There is a growing chorus of disenchantment with Europe and populist parties are preaching anti-European slogans across the member states. Today’s British referendum on European Union (EU) membership is only the most extreme manifestation of that disaffection. Whatever the outcome, the turmoil surrounding popular attitudes toward Europe is not going to end. The reason is a lack of vision.
I am not the first person to make this argument and this is not the first time I am making it. The reason for repetition is that most people do not find the argument convincing. Some of my younger students are persuaded, perhaps (although it is tough to tell if they are sincere); high-ranking politicians and policymakers are more skeptical.
The thinking is very pragmatic. Europe faces serious problems related to inequality, productivity, demographics, and migration. Several European countries are still waiting to recover from the recent economic and financial crisis. Youth unemployment is staggering. Europe’s neighbors are in turmoil and Europe’s role in the world is diminished. To say Europe needs ‘vision’ in such a context seems self-indulgent; if the European Union wants to be relevant, then Europe’s politicians should focus on doing something – anything – to address at least one of these pressing concerns. Ideally, they would act across the whole range. Hence the usual response to the ‘vision’ argument is some paraphrase of a quote from Helmut Schmidt: ‘people who have visions should go see a doctor’. The underlying conviction is that actions speak louder than words.
This kind of pragmatism plays on both sides of the British referendum debate. The Leave campaign argues that ‘Europe’ is at best a distraction and at worst an obstruction. Following this line of argument, the first step required for Britons to tackle their problems is to liberate the Parliament at Westminster from the constraints and interference of the European Union (EU). The Remain campaign disagrees, but only in part. They admit that the EU is an awkward organization, badly in need of reform. But Remain campaigners insist that pulling Britain out would make matters worse and not better. Either outcome in the contest is a victory for pragmatism. Leave says ‘do something’; Remain says ‘do no harm’.
Such pragmatism is appealing. It is also misguided. The best way to gain leverage over a complex system like the European Union (EU) is to understand and articulate its purpose. That principle holds for physical and natural systems, but it is particularly true when human beings are involved. Solving problems is important, but it is not enough. Should Europe’s politicians fail to rise up to the challenge of explaining the purpose behind Europe – which is a big part of what ‘vision’ is about – no amount of action will save them from the rise of skepticism.
This rising skepticism is not limited to those who reject Europe or dislike the EU. It includes anyone who thinks they can solve new problems more easily with some different arrangement and that they have little to lose from exploring the alternatives. People take past achievements for granted – even when they include something as momentous as Franco-German reconciliation. Moreover, no great achievement is without unintended consequences. Europe’s internal market fostered trade, investment, and prosperity, but it also encouraged regulation, cross-border migration, relaxed border controls, and various institutions to dampen exchange rate volatility (including, but not limited to, the single currency). Finally, each generation has its own problems, priorities, and technologies. This constant change from one generation to the next fits clashes with existing hierarchies, procedures and institutions. That is why we have always experienced a tension between ‘progress’ and ‘tradition’.
Vision is how we overcome the stress of constant adaptation. The vision I mean here is a story that politicians and policymakers use to tell people who they are, where they come from, what they want or prioritize, and how they are going to get it using the energy and resources they have available or can create. This is not to say that politicians create this story out of whole cloth or that they impose it on an unsuspecting public. Most if not all of the key themes, identities, and aspirations emerge organically from the people themselves. Moreover, for a vision to work, the people have to believe it and they have to buy into it with their own support and effort. The point is that someone has to take responsibility for weaving the various strands of the narrative together and then binding them to a specific set of institutions and tasks.
The high points in the history of European integration occurred when politicians wrapped their achievements in a vision like the one I describe. The Coal and Steel Community was about peaceful reconciliation; the Economic Community was about industrialization and development; the single market would about jobs and competitiveness. The low points came when politicians failed to outline a larger project or offered a vision that was unconvincing. Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand may have embraced monetary integration as a way to unify the continent, but the link between a single currency and a political union as a project was never obvious – which is why the Brits, Danes, and Swedes rejected it. If anything, and as the recent crisis demonstrated, the single currency needs European solidarity more than it created that solidarity in the first place.
The lesson here is that no vision is permanent and each generation needs its own European narrative, including a narrative of progress from one generation to the next. That is hardly surprising. Each generation needs its own national narrative as well. Just look at the debates that have taken place recently over French identity and what it means to be ‘British’. Now consider the plight of Belgium. What is at stake in these controversies is not just a matter of taxonomy or naming; it is about who people are, where they come from, what they want, and what they believe they can accomplish. In other words, it is all the same things people need from a vision of Europe, only more intense.
Politicians cannot ignore the requirement for a vision of Europe by ‘doing things’, even if they do things very well. European integration cannot be just about solving problems. It also has to be able explaining why things are problematic, which problems warrant attention, how they can be solved, what it will cost, how the costs are borne, and who are we to worry about these things in the first place. People are always going to ask the underlying questions. Entrepreneurial politicians will be looking for ways to weave the various themes and threads together. Since these entrepreneurs are mostly outside existing institutions, they will tell a story of disenchantment with things as they are. And because they are listening to the questions the people are asking, that story will have resonance.
Europe’s politicians can only push back against this skepticism by offering their own vision and by adapting that narrative on an ongoing basis. The challenge is to bring people together. We can see that clearly at the European level. But we can also see it in debates about independence for Scotland and Catalonia, in the political fragmentation that extends across Southern Europe, in the complicated politics of countries like Poland and Hungary, and in the rise of groups as diverse as the French National Front, the Italian Five Star Movement, and the German AfD.
Winning a referendum is no more or less of a permanent solution to the problem of bringing people together than losing a referendum in this context. Whether the British vote to Leave or Remain, their relationship with Europe will remain problematic. The debate has been deeply divisive; even if it had not been so, people change and so does the wider social context. David Cameron was right to insist that the British cannot avoid having a serious conversation about Europe; the same logic holds for the people of every member state. He was wrong to suggest that there is an end to the conversation or that he could force it to a conclusion with an in-or-out referendum. The weakness of Europe is not about choice but commitment. Only a compelling vision of Europe can transform that weakness into strength.Follow @Erik_Jones_SAIS