The European Union in 2057

Frank Vibert
22 March 2007

On 1 July 1942, two weeks before the French authorities sent her to die in Auschwitz, Irène Némirovsky confided in her notebook that the future offered only a choice between "two socialisms": national socialism and communism. Fortunately, she was wrong. Today, both types of socialism are dead and the countries of Europe are part of a club of market-oriented democracies that form the European Union - a future that the novelist, and most of her European contemporaries, could not have envisaged.

Against this history, the European Union that celebrates in Berlin on 24-25 March 2007 the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome, can be seen as an enormous and historically unprecedented success. Yet the celebrations are muted, staged and artificial. The reason for this seems to be that while the union can look back with pride it does not look forward with confidence. Few of its members wish to leave but few regard it with affection.

Frank Vibert is director of the European Policy Forum. He is the author of Europe Simple, Europe Strong: The Future of European Governance (Polity, 2001) and The Rise of the Unelected: Democracy and the New Separation of Powers (Cambridge University Press, 2007)

Among Frank Vibert's articles on openDemocracy:

"The future of Europe – simplify, simplify"
(12 December 2001)

"The new cosmopolitanism"
(20 March 2003)

"French referendum lessons"
(11 May 2005)

"'Absorption capacity': the wrong European debate" (21 June 2006)

"Germany's presidency: an odd couple" (25 October 2006)

Grand themes vs everyday lives

In order to reverse a widespread sense of malaise within the union, Europe's intellectual or political leaders proffer various unifying themes. A constitution has been tried and failed. Further enlargement of the union's membership would extend what is arguably its greatest triumph, but is up against popular resistance. World leadership in the fight against environmental disaster has been proclaimed. But the reality is that the member-states do not have energy policies consistent with their carbon-reduction targets. Some view a more credible common defence and security policy as a goal - but no government is spending the sums that would earn credibility. Leadership in the fight against global poverty is seen as more attractive by others - but the record of European interventions in sub-Saharan Africa does not inspire confidence.

Different voices suggest that the whole idea of searching for grand unifying themes is a mistake. According to these voices what is required is for the union to demonstrate policies that work to benefit people in their everyday life, enhance job security and protect against social change. The existing institutions should be allowed to get on with their jobs, as they are, without further navel-gazing. Those policies that do not work at a union level should be restored to the national and local level so that people do not feel so disconnected from remote and bureaucratic processes in Brussels. "Policy relevance" is the catchphrase.

Fifty years ahead

In 2057, when people come to celebrate the union's centenary, they may look at this cacophony with bemusement. With hindsight it is always possible to spot trends and processes that were not so obvious at the time. What might these be?

A first important development might be the emergence of London in the first decade of the 21st century as Europe's pre-eminent and indeed only global centre- a centre based on competitive and worldwide services: in finance, law, accounting, medicine, communications, entertainment and higher education. For London, Europe is only part of its market and not the most dynamic part. London is cosmopolitan while it is continental Europe rather than Britain that is insular. London offers opportunities for the young while an ageing Europe tries to protect those who already have jobs. Is London the market-led model of success the example that the union decided to foster and emulate in its second fifty years? Did Europe become a continent of newly great cities rather than once great nation-states, a private-service economy rather than a state-service economy?

A second pivotal development to be identified in retrospect might be that obscure €140 million ($187 million) item included for the first time in the European Union's 2007 budget under the category of the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR). Did the union come to realise that, confronted with an inevitable decline in its own relative economic weight in the world economy, it would make a huge difference to its future comfort and security if the new powers in the world were going to be democratic or not?

Europe had seen the rise of greater powers outside its borders in the past - the United States and the Soviet Union. It was not their economic and military rise that mattered but the values they stood for. One offered hope for Europe and the other destruction. Faced with the rise of yet new powers, did the union therefore start linking more clearly its own "soft power" in trade and aid and its "hard power" in force-projection to democratisation outside its borders? Did the launching by Angela Merkel in 2007 of a new effort to form a transatlantic partnership mark the end of sniping at the United States by Europe's politicians and intellectuals and a realisation that the union and America had to stand together in order to uphold democratic values in the world?

Also in openDemocracy on the European Union's past, present and future:

Kalypso Nicolaïdis, "We the peoples of Europe... "
(18 December 2003)

Simon Berlaymont, "What the European Union is"
(23 June 2005)

Anthony Barnett, "The birth of Europe? "
(9 October 2006)

John Palmer, "Germany and Europe: the pull of unity"
(16 February 2007)

Aurore Wanlin, "The European Union at fifty: a second life"
(15 March 2007)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "European unity: reality and myth"
(21 March 2007)

A third major development that future historians might identify could be the changes that took place in the organisation of democratic systems of government around the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. There was a turn towards relying on unelected bodies for problem-solving in democratic societies. They were better at marshalling the evidence and knowledge than elected politicians. Citizens wanted to be better informed about matters that affected their daily lives and found that unelected bodies were more likely to get out the information and to tell the truth than elected politicians. Independent unelected bodies came to be seen as a new branch of democratic systems of government, as important for the health of democratic societies in their way as an independent judiciary in its way. Informed citizens remained active democrats but they did not like the kind of sterile political debates they were offered or the old-fashioned parties they could choose from. Eventually this new separation of powers helped the union to sort out its own form of governance (for a discussion of the new separation of powers in relation to the union's existing power-sharing arrangements, see The Rise of the Unelected, Cambridge University Press, May 2007).

The challenge of uncertainty

The fact that there is so much uncertainty about the direction the European Union should take, and so much questioning of its form and structure, is not necessarily a sign of weakness. The union has proved itself an effective bargaining forum for its members and an effective way of reconciling differences of viewpoint between them. This internal orientation has now to be replaced by an equally effective external orientation. In this respect the example of the City of London is double edged. It shows how successful and vibrant a market-led Europe could be. But it also shows that the union could become damaging and irrelevant if it does not relate successfully to the larger world.

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