I still believe the future is with the EU. Re-negotiated (although not in the vindictive, self-centred spirit that has been the UK’s on the issue), revamped, re-organised, democratised, but still the EU.
And we, as citizens, need to make sure we are heavily involved in the process of designing this new vision, broader than economic issues. Let’s remember the EU is led by people we have elected; so if we don’t hold them accountable, we are at least partly to blame for the policies they conduct. The democratic concept of delegating the power of decision making to individuals elected by a majority has shown its limits. Technology nowadays gives us all the tools we need to monitor and hold accountable the people we elect. Democracy is not for lazy citizens. The power of lobbies in Brussels is criticised heavily but this openness of the system to pressure also means a strong, diverse, and broad coalition of citizens can have a voice, advocate. It’s up to us to create / join and advertise such a network. Some initiatives have started already on the topic, reaching out across the continent.
Ultimately, this is about the world we want to live in.
The more I observe the world around me, speak with people and study the worldwide policies that have been followed for decades in the name of “development” and “growth”, the more I feel we’ve built a world in which we all depend upon each other. Our living conditions are dictated by the living conditions of other people in other parts of the planet, and vice versa; our policies by the policies adopted elsewhere, and vice versa. We therefore cannot afford anymore not to tend towards more and more global governance, but governance that needs to be built on a broad base and in a way respectful of our humanity, our differences, our respective values and aspirations.
Does the EU need to collapse completely in order to get the discussion started again on a brand new basis? I don’t think so. In spite of its flaws, the European integration has allowed tremendous progress on many counts over the past decades, and completely dismantling it to start again from scratch would be a waste of experience, time, energy and achievements. Reforming it, though, is a necessity; but not through a process, in which each people focuses on its particularisms, its identity, and refuses to collaborate and build in common with others out of fear its way of doing / understanding things might be affected. In this sense, an experience like a political union – using multilateral agreements, federalism, power sharing, or inventing new ways – and finding the right balance between keeping one’s own identity and participating in a common identity is a good challenge and opportunity.
I dream of an EU, in which local cultural particularisms are enabled to blossom while room is made for all cultures and beliefs; an EU in which all citizens’ economic and social rights are respected along common standards; an EU in which all citizens feel a common sense of identity and belonging, which doesn’t threaten their other (national, local) identities. To build such a union, we need all the positive energies we can get. And it would send a much more powerful message if it is done with the contribution of the UK. Who’s in?
Severine Chavanne European citizen from France and MA student in Conflict, Governance and International Development.
NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.