Europe’s failure, and how to avoid it

The European Union’s combination of crises - of finance, politics, and identity - makes the once unthinkable a real prospect: Europe is not "too big to fail". What then should concerned Europeans do to ensure their continent's survival and progress? Andre Wilkens proposes five foundations for action.
Andre Wilkens
18 October 2011

Europe is at a tipping-point. Amid accumulating financial and political problems in the European Union, the choice is increasingly clear: either the markets will force a massive surge of integration, or things will shift in the opposite direction towards gradual disintegration.

Whatever the outcome, the lack of citizens’ participation has become a systemic risk which puts in jeopardy even any process towards further integration. This makes it vital that concerned European citizens put pressure on their governments and elites - for this pressure can be precisely what Europe’s rulers need to find a sustainable way out of the crisis.

Europe’s current crisis is one of identity as well as of politics and economics. This started in 2005, when a majority of voters in France and the Netherlands voted in referendums against the draft European Union constitution. This was a clear signal that said: Europe has become distant, we don’t understand it anymore.

The answer of the political elites was to press on with what became the technocratic Lisbon treaty, which made improvements in regulatory processes but neglected the important question of economic and financial governance. In the area of foreign policy, the creation of two new EU executive posts (to be occupied by colourless technocrats who would remain unknown to most people) lost the opportunity for an infusion of Euro-enthusiasm.

On the global stage, the EU in the years since the two referendums has increasingly put itself in the position of an onlooker (most evidently at the Copenhagen climate-change summit in December 2009, and during the Arab spring of 2010-11). Within the EU, border-checks were temporarily reintroduced for fear of young migrants coming from the south, a rollback of one of the union’s most tangible achievements.

The financial crisis of 2008 hit the European Union harder than was expected at first. It revealed that European monetary union (EMU) had not been properly thought through to its logical conclusion. The euro, instead of being a factor for deeper integration, has become a systemic danger for the entire European Union. The union has for two whole years been dictated by events rather than shaping them. Its policymakers are reactive, short-term and defensive: they take decisions only when the choice left is between bad and worse - and even then too late.  

Even a mere decade ago, Europe was full of self-confidence, seriously believing that the 21st century would belong to the European dream. Now, Europe is a problem - and not just for itself. The notion that Europe is not too big to fail was until recently inconceivable. Now it is all too thinkable.

Europe’s five challenges

There are a number of reasons to fear that the European dream will indeed fail altogether, and outright disintegration follow. The as yet unresolved euro crisis is only the latest. If this fate is to be avoided, five challenges that reach beyond the present moment must be addressed.

Europe must restore the primacy of ends over means

Europe has for two years and even more been ruled more or less openly by the markets. The latter have pitilessly revealed the euro’s design errors, and forced politicians to make long overdue economic and political decisions; in this sense, the markets may currently be the most active Europeans.

But Europe was not designed to be an economic balance-sheet. Europe was built on historical experience, for political reasons and as a result of political will. Its economic integration was the primary means to achieve political ends: peace, stability and prosperity in the continent. The method of its pioneer, Jean Monnet, was to build Europe top-down: via institution-building, creating closer economic links, and taking incremental steps. A coherent political vision was the driving-force of the development. Now, all this seems to have been turned on its head: Europe is determined by means not goals, the markets drive politics, and the politicians always lag behind.

The paradox is that this reality has produced results that in 2009-10 would have been considered unrealistic. If Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy had at that time announced proposals on European economic governance they are now prepared to contemplate, they would have been celebrated as visionaries in the footsteps of Jean Monnet, Jacques Delors, and Helmut Kohl. Now, their reactive position only emphasises their weakness and fuels both markets’ and citizens’ lack of confidence in them and their fellow leaders.

The markets are unpredictable Europeans. They cannot be relied on. But Europe can overcome its current crisis by returning to the founding aims of the European Union and using them actively to shape policy. For in these turbulent times especially, the original European vision - social stability and economic prosperity in Europe, and the encouragement of peace across the continent - is still relevant and large enough.

Europe must sustain prosperity

The European dream is built on prosperity and growth, its promise that every European citizen will become better off. This was also a central element of the various rounds of enlargement. Even if this is harder to admit, the European community of values was only a secondary reason for most aspirant EU members’ wish to join.  

The promise of “prosperity through Europe” worked well for a long time. The financial and debt crisis has, however, undermined it. The particular reasons for the crises in Greece, Portugal, Spain, Ireland and Italy may differ; but Europe is both involved in each one and unable (at least in the short term) to halt the decline of living-standards in these (and other) EU member-states.

This problem highlights the fact that in any case, the present growth-oriented lifestyle  needs to be fundamentally reviewed. For this lifestyle is financed on credit - both in monetary terms, and with regard to natural resources - from the next generation and from other parts of the world. Even with better economic management, Europe will not be able to keep the promise of linear growth.  

Without prosperity, Europe will not achieve legitimacy from its citizens. A host of questions then arise. What is prosperity in the 21st century, and how can it be shared equitably; what does it actually mean always to be “better off”; and is it possible even to maintain existing levels of prosperity in the face of global competition? These are also questions to which Europe urgently needs to find answers. To do so would be to update and implement the original vision of Europe.  

The delivery of prosperity and growth in the 21st century is a great opportunity as well as a  system-critical challenge for Europe. In meeting it Europe can renew its visionary role, both out of self-interest and as a global model.  

Europe must become more nimble

Europe has up to now been a slow and heavy train that becomes ever longer and more cumbersome as it passes through predictable terrain. If the latter got a bit hilly at times, there was plenty of time to change gear. Now the terrain is getting mountainous, the weather is changing all the time, and the environment is unpredictable. Europe responds by changing gear more quickly and doing its best to maintain speed. It is difficult enough for a heavy train to perform like a lightweight one - even more when fast new trains are appearing on the horizon.

In the last ten years the pace of life has accelerated dramatically as a result of globalisation, new information technologies, and a hyper-creative financial industry. All this has taken place in the context of deepening climate change and resource depletion that obliges Europe (like other international and national agencies) to adapt and be flexible and fast in taking important political and economic decisions.  

This is hard for a Europe whose decision-making processes were devised for slower, more predictable times. The current European model was built for a different era, and needs a retrofit. Eurobonds and European economic harmonisation could buy time in the medium term; but Europe needs anyway to become faster, and this can only be achieved by more shared sovereignty. The European train needs more than decorative changes - it needs a stronger central engine, greater coordination, and a speedier transmission-belt to make it fit for the new pace of global life.

Europe must defend its model

The epic year of 1989 was not after all the end of history and the ultimate victory of the west, but rather the beginning of a new multipolar era which has put the position of Europe too into perspective.  

Europe’s attempt to respond to the post-1989 changes included the understanding that Europe could play a meaningful global role only if it spoke with a united voice. The establishment under the Lisbon treaty of a European diplomatic corps with a European foreign minister (or rather "High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy") flowed from this recognition.  

A notion that was cleverly conceived in abstract and technical terms has until now had no practical impact. The incumbent, Catherine Ashton and her team are not delivering on the promise, and the wider sense that Europe’s role in the world is declining is almost palpable. Again, the Copenhagen summit (over an issue, climate change, which European citizens pioneered) and the sovereign-debt crisis are the most vivid examples.  

Yet it is worth recalling here that the European Union model has itself been a means of solving conflicts and turning problems into opportunities. This model has won many admirers - and should continue to do so. If it were to fall apart, the development of other initiatives of shared governance (such as the African Union) will also be set back. The world needs more such initiatives, not less.

It would be of vital benefit, then, if Europe in its role as a global actor could put its house in order and find ways to improve it. The world needs the European model to be successful. This is not a call for European self-obsession - far less isolationism. On the contrary: Europe can play its important global role credibly and with self-confidence only if it has sorted out its own economic and governance problems.

After that, what resources Europe still has should be used to focus on two or three main global issues on which it can really speak with one voice. At the very top of that list should be the fight against dangerous climate change. Europe set the agenda here and continues to be the frontrunner over implementation; and the issue is closely linked to its economic interests in the context of international competition. Moreover, Europe’s global commitment on climate change is a principle which European citizens - both domestically and in foreign policy - can support and advocate.

Europeans must lobby from below

Europe is dominated by national interests. That is logical in a system where the sole source of direct political legitimacy is via national and regional elections. The elections to the European parliament are proxy votes on national policy whose outcome is not reflected in a European political executive or the composition of the European commission. There is little surprise then that politicians who rely on a popular mandate continue to think mainly in national terms.  

In addition, ever fewer politicians have a “European” history of their own. Their personal lives unfold against a European backdrop, but the nation-state is closer to their hearts and strengthening Europe has not been their principal political aim. This is less anti-Europeanism than rational politics. Angela Merkel is a good example here.  

The European Union’s executive posts are occupied by compliant technocrats - administrators not shapers of policy. As a result, the foreign-policy executive trio in Brussels (Herman van Rompuy, president of the European council, and José Manuel Barroso, president of the European commission, as well as Catherine Ashton) plays only a very minor part in the present crisis. Europe is more or less directly governed from the national capitals - and national capitals make national European politics.  

The national European elites are becoming less and less able to put across a vision of and for Europe. The Brussels institutions cannot compensate for this absence. Since the heyday of Jacques Delors, these institutions have been reduced to the status of an apolitical bureaucracy. This is reflected in the very language of Europe: technical, theoretical, complicated and boring. The various national political discourses are much closer to the people.  

Yet the financial crisis shows that politicians can react to pressure - from the markets, and from Eurosceptic and populist movements in Finland, the Netherlands and Britain. After all, politicians are appointed and employed by citizens and should respond to their pressure. But where, then, is the political pressure of those who see the future in more Europe? For Europe’s future cannot be left to national elites, Eurosceptic lobbies and international financial markets. It needs an effective lobby from below that is capable of demanding a proactive European policy.  

What next?

European visionaries built the European Union step-by-step as an elite project after the second world war. This is a creative achievement of which Europeans can justly be proud. But this method has reached its limits. To continue in the same way could prevent Europe’s development over the next decades and even destroy what has been achieved.  

The incoherent crisis-management of Europe’s current leaderships has shown that passivity,  and leaving Europe to “them”, does not work. The European dream can continue only if it is supported by a broad grassroots movement capable of helping to shape it. In short, there must be pressure from below.  

The European model is as relevant today as it was in 1945. But in order to survive in the 21st century it has to be refreshed and modernised, both in substance and communication. What is at stake is nothing less than the reinvention of Europe to make it able to continue to guarantee prosperity, stability and peace. This offers a large, compelling vision for Europe’s domestic and foreign policy.

The groups that have benefited most from European integration, and are now seeing for the first time that European integration is not irreversible, must be given a political voice. Armchair Europeans will have to become engaged Europeans; a civil lobby, which uses national and European elections to make political decision-makers listen and respond must be mobilised.

This will not be easy in a context where turnout in European-parliament elections has been declining since the first direct election in 1979 (the average turnout in 2009 was 43%). This trend will have to be reversed in 2014: an even further retreat from engagement by European voters, when anti-European groups are getting stronger and better organised, would be very damaging.  

Thus the immediate goal of a citizens’ movement would be to make the elections to the European parliament in 2014 a matter of real choice of political direction. After all, there are more than enough European issues to be contested, politically and emotionally. Among them:

* How can Europe safeguard prosperity and stability in the future?

* How can the power of the financial markets be restrained?

* What should a social policy of redistribution look like?

* How can opportunities for young people be created, and their potential released?

* What should be the shape of policy in key areas - industrial policy in the age of globalisation, sustainable-energy policy to contain climate change and provide work, education policy to ensure qualified citizens and international competitiveness?

The European parliament elections of 2014 must indeed be European instead of national "proxy-elections", in part by pressing to use them to decide the composition of the European commission.

There are many opportunities for a new movement that is independent, open, political and passionate. The current wave of occupations in many cities worldwide bring some of them to life. Social media and older forms of political communication and campaigning, if they are used creatively, can combine to make a real difference. Europe must be visible online and offline with a civil lobby of its own. Only in this way will a sustainable way out of the European identity crisis be found. It is time for concerned Europeans to act.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email

Related articles


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData