Despite all the prophecies of doom, the European unification process is a truly marvellous feast that was born only thanks to the political will “from above”.
However, at the very latest since the Maastricht Treaty (which paved the way for the Euro), there have been some negative developments, which have gained prominence since the beginning of the financial and debt crises, and they have yet to be overcome. People’s passion for Europe has practically transformed into the opposite feeling. The recent Brexit decision could represent a new turning point. It is pointless to enumerate the errors made until present and analyse them individually. However, we cannot turn the clocks back or return to a point in the past before any of this occurred, to a “status quo ante”. Although the last words about the UK’s exit from the EU have not yet been pronounced, one must look ahead more than ever before. To do so, however, the remaining 27 Member States must agree on a clear common goal and share a joint position.
Learning without looking back in anger
The fact that the UK belongs to Europe was actually always a certain fact. The adhesion of the UK to the European Communities over forty years ago under a sheen of believing that one could participate in this union without restraint and even design it in cooperation with others in a constructive fashion soon proved to be the object of a yet unheard-of sabotage manoeuvre that has always deeply affected the integration process and the original Community and the later European Union. Why? In those days already, political decision-makers and their successors on the British Isles had already clearly made their minds up to stall all steps towards a political union in Europe. Ms Thatcher’s independent “I want my money back” has left a deep scar.
Unfortunately, many countries followed suit – including Germany, sadly – and were able to hide behind such positions. Bragging about European successes, “selling” them on one’s national territory as the achievements of the country’s leaders while blaming anything less attractive concerning common compromises on “Brussels” and Europe, and consequently on the European unification process; and speaking about EU workers in a negative light, denigrating them – these practices have damaged the reputation and image of Europe in our countries over the years. For a hopeful future for European integration, such attitudes must stop once and for all, both on the side of leaders and the media that support them, and a constructive, democratic position must be taken in order to begin walking a better, common path. This is a duty, not an unattainable objective.
For the future of Europe, more truthfulness is definitely required. The truths mentioned above about our recent common history must therefore be addressed “sine ira et studio”, and without bitterness or blame – because everyone is partly responsible.
It must be clear, however, that whoever commits to a now inevitable second attempt to achieve a new, precisely defined common goal cannot simply back out alone once it has been agreed upon. Dishonesty about Europe and broken promises must stop.
New challenges as a binding force
The new global challenges (climate change, debt crises, refugees, etc.) were identified a long time ago. They cannot be dealt with by Member States on their own, only if they act together.
Any other way would not have much impact. In this way, the effectiveness and commitment of our many invoked common values in Europe (as in “advanced” Western industrialised nations) have wasted away and diminished. We have indeed neglected to take care of those values and keep them alive (such as “democracy” and “human rights”, “reliability of administrative actions for the good of the people” and “social justice”). This is why we must resurrect our support of these values and try to experience them in an exemplary manner against a backdrop of truthfulness, if they are still to be binding in Europe and in every Member State. This is the case for the leading classes, who should lead by example, as well as all European citizens in the Member States.
When the European Communities were founded in the 1950s, the memory of the destruction caused by wars between nations in Europe influenced not only the unification concept of the founding fathers, but also other cross-border, integration-promoting forces, such as the convinced European Federalists, whose binding force between nation and language is often denied and underestimated from today’s viewpoint. The Member States’ agreed respect and rejection of all imperialistic expansion was already path-breaking and exemplary. We Europeans can still be proud of those actions to this day. Even other large regions of the world could benefit from them.
However, this does not change anything to the fact that a consensual identification of the common interests of the EU Member States has yet to be achieved. The large eastward enlargement of the EU following the fall of the Berlin Wall was simply too sudden and it happened too fast. In addition, it was not fully in compliance with the original concept drawn up by the six-member Community. This led to excessive expectations from the newly acceding countries… which were eventually dashed. Many of those countries did not immediately want to give up their newly-recovered freedom for the benefit of the European Union after the collapse of the Soviet Union either, in whatever form and whatever the advantages gained in return, although many of the Central and Eastern European countries aspired to belonging to the Union.
This fact must be taken into account too in a second attempt to strengthen the European construct.
Creation of a core Europe with political clout and capable of action at the centre of a larger European Union now counting 27 Member States
A conceivable, feasible way to strengthen and expand what has already been achieved could be the definition of a solution agreed upon by the Member States to abandon the idea of a blanket pace for the continuation of the EU as it now stands and the establishment of a concept for a strong core Europe that could act as an important player with equal rights on the global stage and convincingly reflect European values and its way of life, thus achieving an adequate, responsible potential for power and acknowledgement. The strength to take this step could also arise from the fact that this core Europe may already be proven to be real and embedded in today’s actual European Union, but it may have to be moderately reshaped (which could also be helpful when designing future relations with the British).
This so-called core Europe could be formed by the original six founding countries (France, Germany, Italy and the three Benelux states, i.e. Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg), as well as the two states in the Iberian Peninsula (Portugal and Spain) and Austria. So it could initially be composed of nine Member States, as long as the populations of the said countries agree with the concept and are willing to go along with it. If countries such as Austria and the Netherlands are not prepared to do so, the core would be smaller.
The remaining 18 countries of the EU (or more) would form a larger union in conjunction with the other core nine (or fewer), in which this stronger and more integrated future core Europe would be integrated. The potential 18 countries mentioned above that would lie outside the core Europe but that would still remain within a larger union (including countries such as Greece, Poland, Hungary or, if applicable, the UK) could adapt the European achievements to their more or less Eurosceptic desires (for instance in the sense of an initial restriction in terms of integration to free trade for these 18 countries) and achieve greater consolidation. This would not prevent a later accession to the core.
In this manner, the achievements of Europe (e.g. the Eurozone, Schengen and the remainder of the Western European Union, WEU) would be secured along concentric lines and ellipses. They could be adapted and may even be easier to manage.
On the other hand, the core Europe would have true common economic, foreign and defence policies, recognised common institutions, thus being a “political union”. Of course, the populations of the affected core countries would have to be asked about this concept and agree to it. On the other hand, in such a core Europe the subsidiarity principle and the expansion of the many value-building individual characteristics of the core countries and regions could be specified and further developed, in order to act as an example for “unity in diversity” – which should still be an aim.
In such a framework, a European identity could finally be forged in a gradual manner. It would emerge from greater identification with the larger European region in a multipolar world, which is where we are heading anyway. Everyone could find their place in that diversity, even in our national and cultural identities, without having to mortgage imaginable developments for the future. Today, no one can reliably say where the final borders of Europe in the east and south will be.
Basically, it is necessary to develop a concept for Europe by means of a realistic, sensible combination of “downsizing” and a greater “step forward” that does not exclude common perspectives, and in which unconditional Europeans, federalists and sovereigntists as well as eurosceptics can all find their place, and which can be supported by all affected population groups.
In this sense, the population totalling 500 million people (but which only represents 7 % of the global population!) could heartily say “Our future lies in Europe!” (where else?) with full heart and conviction once more. As to friends from the UK, the EU will be able to console itself on the basis of the fact that all countries from which the British ever withdrew developed successfully thereafter.
Picture: EU-UK banner illustration © NY Times 2016