In search of soul for Europe

The 10 December celebrations in Oslo for the award of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union were grand and moving. They felt like confirmation of success of a bold experiment that started in Europe in the 1950s, under the then still fresh memories of the Second World War.

A lot of progress has indeed been made over the last 60 years on the European continent towards peaceful coexistence, cooperation and development. So there are certainly good reasons to celebrate. This is not the end of the road, however, and success is in no way absolute, nor should it be taken for granted. The European Union of now 27 and soon-to-be 28 member states has been peaceful and quite prosperous within itself. But its role vis-à-vis the rest of the European continent, notably the start and escalation of the wars in former Yugoslavia, needs to be more honestly discussed for lessons to be learned. Also its record on prosperity seems to be compromised by the current serious problems in the European South and beyond.

In this piece I do not discuss specific problems and concerns in both the peace and prosperity areas, but rather focus on the big picture, what for me is the core reason for which Europe seems to be wobbly and even failing: the lack of “soul”, of European identity among citizens and leaders alike, the lack of a common concept of what is Europe and where it is going.*

The frequent EU ministerial councils and leaders’ summits show in their bickering and horse-trading the fragmentation of the project and the lack of a common vision, beyond reacting to the markets and other external factors that batter the Union. The solutions that are devised only add to the complexity of an already very complex machinery, and seem even more detached from the average citizen, who can neither understand nor practically influence any of this. So in the end it is more nationalism that comes out of this experiment, as Europe is in a way used to impose tough choices on reluctant publics by leaders who cannot lead, realize that they have to act together, but want to keep their national turfs and cannot rise up to the continental challenges.

Does anybody think of the European Union as a whole, a potential polity of some 500 million people, bigger than the US in population and in aggregate the biggest economy in the world, above the US and China? Does anybody worry about imbalances within the Union, how to secure a decent leaving for workers and farmers both in the North and the South of the EU? Does anybody run the institutions that have been created, notably the European Central Bank, with that common good in mind? I doubt it, and if it is the case it does not show these days.

One could of course rightly point to the European Commission and the Parliament as close to having such a pan-EU picture. And it may well be the case, to some extent. But you can also see the fragmentation there, with political parties in the European Parliament just being associations of sovereign national parties, while the Commission is unable to inspire and gain legitimacy among EU nation state citizens beyond its technical role.

It is about time that leaders emerge and institutions behave in a way that really thinks and speaks of the EU/”Europe” as a whole. If that has to start from the Eurozone, which is more closely interconnected, so be it. The broadening of the Union has been at a serious cost to its deepening. Real deepening would mean a common political discourse and common economic, social, foreign and defence policies, with sovereignty basically transferred to the corporate entity from all constituent states, unlike the current sense of domination by a few strong powers. It would thus get down through direct links to the individual citizen, which is where sovereignty really lies.  With English as the common language, even if the UK did not participate, such an entity would balance a common core identity of democratic governance, well-being and solidarity, with a wide variety of linguistic and historical backgrounds, in an inclusive and mutually enriching way, rather than an endless fight of competing nationalisms.

If the Eurozone were to really integrate, it could become the “federation of nation states” that Mr. Barroso talked about in his last State of the Union address in September. This potential federal or confederal entity would have a population of about 330 million people, which is slightly bigger than the population of the US. It would have about two-thirds of the GDP of the US and would rank third, after the US and just after China, in the ranking of world economies. It could also have a single, strong voice (not the current collage of voices) at the United Nations, and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, through the current French seat. Moreover, it could have unitary representation and significant weight in other multilateral institutions like the IMF and the World Bank. This entity would not be against anybody but for its own citizens, and it would have a positive influence on broader global stability, by offering a solid pole along with those of the US, China, India, Russia, Japan, Brazil and other established and emerging polities and economies.

If all started to work towards it – leaders, civil society, academics, the press, the private sector and individual European citizens – this could soon become a reality. The 2014 elections for the European Parliament offer a good opportunity to publicly debate, if not start to implement, such a project. Irrespective of the outcome, a public debate would create awareness and would build up the legitimacy of whatever project ended up being implemented. Arrangements to separate the institutions and competencies of an eventual political union (“Eurozone”/”Europa”/”European (Con)Federation”?) from the rest of the EU would be complicated and messy, but solutions would be found. Technical arrangements are a minor problem once Europe has found its vision and soul.

Georgios Kostakos

Ixelles, 13 December 2012

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*Apologies here to those who would rightly argue against the interchangeability of the terms “Europe” and “European Union”. Strictly speaking using “Europe” to refer to the EU is as incorrect as using the term “America” to refer to the USA. In the case of Europe as a continent, the appropriation of the term “Europe” by the EU disenfranchises all those countries that belong geographically to the continent and politically are members of the Council of Europe, but are not members of the EU. At the same time, like “America”, the idea of “Europe” is a rallying term mostly used by the one entity that goes beyond individual nation states and represents a good part of the continent, aspiring to include even more. So apologies for this methodological looseness but this is more of an aspirational piece and political commentary than an academic essay.

About Georgios Kostakos

Georgios Kostakos is Executive Director of the Foundation for Global Governance and Sustainability (FOGGS) and an independent consultant on global challenges and sustainability, governance and UN affairs based in Brussels, Belgium. He holds an MA and a PhD in International Relations from the University of Kent at Canterbury (UK), and a Mechanical Engineering degree from the National Technical University of Athens, Greece. He served on the secretariat of the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Global Sustainability (GSP) as Senior Adviser and Acting Deputy Executive Secretary, and on many other positions at UN Headquarters in New York, UN field missions, the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP) and the University of Athens. He is passionate about Europe and the World, and strives for human well-being in peace, prosperity and justice.
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