It seems ironic that a report on the future of the European Union - Project Europe 2030: Challenges and Opportunities - is issued at the very moment when the continent’s leaders have been meeting in a desperate effort to contain the reverberations of an epic financial crisis. The flames in burning Athens, and the decisions taken in Brussels to seek to douse them, highlight both the dangers and capabilities of 21st-century Europe. But the wider context of the grave emergency in the eurozone also confirm that Europe needs much more than short-term management: it needs a larger sense of the critical choices facing it over the next generation.
This is what the Reflection Group seeks to provide. The group, formed in October 2008, consists of twelve Europeans from a variety of disciplines under the chairmanship of Spain’s former prime minister Felipe González; it issued its report on 9 May 2010 - Europe Day. Our analysis and prescriptions are wide-ranging and long-term. They seek to raise sights to “horizon 2030”: to move beyond recent frustration and pessimism about Europe’s direction, and explore how the European Union might be relevant to the concerns and aspirations of its citizens in twenty years’ time.
We deliberately chose to speak out on a date that marks the sixtieth anniversary of Robert Schuman’s famous declaration of 1950 that proposed an integration of western Europe’s coal and steel industries: a moment when we Europeans collectively might want to reflect on the echoes of our founding myth. The convergence of such emergency and self-reflectivity might be fitting after all. It is urgent to think long term. This is, I believe, the main message of the Reflection Group.
The background of our work was that that after a difficult period of intense constitutional debates, the European Council at its summit in Brussels on 15-16 October 2008 confirmed a decision made in December 2007 that it was time to look resolutely beyond treaty reform to an action-oriented agenda. As a result the council gave a “group of wise men” a mandate that seemed impossibly broad: to “identify the key issues and developments that the union is likely to face and analyse how they might be addressed.”
So for the last eighteen months, my eleven fellow Reflection Group members and I have debated almost every policy-sphere relevant to the future of Europe: economic governance, labour reform, energy policy, the environment, migration, terrorism, security, external relations, and - not least - the union itself and its citizens.
As a Franco-Greek citizen with German and Spanish origins, and a mother of Franco-British children who teaches in Britain, I took this task at heart, even pretending to be "wise"... As the only academic in the group - although many of the members have academic roots, starting with Vaira Vike-Freiberga - I was especially committed to bringing the voices of academic colleagues into this project. I most grateful that many of them, from Europe and beyond, heard the call and provided invaluable input - not all of which was lost in translation. Moreover, thanks to Rem Koolhaas and his team, we conducted our work in colour!
Doing, not being
The members of the Reflection Group were acutely aware that we could not claim to be representative of European societies. Many others - among citizens’ groups, businesses, policy-makers or scholars - know better than us. We tried therefore to provide a mirror of current views, listen to people inside and outside the walls of the council - and understand too why so many people throughout Europe have recently said “no” to how it functions. We were extremely lucky to be assisted by the wonderful support of younger persons who can justly claim to “be” the future. At the same time, we were obliged to work within the constraints of officialdom.
There is a lot we did not do. We were asked to examine the longer-term, in this case 2030. But the group met in the here-and-now, mesmerised by the events unfolding under our eyes: the world’s agonies over the follies of casino capitalism; a financial crisis turned economic then social then political in Europe; a global president elected on the other side of the Atlantic; an unloved but necessary EU treaty rejected anew and finally adopted; a tug-of-war in the EU leadership sphere. Nevertheless, we mostly managed to keep our eyes on the twenty-years’ horizon.
Since we figured that there is nothing harder to predict than the future, we refrained from hazardous forecast and scenarios and sought to identify relatively reliable trends instead: an aging Europe, a warming planet, shifting global power. We refrained too from offering a cartography of EU failures, a necessary task best conducted by expert analysts, and from drawing specific policy proposals from the broad principles we agreed upon. It is up to politicians not us, to make the hard choices; and it is for European citizens to point the way.
We also chose not to try to characterise the nature of the EU we wish to see in twenty years’ time; instead we stuck resolutely to the “doing” rather than the “being”. I am reminded of the adage of Socrates: to know that you know what you know and that you do not know what you do not know, that is real wisdom. In this, we might in the process collectively have become a bit wiser.
It is hardly surprising that the twelve of us did not agree on everything. We came to this mission with the ideas and prejudices prevailing in our respective worlds: politics, business, media, finance, union-ology, architecture, academia. And we each believe in different European stories as we learned from getting to know each other. Some of us channel our European passions in art history, others in songs across borders and others still on the football pitch. Depending on which one of us you talk to, Europe is above all a community of law, a community of exchange, a community of memory, or a community of values. In other words, we were all sceptically committed to the European cause, but in very different ways and with very different emphases! In this, we reflected much of the diversity that remains the heart and soul of our union itself.
The revival option
We did agree, however, on key fundamentals.
We agreed that we Europeans stand at a critical point in our history. Many in Europe today feel that we hover on the edge of chaos: tomorrow’s coastal cities swamped by rising tides, tomorrow’s public aspirations swamped by inter-generational debt, tomorrow’s young swamped by baby-boom pensioners, tomorrow’s industries swamped by Asian competitors. For the first time in our recent history, our children may be worse off than ourselves.
Our message is that such prospects don’t have to come true. We can still be agents of change rather than its passive witnesses or victims. If we are indeed facing a decade of transition when radical adaptation must happen anyway – in how we work, produce, consume, learn and live - let’s at least gain from the pain, and reinvent Europe in the process. Let us stand back from the brink. The journey ahead is ours to chart.
We like to believe that crisis has the power to bring out the best in all of us. This can be true of the EU too. During our half-century journey, we have accumulated a wealth of experience, and it must be stressed from our mistakes as well as our successes. Surely, there would be tremendous hubris to believe that today’s EU has all or even most of the answers. But when it comes to problems that transcend our individual national capacity to act, it is the best we have! In spite of the false prophecies over its collapse it is a resilient machine, but we can and must use it better, much better.
As we have come to see it, after fifty years of consolidation on the continent, the union faces a fundamental choice. Its past achievements, although historic, dealt with our corner of the world. Much remains to be done in Europe, but the main challenges that the European Union faces today are global in nature.
2010 could mark the beginning of a new phase for the European Union. There is a major choice over our next fifty years, which could be expressed as survival versus revival. This period could see Europe slide into marginalisation and decline, where it becomes the increasingly irrelevant peninsula of the Asian continent; or it could see Europe establish a confident global role in a non-European world.
But if the EU is to choose revival over mere survival, it must rise now to the challenges before it, by systematically forging links between short-term remedies and a long-term vision.
The twenty-year horizon
The report we presented on 9 May 2010 is about the critical choices that the European Union faces in the two decades of “horizon 2030” and their implications for the union, its leaders and its citizens. These are undoubtedly difficult choices.
My friend Lykke Friis left the Reflection Group to become environment minister in Denmark just in time to witness the unsuccessful climate-change conference in her beloved “Hopenhagen” in December 2009. She is just one of the colleagues across Europe - in the worlds of politics, NGOs, academia and activism - who are busy trying to draw the right lessons from Copenhagen and beyond.
The Copenhagen moment, I believe, reveals the urgent need for Europe to project a common purpose across a range of political issues. But we must put our common house in order if we are to put it in orbit. Only on solid foundations will the European Union be an actor to be reckoned with on the global scene. As European nations, as European peoples and as European citizens, we do not need to agree on everything or merge in a single political entity. And we can voice this shared purpose with many different accents. But we need to rekindle the kind of self-interested and rational solidarity across borders – generous yet profitable - which inspired the EU project from the beginning. This is the true secret of our collective strength, as Lech Walesza never tires of reminding us. If the rising powers in this world want to brush us aside - then let us not get mad, but get even!
This message is formally addressed to European leaders under whose mandate we have worked. But neither they nor we can say who will be the effective agents for change in Europe by 2020-30. The guidelines for action we propose are focused on what the European Union does directly, as the EU. But they also relate to what member-states do as partners in the EU and ultimately, what individuals and groups in European societies can do through networking, collaboration and competition.
Our conclusions are strongly grounded in common sense, and already inspire a great deal of what the EU does. This is not surprising, given the wealth of intelligence dedicated to the task inside and outside EU institutions, starting with the think-tank world (there are many example, among them An EU “fit for purpose” in the global age, Think Global-Act European (TGAE), and l’Etat de l’Union 2010). We have tried, very partially and imperfectly, to build on all of these, and thus contribute to a necessary debate over the tensions and tradeoffs often papered over in the European politics of consensus. If we put all our insights together, we might even succeed in issuing the wake-up call.
Let us be a signpost in Europe’s politics of contestation. I very much hope that the Reflection Group report can contribute to a wider debate around Europe, on the web and on the ground, to lift our spirits beyond short-term problems to the 2030 horizon. I will be committed to the task ahead.
Next: part two of Project Europe 2030 - the message