A Compelling Vision for Europe

Europe’s heads of state and government face a real dilemma. They want to attract support for European integration from the people of Europe and they also want to show the outside world that the European Union remains a major source of dynamism and innovation. So the question is how best to achieve those two goals. Should they propose a new project that will attract everyone’s attention or should they try to come up with some ‘vision’ that explains why Europe still matters?

They seem to be going down the project route. The Five Presidents’ Report includes a number of new ‘unions’ – fiscal, financial, political, etc. Now German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande are adding a defense union into the mix. These projects attract a lot of attention, but usually from the wrong people. They are attractive to policy experts who debate what institutions should be built and which are not required; how to combine efforts at the member state and EU level; where priority should be given; and how all the pieces interact.

The problem is that the same conversations bore most ‘normal’ people who don’t spend their time imagining new intergovernmental and supranational arrangements and who see all this activity as a distraction from serious efforts to address slow economic performance, high unemployment, mass migration, and all the rest. By the same token, most people outside Europe take new initiatives with a healthy dose of cynicism. They pay more attention to Europe’s failures at the moment than to its successes; they do not want to repeat mistakes Europeans have already made. And they wonder how you can build new projects on such shaky foundations.

Most European leaders distrust the ‘vision’ route. They all remember a time – mostly from schoolbooks – when Europe was about ‘Franco-German reconciliation’, ‘the end of world war’ and ‘moving beyond the nation state’. Those were great slogans in the late 1940s and early 1950s that could be used to justify elite policy activity in the face of a largely disinterested but believing public. The rest of the world was as cynical then as it is today but Europeans proved them wrong. Each time Europe was relaunched there was another slogan. Some of these visions of Europe were more successful and some less. We can all remember times when European integration was less than dynamic and we can remember times when it really captured the imagination.

The 1992 campaign was a highpoint. Johns Hopkins University professor Nicolas Jabko, has looked closely at how the Commission used the language of the market to capture the imagination. That was the genius of European Commission President Jacques Delors and his team. That genius did not extend to monetary union. The 1992 campaign was a highpoint in terms of vision, popular support, and global anticipation for what Europe could become. That enthusiasm peaked with the negotiation of the Maastricht Treaty and then collapsed during the Maastricht ratification process. I suspect that is why so many politicians are wary of the ‘vision’ thing. They know that it cannot last forever and the hangover after the party is a painful one.

Europe’s heads of state and government need to go down the ‘vision’ route in Bratislava. Europe doesn’t need a ‘project’ at the moment. It already has too many projects that are half-built and in need of attention. The Brexit negotiations are going to be absorbing as well. And let’s not forget all those real-world concerns about slow growth, unemployment, and migration that ‘normal’ people find so important. There is also the turmoil – both real and potential – in Europe’s wider neighborhood; that is not to mention the real sense of unease that is being generated by the US presidential elections. No single project can address all these concerns: at worst it will provoke an unnecessary controversy; at best it will just get lost in the mix.

Europe’s leaders need to step back and ask what their Union means. They should pick a value that is a real priority. At the end of the second world war, that value was peace and reconciliation. In the 1960s, it was autonomy. In the 1970s, it was democracy and stability. In the 1980s, it was prosperity and competitiveness. The 1990s flirted with too many themes; the 2000s started trying to bring Europe closer to the people and then ended up doing exactly the opposite. So Europe’s leaders need to think hard about what the people want right now and how Europe can help them reach that objective.

The answer is going to be equality. Europe is about making sure every country (nation, people) has the opportunity to succeed and no country (nation, people) is left behind. Europe’s leaders should commit to that objective. They should explain how it connects really popular, push-button issues like roaming charges and corporate taxation, to the much wider array of European measures to protect consumers, promote market competition, stabilize banks, tackle migration, and project European values abroad. To make this work, though, they are going to have to really sell the message: Europe is about equality. And then they are going to have to learn what it means to ‘walk the walk’ and act in a manner that is consistent with that message.

Selling the message of equality consistently is likely to require repatriating some powers back to the member states. It is also going to mean making exceptions for small countries as well as large ones. And it is going to mean applying discretion judiciously rather than enforcing the rules strictly even when they obviously put one or more member states at a disadvantage. To do all of this, Europe will have to move forward and backwards at the same time. Such discretion is a prerogative of the Union as a whole and not the gift of any specific member state. It will be a complicated dance. But the difference between that ‘visionary’ future and the vision-less present is that the European people will know why they are doing things and they will have a good intuitive understand of when things are not working properly and when Europe is truly a success.

The rest of the world will have a better appreciation of what Europe is as well. And they will be able to talk about European success and failure in the same transparent language. If the goal is to build up credibility, that is how things have to be. Europe has to achieve what it sets out to do and the rest of the world has to be able to understand what that is and why it is important.

If Europe’s heads of state and government go down this vision route, then ‘Europe’ will be the ‘project’. It will not be a new project. As Lucy Kellaway pointed out in the Financial Times recently, we don’t need creativity at the moment. We need commitment. And a Europe that promotes equality where every country (nation, people) has the opportunity to succeed and no country (nation, people) is left behind is something worth fighting for – not just in Europe and not just for Europeans, but elsewhere as well.

This piece was originally published on E!Sharp. For the edited version, go here.

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