The unions 60 th birthday is not a moment for gifts and cake, but for reinvention around three new strategic ideas
Back in 1957, the mayor of Rome had an idea: to have all the clocks in the eternal city chime together on 25 March to celebrate the signing of the founding treaty of European cooperation. This festive rucku, an expression of the desire for a new start , now looks like a supremely ironic way of ushering in an era in which Market-Europe sought its redemption in silent boredom, an inaugural voice prove before the launch of a regulatory machine that left the public voiceless.
Few will dispute the initial success of an adventure which brought prosperity and stability to a continent ravaged by two world wars and then divided by the cold war. But since 1989, the world has changed. This is no longer a day for regulation but for action. An unprecedented rebellion has put the EU to the test: Farage, Le Pen, Wilders, Petry or Salvini all are aiming either at the destruction of the union, its currency, the open market, its united front against Vladimir Putin, or a mixture of all these.
To mount a credible response to this rebellion, the 27 presidents and “ministers ” who come together at a summit in Rome on Saturday must engage not in empty platitudes but in a triple European initiative. The new Europe must protect , improvise and let opponent the direct opposite of the things it does so well: assuring liberty, predictability, consensus. These new axioms will be difficult but not impossible; the survival of Europe depends on it.
First of all, protection . Europe is a beacon for all those who like openness, exchange, opportunities offered by the large space of free movement: entrepreneurs, students, tourists, polyglot alumnus, the young, the rich, the successful. Encouraged by this buoyancy, Brussels has lost sight of the less mobile citizens who see this Europe not as an opportunity but as a Trojan horse for globalisation that threatens their jobs, their safety, their daily lives. This is not so much a question of upper-class against the person or persons as a fundamental divergence between the interests of two separate halves of society, what the British now understand as the 48% versus the 52%. To regain the confidence of a solid majority of public opinion, Brussels can no longer be happy simply to work in the interests of its own kind; the European Union has to find a better balance between the freedoms that it provides and the protection that it offers.
One signal example borders. There can be no shared space free of internal borders if responsibility for external perimeters is not shared. That is the hard reality generated by the migration crisis of 2015 -1 6. Since when, member states collectively manage the external perimeter, albeit timidly. Sometimes, wisdom comes in a form of restraint, as it does in the field of social protection. Since Brussels cannot replace national welfare countries without becoming the superstate that people reject, the better balance that we can aim for is to mitigate the impact of newfound freedoms on systems of social protection and healthcare. It is the whole issue of free movement of workers which so bothered British voters during the referendum, and which bothers many others. Such proven political dilemmas need to be confronted head on.
And so to improvisation . What should be done when a eurozone member dices with insolvency and half a billion euros must be found in a weekend? What to do when strange little men in green invade an eastern neighbour and sanctions against the aggressor need to be agreed without delay? How to respond when a crowd of refugees gets across the Mediterranean and starts a march across the Balkans caring not a jot about the order of Schengen or Dublin? These are three recent examples that needed intervention by European institutions that have not traditionally been prepared for such events: to take decisions and act, without having the necessary time to smooth over conflicts, refine opinions, find arrangement and pull together green papers and white papers These arent crises about goats cheese or high grain prices of the good old days of the EEC, but questions about billions of euros, war and peace, identity and sovereignty.
Under the pressure of such realities, a politics of events is slowly emerging within the EU. It hasnt replaced the politics of rules of Market-Europe, but sits alongside. This is a veritable transformation which no one has got to grips with as yet. Market-Europe is seriously prepared to face adversity, threats, the unforeseen. But sometimes, one doesnt have the choice. What, after all, could be worse than doing nothing in an emergency? It is in such cases that new forms of executive power emerge, even new organizations. We understand the central place of the European council, the summits of national leader, all accountable to public opinion, who together face the whims of fortune. During the euro crisis, for example, the Brussels institutions had neither the legitimacy nor the financial means to weather the blizzard. But heads of state or government, sidestepping the strictures of pact, are able to reclaim new unexplored territory and move together into the future. Europe can only act in conjunction with member states , not against them.
And so a new Europe hoves into view. Protect : we can now assure the need. Improvise , leaders will do so under pressure from events.
But allow opponent , the final part of the transformation, remains more complicated. And yet its just as vital as the other changes. As long as there remains this refusal to acknowledge opposition within the EU, it will show itself against it. This is the phenomenon we are witnessing today. While the Market-Europe founded in Rome faced at most a mix of indifference and mock about the shape of cucumbers, the new Europe of currency, perimeters and foreign powers engenders far higher expectations and increased mistrust. The politics of events requires decisions which are not written down in treaties or the opinions of experts; they are a response to the exigencies of the moment, resulting from a confrontation between resisting positions and values. This is why they need public approving from voters who in elections and national referendums are increasingly prone to have their voices heard. And for the right reasons: when conventional wisdom loses its monopoly, that is when disagreement appears; when executive power eventually depicts itself, it needs to count on solid public support.
There have already been attempts at introducing a dynamic within the EU between government and opposition, for example via the European parliament. But the federalist powerplay has merely strengthened national anti-European populism and is ill-attuned to the challenges of the hour. It is time to stop threatening to excommunicate foes and dismissing all criticism of Brussels as anti-Europeanism. The excess of consensus in Brussels stifles European political life. The big mouths of the moment Tsipras and Varoufakis on the euro crisis, Orban on the refugee crisis have an important role to play. They demonstrate to the public the real options and dilemmas in play.
As well as being a decision-making mechanism, republic allows us to stage and manage social and political conflicts, even use them as information sources of freedom. A dissensus can give Europe a dynamism that the politics of events genuinely demands. But all of this presupposes an essential prerequisite: the conviction that what unites us as Europeans is stronger than what divides us.
Luuk van Middelaar is a Dutch political philosopher and writer of The Passage to Europe( Yale University Press, 2013 ). He contributed this article to the Europa group of newspapers.
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