European failure and how to avoid it

The European Union’s combination of crises – of finance, politics, and identity – makes the once unthinkable a real prospect: Europe is not “too big to fail”. What then should concerned Europeans do to ensure their continent's survival and progress?  

Europe is at a tipping-point. Amid accumulating financial and political problems in the EU, the choice is increasingly clear: either the markets will force a massive surge of integration, or things will shift in the opposite direction towards gradual disintegration. The lack of popular participation has become a systemic risk that jeopardises any further integration. But European citizens can play the vital role in pressurising governments and elites to find a sustainable way out of the crisis, saving the European project.

Europe’s current crisis is one of identity as well as of politics and economics. This started in 2005, when a majority of voters in France and the Netherlands voted in referendums against the draft European Union constitution. This was a clear signal that said: Europe has become distant; we don’t understand it anymore.

The answer of the political elites was to press on with what became the technocratic Lisbon treaty, involving regulatory improvements and the creation of two new executive posts (now occupied by colourless technocrats). The EU is increasingly an onlooker on the global stage, as at the Copenhagen climate conference and during the Arab Spring, (which even led to the roll back of a rare tangible achievement, when border controls were reintroduced because of immigration fears). 

Following the 2008 financial crisis, the euro, instead of leading to deeper integration, has become a systemic danger for the entire EU. In response, policymakers have been reactive, short-term and defensive, making decisions only when forced to choose between bad and worse.

Just a decade ago, Europe was full of self-confidence, seriously believing that the 21st century would belong to the European dream. Now, Europe is no longer too big to fail. If that is to be avoided, five challenges must be addressed:

  1. Europe must restore the primacy of ends over means

    For more than two years Europe has been ruled by the markets, which have pitilessly revealed the euro’s design flaws and forced the hands of politicians, economically and politically. But Europe was not designed to be an economic balance-sheet. Europe was built on historical experience, for political reasons and as a result of political will. Economic integration was the primary means to achieve political ends: peace, stability and prosperity in the continent. The Monnet method built Europe top-down, driven by a coherent political vision: via institution-building, creating closer economic links, and taking incremental steps. This has all now been turned on its head.

    Paradoxically this has produced results that in 2009-10 would have been considered unrealistic, such as Merkel and Sarkozy’s proposals on European economic governance. This reactive position only emphasises their weakness, fuelling the loss of public and market confidence in Europe’s leaders.

    Europe can overcome its current crisis by returning to the founding aims of the EU, using them actively to shape policy. The original European vision of social stability, economic prosperity and peace, remains relevant and inspirational in these troubled times.

  2. Europe must sustain prosperity

    The European dream is built on prosperity and growth, its promise that every European citizen will become better off. This was a crucial component of the pull of enlargement (more than the less tangible membership of a European community of values).

    This promise has been undermined by the financial and debt crisis. The particular reasons for the crises in Greece, Portugal, Spain, Ireland and Italy may differ; but Europe is both involved in each one and unable (at least in the short term) to halt the decline of living-standards in these (and other) EU member-states.

    Without prosperity, Europe will not achieve legitimacy from its citizens. But it is clear that the growth-based model, financed by credit (monetary and in natural resources) from future generations and the rest of the world, must be rethought. Even better economic management will not deliver continued linear growth. Europe urgently needs to find new forms of prosperity, equitably shared, in the face of intense global competition and ecological challenges. In this, Europe can renew its visionary role and once again become a global model.

  3. Europe must become more nimble

    Up to now Europe has adapted to a predictable, slowly changing environment with steady, well considered gear changes. But over the last ten years globalisation, new information technologies and a hyper creative financial industry have dramatically accelerated the pace of change. All this has taken place in the context of deepening climate change and resource depletion that obliges Europe to be more dynamic in its decision making.

    The current EU model, however, is outdated and now needs a retrofit. Eurobonds and European economic harmonisation could buy time in the medium term; but Europe needs more fundamental changes to make it fit for the new pace of global life, that surely involve more shared sovereignty.

  4. Europe must defend its model

    The epic year of 1989 was not after all the end of history and the ultimate victory of the west, but rather the beginning of a new multipolar era with implications for the position of Europe. The European response included understanding the need for a united voice if it wanted to play a meaningful global role, hence the Lisbon treaty’s provision for a European diplomatic corps and ‘foreign minister’ (Catherine Ashton). These provisions, however, have not delivered on the promise.

    Yet it is worth recalling that the EU model itself has been a means of solving conflicts and turning problems into opportunities. The model has won many admirers, and, if it fell apart, other initiatives of shared governance (such as the African Union) would also be set back. The world needs more such initiatives, not less.

    The world needs the European model to be successful. This is not a call for European self-obsession; far less isolationism. On the contrary: Europe can play its important global role credibly and confidently only after it sorts out its own economic and governance problems.

    Europe needs to use its remaining resources to focus on two or three global issues where it can speak with one voice, starting with climate change: a crucial issue for our economic interests and where we have set the agenda in the past. 

  5. Europeans must lobby from below

    Europe is dominated by national interests. That is logical in a system where the sole source of direct political legitimacy is via national and regional elections. The elections to the European parliament are proxy votes on national policy whose outcome is not reflected in a European political executive or the composition of the European commission. There is little surprise then that politicians who rely on a popular mandate continue to think mainly in national terms. This is not so much anti-European as rational politics. Angela Merkel is a good example here.  

    The EU’s executive posts are occupied by compliant technocrats; administrators not shapers of policy. As a result, the foreign-policy executive trio in Brussels (Herman van Rompuy, José Manuel Barroso and Catherine Ashton) plays only a very minor part in the present crisis. Europe is largely governed from national capitals, and national capitals make for national politics without much of a vision of and for Europe. The Brussels institutions cannot compensate for this absence. This is reflected in the very language of Europe: technical, theoretical, complicated, boring and remote from the people.

    Yet the financial crisis shows that politicians can react to pressure: from markets and from populist movements. But where, then, is the political pressure of those who see the future in more Europe? Europe’s future cannot be left to national elites, Eurosceptic lobbies and international financial markets. It needs an effective lobby from below that is capable of demanding a proactive European policy.  

What next?

European visionaries built the EU step-by-step as an elite project after 1945. This method has now reached its limits. To continue in the same way could prevent Europe’s development over the next decades and even destroy what has been achieved.  

The incoherent crisis-management of Europe’s current leaderships has shown that passivity does not work. The European dream can continue only if it is supported by a broad grassroots movement capable of helping to shape it. In short, there must be pressure from below.  

The European model is still relevant, but to survive in the 21st century it must be refreshed and modernised, both in substance and communication. Those that have benefited most from European integration must find a political voice. Armchair Europeans must become engaged Europeans; a civil lobby, which uses national and European elections to make political decision-makers listen and respond, must be mobilised.

This will not be easy in a context where turnout in European-parliament elections has been declining since the first direct election in 1979 (the average turnout in 2009 was 43%). This trend will have to be reversed by making the elections of 2014 a real contest of the issues facing Europe, about future prosperity, the opportunities of young people and much more. They could also be made more relevant by using them to decide the composition of the European commission.

An independent, open, political and passionate movement would have a real opportunity to bring about change, using social media and older forms of political communication and campaigning. Europe must be visible online and offline with a civil lobby of its own. Only in this way will a sustainable way out of the European identity crisis be found. It is time for concerned Europeans to act.

A longer version of this article was published at Open Democracy; a German version was published in Die Zeit

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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