Still from Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Eclisse.What should Europe do in order to survive its ‘darkest hour’ ahead of a European Parliamentary election that might deliver a stunning victory for those forces that oppose even the idea of the European Parliament itself? How can progressive intellectuals save ourselves from irrelevance and unearth the ideas that can relaunch values we have taken for granted for too long?
A spectre is, in fact, haunting Europe. Populists and sovereigntists are becoming the nightmare of the traditional European political parties, which are either melting away like the SPD in Germany, the Socialists in France, and the Democratic Party in Italy, or are in great trouble like the CDU in Germany or the People’s Party in Spain.
However, the real threat to those establishments are not movements that are too intellectually empty and too wideranging to present a coherent alternative theory to liberalism and to how the world has been governed thus far. The threat is their own intellectual obsolescence. Not one real idea, not even a small piece of strategy has been put forward so far by what used to be the European élites, by their think tanks, and academic circles. Consequently, any western intelligentsias have lost their footing: no longer can they make sense and communicate the complexity of our world, nor do they offer solutions or even visions of a future in which all can thrive.
Yes, Macron – arguably the sole product of an Ancien Regime able to convincingly win an election – has been talking about a re-foundation of Europe. And yes, the rather widespread, current consensus is that Europe can adapt to the twenty-first century only by radically transforming its nature and institutions.
Yet where should these reforms begin?
We could probably start by saying that Europe is dying out of a twentieth century rhetoric that needs to be urgently refreshed. For too long European institutions have been burdened with too many expectations across too many areas, yet have not had enough power, money, and technical capacity to act effectively. From immigration to employment, from economic growth to the fight against deprivation: there are 28 policies that make up the European Commission if one counts them (it is not a case that their number is equal to the number of EU Member States, because in principle each of these competences is referred to a Commissioner and each country has got one, regardless of its size).
Not less importantly these competences are all – more or less explicitly – shared amongst member states. In other words, this sharing arrangement is always the product of half-completed integration on which national politicians with their national electorate can blame failures which have become increasingly the norm; and European technocrats can still say that their possibilities are undermined by the necessity to secure weak compromises.
Still from Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Eclisse.A European Union capable of serving its own mission will necessarily have to be based less on rhetoric and more on problem-solving. For instance, once countries decide that they want an area of free movement of people – such as Shengen – they will also have to share borders, have the same regulations for providing refugee status and visas to economic migrants, and have the same organization and police to process applications. Otherwise we will continue to be overwhelmed by asymmetries and free riding.
The same will have to apply to each policy, such as the common market and competition regulation, hitherto shared by European member states in partial and ambiguous ways. This policy misalignment is prone to sowing suspicion and conflict. And the monetary union itself is the least acceptable and most damaging example of such ambiguity. The much debated rules of the “stability and growth pact” are respected only by six out of nineteen states that adopted the Euro.
Consult the citizens
More complete integration will, however, need much more legitimacy and flexibility. Citizens will have to be consulted before powers are shifted from their own state to international institutions. Likewise these arrangements need to explicitly establish the mechanisms for leaving.
The tragedy of Brexit and the problem of the euro is the rigidity of European integration. The problem of Europe – and of the euro in particular – is that it is like those Catholic marriages with no divorce clause which had the tendency to become a cage of mutual hypocrisy – cheating, if not violent.
The Europe of the future will have to flexibly and transparently identify the areas over which states decide to give up their power.
The European élite, however, need not worry overduly about the strength of political movements whose only real strength is the weakness of the establishments. Instead, they should rather ponder the absence on their side of any real idea, of any strategy about how to possibly change Europe and save it from obsolescence.
The scaling up of cultural exchanges such as Erasmus, the regulation of digital platforms, the priority given to climate change, the transition from fossil fuels to renewables, and experiments with new forms of democracy (starting from electronic voting): these are likely to be the areas best suited for relaunching a European project. However, the method will have to be the complete opposite of the non-transparent, undemocratic rhetoric that has brought Europe to its current state of paralysis.