In May 1950, at the height of the Cold War, Robert Schuman, one of the founding fathers of the European Union, offered his vision for the future. Following the devastation of the World War II, he said the future of Europe “cannot be safeguarded without … creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it”.
However, he also famously warned: “Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan”.
What happened to those aspirations? Today, the EU lacks leadership. Frustration is growing within the union and the group is failing to make a positive impact beyond its own borders. Brexit, Grexit, economic stagnation, youth unemployment and uncontrolled migration – all are threatening this partnership.
At the core of this problem is the fundamentally dangerous belief that the EU can become some kind of a promised land. In fact, too few people are actually questioning the EU integration project as an end in itself – its aims, its intentions and, above all, the impact on those “creative efforts” that Schuman argued had to be at the heart of European integration.
Instead, the EU has become a victim of its own agenda. The people who spent decades arguing that the enlightened European project will solve problems beyond the reach of sovereign states now see no other future but the “ever closer union” enshrined in the EU treaties. In this logic, alternatives have no place in Europe. It must now be built all at once and according to a single plan.
When the Irish rejected the Lisbon Treaty in 2008, they were merely asked to vote again. When the Greeks overwhelmingly rejected the terms of the bailout in 2015, prime minister Alexis Tsipras was merely summoned to Brussels and forced to sign the terms anyway, and when the Visegrad countries (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) complained that the Schengen rules on border protection were being ignored by other member states, they were portrayed as xenophobic wall-builders.
The Brexit debate is another good example. It is not that I believe the UK should leave the EU – it’s that the arguments for staying in (including my own) do need to be questioned. But instead of having a real debate, exit is perceived as a lunacy, or even British bullying of the “good” Europeans. How could anyone possibly want to willingly live outside this great project? No state could possibly want to be, like Norway, on the outskirts of Europe.
The consequences could indeed be dire if the British people do vote to leave but what concerns me more is the belief that more integration is the only rational remedy to the crises threatening the world. More EU on the external borders, more EU in monetary affairs, more EU in defence.
I do not believe that the UK’s leave campaign has the right answers, but at least it is raising questions.
It makes perfect sense that members of the European Union should submit to certain conditions, such as democratic governance. If you wish to join any club, whether it involves your weekly game of squash or a monetary union, you have to abide by the rules. But clubs generally provide different membership options, and those options generally depend more on members’ willingness than the club’s expectations.
Unfortunately, a union set on simply promoting a singular vision of the future (however bright) merely breeds intolerance to alternative visions, despite the fact that the EU’s very motto stresses “united in diversity”.
A UK membership re-negotiation is a symbol of this intolerance. It is all too easy to accuse London of being the awkward partner, but there are plenty of those in Brussels who appreciate the constructive role British representatives play in day-to-day decision-making. On issues of security and defence, for example, Britain never shies away from responsibility, including the EU’s successful anti-piracy operation off the Somali coast.
However, it is true that the UK has been historically uneasy about the “ever-closer union”. In fact, it has resisted it on a number of occasions (the euro being a particular case).
Resisting does not mean striking down the Brussels leviathan. It just means imagining different visions of Europe, playing closer attention to the needs, interests and, indeed, different understandings of how Europe ought to be achieved. Economists these days seem to be in consensus that fitting German or Greek economies under the same monetary policy was a historically symbolic move, but an economic catastrophe. Similarly, that the UK is more interested in deepening the single market instead of promoting the vague European citizenship does not make it an awkward partner, but rather one with a different vision of where a more effective Europe can be built.
It’s time to recognise that the future of the EU is not threatened by allowing divergent voices to contribute to the debate but in seeking conformity. Each club needs rules, but these rules are important only as long as they stimulate productivity or creativity. As soon as they seek to control, they become a hindrance and a threat to the system they are trying to uphold.
As history has taught us, a singular vision of the future can have dangerous consequences. Let’s forget the quest for obedience. The aim, instead, must be to stop touting the ever-closer union as the only option. That’s how to revive our thinking about what Europe is and what it can and should become.