Crossroads or roundabouts: where now for Europe?

Reinhard Hesse
22 June 2004

The European Union is learning the art of synchronicity. In December 2003, the soon-to-be-enlarged community of twenty-five failed to agree the text of a constitutional treaty laboriously negotiated in the period since the Laeken summit of 2001. A painful anti-climax, it is now also a distant memory. Six months on, the community has struck gold: December’s disputes are resolved, the treaty signed, the road to ratification in all member-states launched – and all during that festival of European sporting amity and national pride, the quadrennial European soccer championships in Portugal.

In other words, what once seemed belated now appears perfectly timed. But those who travel south and west to Portugal this June to follow their teams through just a few landscapes of the “old” member-states of the European Union will soon conclude that what Europe is “really” about is not just soccer, but roundabouts. Whether on the outskirts of big cities or in the middle of nowhere on a small rural road, you’ll find a roundabout popping up where a mere crossroads was before.

Roundabouts, Andreas Züst

The reasons for “roundabout-isation” are simple. Circular traffic has proven safer than crossroads traffic and cheaper than traffic lights. That is why the European Union, in constant worry over our safety, health and jobs, is subsidising the construction of roundabouts. Never mind if some have been built in low-traffic areas where it might have been wiser to subsidise industrial infrastructure. “One size fits all” is quite a European specialty. It helps to avert the demons of unequal competition. Most member-states are quite expert at it, too.

One can be quite certain that “roundabouts” will soon also become a common feature in the ten new member-states. But will this mean that Europe as a whole is turning around in circles – and is this good or bad?

A time to dream

At first sight, it does not seem likely. A lengthy period of compromise and disagreement has culminated in the European Union coming together to sign its constitutional treaty – which now has to be individually ratified by the twenty-five member-states. The idea of a common European politics has survived numerous challenges in the past eighteen months. The most severe was when the United States administration waged war in Iraq, moved away from George W. Bush’s own “roadmap” in the Middle East, dumped multilateralism and crushed whatever broader alliance against terror there was or could have been – accompanied by a foolish attempt to separate Europeans into “old” and “new” varieties.

The European debate leading towards the new constitutional treaty embody vital arguments over the EU’s purpose, identity, and global role. openDemocracy writers explore the major issues dividing and connecting “Europe”

Neither this, nor the equally silly mind-games of a Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis, nor Spain’s and Poland’s challenge over voting weights, succeeded in dividing Europe; al-Qaida’s bloodcurdling boast, embodied in Osama bin Laden’s offer of a “ceasefire” to “friendly” Europeans, did so even less. Europe’s response to the latter event was especially swift: from today’s perspective, a serious degree of common foreign and even security policy seems closer within reach than ever before.

Awkward as it may sound, the terrorist threat made visible on 11 March 2004 might again bring out Europe’s finest characteristic: a democratic self-confidence that combines resolve with restraint and conviviality. Europeans have for many years been used to different forms of terror and havoc, wreaked by self-proclaimed “liberation armies” or ruthless dictators. That condition is precisely what makes our taste for freedom and democracy, our stubbornness to go on living a “normal life”, and our resistance to extremism and states of emergency, be it under constant menace, even more strong.

All this was vividly evident after the horror of Madrid. Terrorists dynamited the citizens of densely-populated, multi-ethnic commuter towns like Alcala, before blowing themselves up, putting many a life in danger, in the middle of a packed popular neighbourhood – and neither security forces nor, God forbid, ordinary Spanish people hunted down their immigrant neighbours. After their “11-M”, the Spanish people – mindful of a totalitarian history and inspired by a movida of tolerance (one that has survived a long period when ETA operatives never stopped planting their bombs) – taught Europe a good lesson: human rights and a spirit of tolerance need not be the first casualties of a “war against terror”.

The survival of Europe’s values during this time of trial does not exhaust the space for real optimism about our great old continent. Why not, for example, think of a new formula for the notoriously expensive Common Agricultural Policy – one that will match the expectations of poorer countries within and beyond Europe, live up to our moral standards, yet not destroy the lives of farmers in richer countries?

Why not dream of a Europe stretching from Brittany to Anatolia, from Helsinki to Córdoba: a Europe of political stability, equal opportunities, democracy, economic dynamism? A Europe so attractive to others that it would – through partnerships, civil society initiatives and politico-economic incentives – help put its neighbours in Russia, Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa on their very own path to democracy, modernisation and peaceful development?

(c) Andreas Züst

Roundabouts, Andreas Züst

But if (to remain in optimistic mode) all this is at least on its way to happening in 2004, how much more welcome it would have been in the immediate aftermath of the cold war, in the early 1990s! Bringing the countries of the former Soviet bloc – the Baltic states, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia – into a free, united Europe would then have provoked an exuberant wave of popular enthusiasm.

At that time, however, their economies, social fabrics and political aspirations were not ready for Brussels. Nor was Brussels ready for them. By the time the European acquis (the body of shared regulation that every member-state commits itself to) was translated into national law, their peoples had gone through sometimes painful reform processes; politicians had developed their appetite for power games; and countries of the erstwhile “eurozone” had fallen into a growth crisis that made many fear, even resent, new competition from countries with lower wages and fewer social or environmental restrictions.

Reinhard Hesse’s witty, perceptive essays are an outstanding feature of openDemocracy for over three years:
· “A letter for Europe” (May 2001)
· “Europhoria” (February 2002)
· “An alarm-call for Europe” (June 2003)
· “Turkish honey under a German moon” (March 2004)

The process of enlargement, then, took a necessary but somewhat untimely fifteen years – and while this was happening, it became clear that the new, expanding union must begin to take its international capacities and strategic resources much more seriously. This larger union – which will in future years welcome Bulgaria, Romania, the western Balkans starting with Croatia, and certainly (one day) Turkey – is a political necessity with an essential “strategic dimension”.

Yet to reduce it even to these vital components would neglect the fact that Europe has also become a value in itself. Having reached the point we have come to on our continent, war-torn and conflict-ridden not that long ago, is a historic achievement. Enlargement was and remains not just economic, political or even strategic necessity, but moral responsibility.

The future contract

This is a Europe that can fully look outwards only once its internal democratic arrangements are clarified, and guaranteed to all of its citizens. A functioning European Union that wants to live up to its citizens’ expectations and the challenges of the wider world requires as essential conditions more democracy, transparency, subsidiarity and efficiency. To facilitate them is the core purpose of the new European constitution.

The heart of this as of any constitution is a charter of fundamental rights that every citizen is entitled to, coupled with a general commitment to freedom, peace and international welfare. Detailed rules are also necessary – to manage the complex apparatus of power-sharing between “Brussels” and member-states, parliament and commission, and to resolve disagreements between the now twenty-five member-states whose natural tendency is to bicker.

But here lies the problem: how do you codify these rules when you haven’t reached agreement on the final political shape that Europe ought to take? What is the end-goal to which Europe is moving?

Roundabouts, Andreas Züst

A vital question, but one way to answer it is with another: must we really know if Europe is going to be (say) “federal” or “federative” in 2025? Perhaps all we need to do now is to draft structures that can bring measurable progress, that can be better than just a larger EU with a commission dominated by the nation-states, a marginal role for its parliament, and unable to play by the old rules of veto.

In this light, despite the current European achievement it looks likely that the endgame between the “finalists” and the step-by-step pragmatists will have to be adjourned once more. What we are calling a constitution now is in fact only partly so. It is, rather, a “constitutional treaty” in which countries with their own constitutions (whether written or unwritten) agree how they will govern cross-country sovereignty they have already agreed to shape.

This treaty is, then an international contract, an agreement reflecting actual necessities in a time of enlargement, growing international challenges and dangers of alienation from the democratic process at European level. It is not “foundational” – unlike the United Nations charter, or even the German Grundgesetz (Basic Law). It does not replace national constitutions (or compensate for their absence). It neither predetermines nor precludes a European superstate or “superpower”. Indeed, its double nature probably best reflects the classical European coexistence of ambition and pragmatism.

A European concept

The best way to understand the provisional nature of what Europe has agreed is to note how the advocacy of Europe’s simultaneous “enlarging” and “deepening” at this stage – a concept probably understood only by hard-boiled Eurocrats, and a source of the toughest misunderstandings and power struggles during the debates leading to the constitutional treaty – is flawed, if not an outright swindle.

For if both are possible, why do politicians not simply champion “further European integration”? Because that is not what Europe’s peoples and their leaders now want. Most new member-states from east-central Europe are not ready yet to cede parts of their freshly gained national sovereignty to a supranational Europe. Moreover, Britain and Sweden remain reluctant about the common currency – the most feasible symbol of further integration, and, given the size and strength of the single market, perhaps its most reasonable one.

But if “enlarge-plus-deepen” is an illusion in present circumstances, the reality of today’s global problems makes further European integration essential. These problems stretch far beyond even terrorism, failed states, the transatlantic relationship or peace and democracy in the “Greater Middle East”. European answers must also be developed to a series of important questions: do we want a global market economy based on neo-liberal shareholder ideas, or a European model of a cooperative economy? How do we guarantee cultural diversity without uniformity? What role for regional cooperation and development to secure people’s futures, stability and a global exchange based on equality?

(c) Andreas Züst

Roundabouts, Andreas Züst

Many of the answers to these questions lie in understanding a point that many Europeans – including governments and political parties – have still not quite grasped even after fifty years of the European project: the difference between national “independence” and national “sovereignty”.

Léon Blum masterfully pointed out in the late 1940s that independence concerns national identity and the expression of a nation’s free will, but ceding parts of your sovereignty to a community of nations for the sake of benefits you could never achieve as a single state, is proof of a truly “sovereign” attitude.

This is a form of integration where Europe has already made good progress. That progress, however, has always been a process, and one that, worryingly, has always involved the elites more than the peoples. In particular, our younger generations love to enjoy the benefits of integration, which far outnumber the sacrifices made to achieve them. But they have never really been mobilised for any sort of European idea. This idea should not be confused with a “European identity” that would replace national or regional identities so crucial for grassroots democracy.

But still: people need something at a European level that they would want to be part of, and proud of. Europe’s citizens tend to measure progress in practical benefits, not broad concepts. The concepts of European union – be they “federal” or “confederal”, “integrative” or “intergovernmental”, “core Europe” or “multi-speed Europe” – are at least as far away from their ordinary lives as the infamous Brussels bureaucracy.

Social cohesion; a welfare state preventing exclusion; economic and political participation; companies “built to last”; easy and equal access to education; opportunity and knowledge; sustainable development – all these are worthy values. They could prove their competitive edge over neo-liberal deregulation in the long run. Systems created in the member-states to safeguard these values and the public realm in general are badly in need of repair but despite projects designed to better the majority European governments tackling reform are having a hard time convincing domestic public opinion.

The Blairite challenge

The elite-driven nature of the European project helps explain why many think that to put the constitution or treaty to a referendum is a grave danger to that constitution. This was precisely the initial reaction in most member-states when Britain’s prime minister, Tony Blair, decided to make a clean U-turn and let British voters have the last word on any constitution agreed by the twenty-five governments.

These fears are not unfounded if one takes into consideration the vigorous anti-European mood in the London tabloids, the British Conservative Party and large parts of the establishment. Powerful forces of British public opinion regard a constitution – any constitution – as an even greater evil than the political fact of European integration itself.

(c) Andreas Züst

Roundabouts, Andreas Züst

Yet voters of the Isles have once already defied opinion polls and the so-called rules of political propaganda, when they decided that the United Kingdom should remain a member of the (then) European Economic Community in 1975. So why not be courageously optimistic, and campaign for the constitution today?

Because it is quite difficult, that’s why the constitutional compromise hammered out after endless meetings of the European Convention and national governments carries a good many disadvantages, characteristic of a pragmatic solution to ambitious projects. A popular vote on a document of 350-odd pages is rather complicated, unless you over-simplify. Even for sophisticated voters, this mix of the quintessential and the contingent is not so easy to decipher.

But perhaps one day, Europe will owe a lot to Tony Blair. His move to reject the risk of parliamentary decision on the constitution might be seen as a lack of political leadership. But it could just as well open the door for real European political leadership, and a fight for the European public realm.

No more roundabouts, then? Well, yes and no. The concept of circles is not that bad for the Europe we have to build. Constitutional agreements enabling willing member-states to adopt enhanced cooperation in certain fields are better reflected in an image of “concentric circles” (overlapping probably more often than not), than in that of an exclusive “core Europe” moving at a different speed from the “periphery”. Roundabouts are indeed less dangerous than crowded crossroads. Given a little practice, one can even manoeuvre around with a right-hand drive.

(c) Andreas Züst

Roundabouts, Andreas Züst

A version of this essay appears in The Democratic Papers (May 2004 ) – a book edited by Paul Hilder talking about democracy in Europe and beyond, emerging from collaborations between the think-tanks Demos and Vision, the British Council, and www.openDemocracy.net

These photographs were taken in various locations throughout Europe, © Andreas Züst, Roundabouts, published by Scalo Press.

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