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Beyond Orwell: scenarios for the European long term…

Rebecca Willis Ian Christie
8 May 2002

In 1947 George Orwell published an essay entitled “Towards European Unity”. In it he surveyed the bleak state of the post-war world, in which the advent of nuclear arms, the stand-off between capitalism and communism, and the material poverty brought about by war and inequality were the salient features.

He concluded that the three most likely scenarios for the future were: pre-emptive nuclear war by the USA against the Soviet Union; Cold War between the superpowers followed by a nuclear war; or the division of the globe between three gigantic slave states. He felt that the only hope for a better future lay in the creation of a group of democratic socialist countries in Europe. Relentlessly honest in his pessimism, however, he ended the essay with a list of overwhelming obstacles to the realisation of this vision.

More than fifty years later, we are approaching the fiftieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome – one of the most successful treaties ever signed. It has played a crucial part in the steadily rising prosperity of western Europe, and has given a civic underpinning for peace in a continent on the verge of total collapse in 1945. What Orwell saw as a scarcely credible optimistic scenario in 1947 has, in large part, come to pass. The collective effort of the European democracies, combined with the energies of the USA, have brought about peace and plenty from a situation where neither seemed remotely likely.

Purpose makes perfect

The achievement of the post-war rebuilders of western Europe was to give the emerging European Community a sense of long-term purpose that combined idealism, security and prosperity. The development of the Community was based on the message that only through pooled sovereignty and new forms of cooperation could the former combatants in Europe overcome the legacy of historic enmity, avoid more wars on European soil, and create a new framework for economic growth that could benefit all.

This guiding vision for a new Europe worked well for forty-odd years. It gave consistency to the efforts of integrationists over the decades and it has helped create the affluent EU we know today. But all visions run their course: conditions change and the very achievement of core goals for projects such as the European Community can produce unintended side-effects. So it has proved over the last decade and a half for the EU. The goal of undermining old enmities and overcoming old social divisions in Western Europe has been achieved. So has that of fostering an advanced economic order that can match that of the USA.

The Union is now in serious need of a revitalised sense of mission. For the last decade, the major Euro-projects have been essentially about further economic integration; they have lacked a compelling vision for the citizens of the new Europe, and have aroused deep suspicion and resistance in many quarters. EMU and enlargement are certainly ‘big ideas’, but they have not been debated in a context that inspires many citizens with confidence and a clear idea about where the Union can go next. The construction of EMU has been yet another case of ‘Europe from above’ that has begged vital questions: what is this happening for, and what kind of Europe will it foster?

The Union’s big ideas are all about technical processes that are poorly explained and debated, while the ends that they should serve remain obscure. This is a situation which breeds confusion and saps energy among integrationists, and promotes excitable Euro-scepticism elsewhere. The mass of citizens responds with lukewarm aquiescence to the drift of the Union towards the Euro and slow-motion enlargement.

The EU has had little to say to its citizens and the rest of the world about the great challenges that ought to set the context in which EMU and enlargement are designed and debated. The equivalent for this generation of the post-war reconstruction and reconciliation faced by the founders of the Community is the task of governing economic globalisation and securing sustainable development worldwide – achieving equitable economic development that does not wreck the environment and the climate system. This surely should be the fundamental set of problems to which the twenty-first century EU can offer solutions, and which sets the context for the Commission’s economic and political grands projets. The Union, mired in its own processes and lacking popular confidence, needs to rediscover an idealism and practical policy-making which takes the future seriously: a “hard-nosed Utopianism” to guide and inspire us.

Globalisation – a new level of economic, environmental and cultural interconnection and impact through changes in technology and trade – is the overriding fact of our political and economic condition. It is a challenge and an opportunity for sustainable development that must be at the core of any new mission for the European Union. The threat is that the unsustainable development of the rich world will be replicated throughout the developing world, with potentially disastrous results for the environment and social stability. But globalisation also gives us the basis of a common understanding of the need for sustainable development.

The need for sustainable development, the process of globalisation and interdependency of states are intertwined. Together they make up the possible futures facing Europe. If we update Orwell, we can develop a number of scenarios for the next thirty to fifty years based on threats and opportunities we can now foresee.

Three options for Europe

Scenario 1: business as usual.

The process of industrial globalisation proceeds rapidly, generating great wealth for many in the developed and developing worlds alike, but at the cost of further widening of inequalities within nations and with massive environmental costs. There is no widespread eco-catastrophe, but resource crises emerge in more regions, there are many more natural disasters, droughts and famines, which in turn lead to destabilisation of societies and political regimes. There are more civil wars in the poorest countries, with violence and refugees spilling over the borders of the richer zones of the world.

Within the EU, pressure mounts on governments to take unilateral action to protect jobs and markets. Enlargement is stalled; instability rises on the Union’s eastern and southern flanks. So the EU remains fairly stable and prosperous overall, but the deficits concerning environment, jobs, enterprise and security remain. In many ways they have grown more threatening. The EU is still an enviable place in a turbulent world. But it is just muddling though. It and the rest of the world run great risks of precipitating runaway ecological and political crises.

Scenario 2: unsustainable world.

The globalisation of industrialism proceeds apace and leads to serious disruption to the climate system by mid-century. This means hundreds of millions of environmental refugees, the collapse of some states, wars over access to fresh water supplies and oil, civil unrest in many countries, and major upheavals in trade and production leading to rising unemployment and shortages of key commodities.

Gross inequalities between and within nations have not been tackled; and the extremes of wealth and poverty in the USA have emerged in many parts of Europe. Democracies come under severe strains and the EU becomes ‘Fortress Europe’, seeking to exclude refugees from unstable and stricken countries on its borders.

Violent demonstrations and terrorism are common as society splits between winners and losers, and between those managing the status quo and those determined to change it.

By comparison with the deeply turbulent and violent developing world, the EU remains affluent and stable. But quality of life and social peace have declined dramatically, and the prospect of terrorism, war, global economic depression and further, unmanageable ecological threats has grown far more likely, making security the world’s central preoccupation.

Scenario 3: towards sustainability

Mounting evidence of climate change, the rising costs of traffic congestion, discontent over high unemployment and increased time pressures on those in work, together with further scares over food production, eventually lead to public pressure for action which political parties cannot ignore.

New action plans for sustainable development transform the EU over the next generation. It modernises its industries, market structures, and political processes so that they contribute to sustainability and the revitalisation of democracy. The EU takes a lead in offering a model of democratic sustainable development to the rest of the world. It sets the pace for progress in pursuing the aims of international environmental agreements and in helping the poorest countries achieve decent living standards.

A key part of this is the ‘weightless economy’: not only the knowledge –intensive IT sectors – but also a large range of cleaner production industries, which are the major source of earnings, enterprise creation and employment in Europe.

The EU’s leaders have accepted that greater transparency is vital to gaining the public trust essential for consensus on the changes needed for sustainability. The Single Market is a more flexible economic space, allowing for experimentation by member states in measures to promote sustainable development. This has gone hand in hand with policies to encourage job creation and new businesses which focus on environmental innovations and low-energy services and manufacturing.

The debates over sustainability and the poverty of many developing countries have also led to a shift in public opinion. The majority of citizens have moved decisively towards a ‘post-consumerist’ outlook, and in favour of more redistribution to poorer regions, within the EU and without.

In short, the EU has de-coupled progress in quality of life from growth in energy and material use. It has re-coupled economic development to jobs and real gains in well-being.

Towards the third option – a sustainable Europe?

Is the third scenario credible at all? It is no more incredible than the vision of the founding fathers of European integration. They wanted a continent united through shared trade, so that war would be impossible. They wanted peace, stability and prosperity. They accomplished what is, by historical standards, a near-unbelievable upsurge in Europe’s fortunes. We should learn from this that aiming for the equally challenging goal of sustainable development and humane globalisation is an ideal that can be embraced by a much richer, technically advanced and socially stable Europe.

But the post-war achievement was based on the work of a policy-making elite which rarely articulated its wider ambitions. The EU has been sold to the public as a set of processes for economic development. The question of what greater purposes its economic integration projects, EMU or enlargement, are meant to serve, has been kept off the agenda.

This was already a politically untenable approach in the ‘peace and plenty’ culture of the EU in the 1990s. After the seismic shock of 11 September, and the mounting evidence that the world risks severe climate disruption that could make current instabilities and threats pale in comparison, the cramped and process-driven policy debate on the future of the Union is out of date.

Now, with the mobilisation of international energies after the attacks on the USA, and with the dynamic global debate on how to tackle the deeper causes of terror and instability, we have a new opportunity to raise vital issues. What kind of Europe do we want now, and what ends should it be pursuing? In an increasingly connected world, these questions cannot be answered separately from those posed with growing urgency about the post-Cold War world order and the prospects for long-term ecological, political and economic security. They also cannot be answered without much better engagement of the Union’s citizens in debate and decision-making on the Union’s future.

Above all, then, the Union needs a vision that is about ends and not only means – an idea of the European good life and the kind of world in which European well-being and that of others can be sustained. It should start with the one policy area that really does command consensus and inspire European citizens – the environment.

Opinion polls consistently show that people support a strong role for the EU in the environmental field, and think that the Union has done a good job on the environment. Taking ecological issues seriously and connecting them to economic and social policy is the core of the idea of sustainable development – as big an idea as one can find. The EU could capitalise on this success, by building consensus around a vision of sustainable development for Europe – a politics of quality of life and care for the long-term well-being of Europeans, fellow-citizens and environmental ‘life support systems’ around the world.

Not just vision, but practice

Sustainable development provides the vision, but it also points to the practical steps necessary to tackle the Union’s other pressing problems. There is immense potential to tackle social exclusion, for example, through investment in sustainable technologies and labour-intensive ‘green collar’ jobs. A politics of quality of life has the potential to re-connect the policy-making elite to Europe’s citizens, by moving away from the technocratic ethos which gave us the disenchantment surrounding the Maastricht treaty. Crucially, sustainable development also provides a cause and programme for Europe on the world stage, providing a constructive counterpoint to the unbalanced ‘free trade’ orthodoxy of the USA and promoting multi-lateral cooperation (as with the Kyoto accords on climate change).

Our recent Green Alliance pamphlet, Sustaining Europe, sets out a detailed programme for realising this vision. It shows how environmental policies can help overcome not only our greatest environmental problems, but also help enhance employment and inclusion, stimulate enterprise and new technologies (especially renewable energy sources), and underpin a new international strategy for the EU.

There is also a growing realisation that what we need is not a rigid ‘Europe of rules’ approach to policy which stresses harmonisation and one-speed development. In pursuing sustainable development, a huge amount of experimentation is needed right down to the lowest level, and a ‘Laboratory Europe’ or ‘multi-speed’ strategy could be the framework in which progress can be secured most effectively. This could point the way towards a more flexible model of integration that moves the EU away from the tired and unhelpful stand-off between traditional top-down integrationists and nationalist sceptics.

This vision, though unapologetically idealistic, is achievable. We have the necessary wealth, technological capabilities and scientific knowledge. A political consensus around a shift away from the now played-out economic orthodoxies of the last twenty years is emerging, if hesitantly.

Both at the Kyoto climate change negotiations, and more recently over the Biosafety Protocol agreement, the Union put forward a positive, European vision of ecologically sustainable and equitable development, presenting a more democratic and humane face for the process of globalisation. In summer 2001, Heads of State agreed plans for a sustainable development strategy for Europe, and for stronger integration of environmental policy with other policy domains across the board. The EU’s sustainable development strategy can be criticised on many levels, but represents a powerful agenda for action. The question is, will the Union devote real energy to this task? If it does not, a major opportunity for revitalising the EU’s ‘mission’ will be lost.

Tackling the dangers posed by unsustainable development and ungoverned globalisation to the well-being of present and future generations may seem an optimistic goal today, just as peace, stability and prosperity seemed fifty years ago. But it is an optimism grounded in reality, and the opportunities are huge. Sustainable development could and should become the true common cause for twenty-first century Europeans. It can be the goal which brings energy and open debate about values back into the impoverished arguments about ‘Europe’.

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