More Europe... Less Europe... No Europe. The slogans are versatile, but meaningless. Parties and politicians surpass themselves with more and more snappy solutions, but rarely explain them. Some maunder on about chances for Europe, while others evoke the common European identity. However, most of them have a blind spot.
The future of Europe is neither a question of commitment nor of denial, neither more nor less. It is not about the quantity of Europe or the EU (both phrases unfortunately are used simultaneously) - measured in growth rates, new member states, lobbyists in Brussels or whatever else. The question about the future of Europe is one about quality: how to conserve the accomplishments of the past while simultaneosly preparing the ground for the future. The European Union deserves to survive – but to survive it has to remember what made it so successful in the first place.
European integration has no path dependence. Although spillovers of EU intervention create more and more policy issues for the EU, they do not have to be complied with. Rather, they should be considered as symptoms for the negative trend of the EU, which is busy withdrawing from the formula that made it successful - namely freedom applied to immigration and economy within its continental borders.
European integration does not necessarily have to go either forwards or backwards. The blind spot in debating European integration is the generality with which it is applied. There is no opportunity for integrating countries to proceed at their own pace, to adopt what is considered positive and to ban what is considered negative. The challenge for Europe is to allow EU countries to choose how much they will integrate.
Of course, this is not what Brussels wants. Giving back national sovereignty will steal much power from the bureaucrats and lobbyists influencing them. However, won't there be chaos? The Netherlands might dismiss fishing quotas, Germany might terminate the regulation of vacuum cleaners, France might not join an European Army and Spain might reintroduce border control. Not to mention the United Kingdom, which will do what serves its interests best.
But probably, it won't come to that. All countries are interested in making less work for themselves by applying the same procedures in most cases. Although the quantity of regulation may drop, it will lead to much better quality. Regulation which can be handled much better at a national or even better at a local level of the respective countries, should be decided at those levels. In the end, countries should be able to integrate with each other to different degrees. Europe’s future lies in its flexibility.
This will solve many problems. While some countries really need more integration for historical reasons, their voters often don't. An adaptable EU will serve the interests of both and is the best answer against Europe-scepticism. Flexibility may also be the only option to hold the United Kingdom in the European Union, whose political class and voters strongly oppose the EU. It is no weakness to grant some countries different exceptions – it already happens. The Maastricht Treaty for example was not complied with at all by most EU countries.
Finally, flexibility also weakens the democracy deficit within the EU. In every democracy there are conflicting views, which need to be resolved. Different national attitudes regarding different policies are no betrayal of the EU's ideals: they should rather be considered as positive opportunities for a deepening debate, finally leading to more cooperation and democracy.
Flexibility is important to meet the challenges of a higly complex world. Financial problems and weak economies combined with demographic problems and rising competition with other world regions have seen Europe fall behind. The EU as an institution is very fragile. More and more pressure will finally force its collapse. This is not what’s needed. Europe needs the EU to survive the challenges of our modern times, but it needs another, a more antifragile union.
As the philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb notes, antifragile systems are those which gain from pressure. For example, a country like Switzerland gains from wars and crises, because it is considered a safe harbour. The EU so far is not: but it can become a safe harbour. It only has to sail in a new direction. A direction of more flexibility, democracy and freedom.
The EU should consider their accomplishments of the past and integrate it into the future. This is an integration which needs to be done. The voters for the EU elections now have the possibility of moving in that direction. Unfortunately, the prospects are not looking too good – but hope dies last!