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History will not stop for Europe

In 2001, a series of profound changes were underway within the European Union. The same was true then as now: Europe needs a new argument.

Frank Vibert Susan Richards
17 May 2001
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A euro in the night sky. Metropolico.org/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Europe needs a European argument.

A profoundly radical combination of developments is underway:

  1. In a few months eleven national currencies will disappear, to be fully replaced by the Euro.
  2. Enlargement promises a Union of over 500 million people as up to twelve countries prepare to join.
  3. The Nice summit witnessed the attempt to begin to define both the Union’s division of powers and its citizens’ rights, a process not best left to politicians.

    At one and the same time the EU will be amalgamating major currencies, undertaking an immense increase in size and member states, and considering a historic constitution. The currency will be shared without common tax structures or environmental codes. Fears of enlargement are growing within the Union and also in applicant countries themselves. And as governments wrangle over a Charter of Rights, Europe’s human dimensions are changing swiftly.

  • The EU will be amalgamating major currencies... The currency will be shared without common tax structures or environmental codes.
  • Significant movements of people are already taking place inside the present Union – a trend which enlargement will amplify. Projections suggest that, to sustain its economic growth, the EU should welcome millions more new immigrants. Asylum seekers and illegal migrants bear testimony to the draw of Europe, in a world still dominated by extremes of poverty and oppression. The response is a growing fear among many sections of the public, as jobs and familiar ways of life feel threatened. The quickening pace of technological change and the globalisation of cultures intensify such concerns.

Europe requires a far-reaching debate on these changes if it is to build on their opportunities and take heed of their dangers. The debate needs to be conducted in clear, accessible language and will need to confront, not evade, the issues that stir popular passions, from food to lack of accountability, from race and religion to inequality and corporate power.

Asylum seekers and illegal migrants bear testimony to the draw of Europe, in a world still dominated by extremes of poverty and oppression. The response is a growing fear among many sections of the public, as jobs and familiar ways of life feel threatened.

The debate must be independent of any interests designed in advance to favour the Commission, or the Parliament, or any national government. It should include those outside the EU, especially the applicant countries and Europe’s neighbours, from North Africa to Russia. Its participants must feel free to argue about the fate of countries other than their own, rather than being confined to the expression of a national point of view.

Fundamental criticism is more than an important part of such debate: it will be essential to building a secure and durable political base for the European Union. Enlargement, constitutional change, Charters of Rights, new foreign policy alignments: each calls for the legitimacy which can only be gained through trenchant and robust argument, the kind of argument in which advocates take on their opponents in good faith at their strongest.

A European public

Such a debate calls for a revival of a European public, as the Nice summit recognised. At first it will be small in numbers but it could nonetheless be a step towards a self-defining European democracy. This need not dissolve, liquidate or replace national political traditions. On the contrary, it can enhance and re-invigorate them. This is precisely one of the central issues that must be addressed in any exchange of views and experience on the outlook for the EU: what are the prospects for its nations?

At present, as the issues get larger and more important, the language used to describe and respond to them gets more remote and bureaucratic. An administrative culture of Euro-speak is closing off the future of the continent from those who live in the continent.

An administrative culture of Euro-speak is closing off the future of the continent from those who live in the continent.

To help overcome this, openDemocracy aims to provide a space for high quality participation from across an enlarging Europe – and beyond. Contributions will be published in English, using a single language so as to encourage the direct exchange of differences of view and experience. We will invite novelists, poets and economists, scholars and policy makers, artists and lawyers, and even those working in Brussels provided they write well, to set out their views on what it now means to be – and to become – European.

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