What is Europe about?

UNAt a dinner party this evening I met a vociferous proponent of a case I have been arguing for some time now. For a long period the essential, inspiring ‘narrative’ of the European integration process was peace and prosperity. As various Western Balkan countries knock at the door that surely is what it is still all about. Nevertheless, the success of the integration process has made us blasé about our achievements and younger generations, who never knew Europe’s conflicts and divisions, take everything for granted. Now, with the effective sidelining of the Europeans at Copenhagen we suddenly find ourselves searching our souls and wondering about the EU’s existential raison d’être. Will what we have collectively achieved turn out to have been a passing phenomenon and are we now already in a decadent slide into world irrelevance? As Tony Barber put it recently in the Financial Times, will Europe become a sort of open-air museum inhabited by pensioners, unemployed youth, restive immigrants and chocolatiers’? (12 January 2010) Like my vociferous host this evening, I believe a more noble fate could await our continent, if we have the true strength of our convictions. It is tied up also in the existential crises that other organisations – the UN most notably, but also NATO and the Council of Europe – have been undergoing. It is easy to forget that many of Europe’s original federalists (William Beveridge among them) had a vision of world governance and saw the European experiment as a sort of pilot project. Put simply, the EU has shown that there is another way of doing things. That if mutual confidence and respect is gradually built up, if peoples trust in courageous visonaries, if generations of hardworking technocrats are prepared to dig in the trenches, then nation states can maybe begin to pool sovereignty and accept majority decisions. Like trade, regional integration is better than no integration at all. It is time to export the European model more vociferously, to use our notorious ‘soft power’ to encourage other parts of the world, specially those riven by territorial conflicts, to look to our example and follow. The issues we increasingly face – water, food, energy, climate change – are global in nature and require a global response. It may take a long time but surely global governance should be about more than the Chinese and Americans sitting down in a classic ‘smoke-filled room’ to broker last-minute face-saving deals. Other guests were not so sure. After all, wasn’t the EU vision preceded by a cataclysm and Europe re-built on the ashes of its previous stupidities? There’s no time for the gradualism of the Monnet method. And wasn’t European integration based first on a sectoral approach? All of those points are valid, but I don’t believe they undermine the basic argument. Collectively, the world owes countries like Haiti a better future than their ghastly past.


  1. Bill Nicoll

    The truth is, Martin, that many countries, even sufferers from war and other afflictions, do not want to be integrated because they subscribe to GITA ( go it alone). They reckon that they have their own priorities, which they do not want to compromise. Conversely, the bigger brothers which might support them prefer to take unilateral decisions rather than be bound by obligations. On both sides there is readiness to join in loose multilateral associations with noble aspirations but no enforcement.

    Free trade areas are a popular way of creating value and may bring disproportionate benefit to some participants. But beyond a certain point the benefactors begin to rein in… and meanwhile the prospect for global liberalisation fades.

  2. Martin

    Bill, you are right, of course, but I feel we need to be more vociferous in arguing the case for a more progressive approach. After a long period of navel gazing we also need a bit more of the ‘vision thing’…

  3. Monica Threlfall

    First a comment to both: Martin mentioned ‘soft power’ but in my recent review of the EU’s and the Council of Europe’s rights enforcement systems, I found the key is the hard power of legal enforcement, infringement proceedings, and the threat of fines that make EU social laws effective, whereas the C of E has a wider-ranging Social Charter yet the system for enforcing it is so weak that people don’t even bother to use it.

    The EU’s distinguishing feature among all regional integration associations is its supra-national nature and supra-national enforcement bodies. The miracle of 1957 was that states gave up some sovereignty to a joint body. The message to other countries is “Cede some sovereignty – you’ll gain from it”.

    As to the vision thing, the EU could blow its own trumpet much more loudly and no just over peace and prosperity. It needs to draw up a Boast List: We live better in the EU, our health is better than any other continent’s, our working conditions, our holidays, the quality of life for women (a long list here), more tolerant of differences and lifestyles, more intermarriage between ethnicities, more humane to people with disabilities, and to those who have failed (no death penalty); less crime, fewer murders; and when things go wrong: more avenues of redress and protection for citizens, more rights, more honest judges; and dare I say so, better politicians. All this with specific comparisons to the US would also give our Boast List more punch.

    The vision is: It’s not about having world power, its about producing well-being for people, ie more of the above, and better, and for more countries. EU needs to perfect a Big Script and a series of topic-specific mini-scripts to spell this out eloquently, and then sing from the hymn-sheet

  4. Martin

    I am singing, Monica! I am singing…

  5. Monica Threlfall

    Good to hear it, but where is the hymn sheet? – the EU doesn’t have a usable one as far as I can see. If you’ve gone to the trouble of drawing one up, why not post it up? Otherwise I’d be happy to have a go.

  6. Mihaela

    Mr. Westlake,

    In light of the discussion above, how would you assess the current situation of Roma expulsions from France and especially the latest statements made by the Commission? I am especially interested in this topic.

    Thank you.

  7. Martin

    Then, dear Mihaela, you will be interested to learn that yesterday the European Economic and Social Committee’s plenary session adopted a resolution on this very issue. You can read it here: http://www.eesc.europa.eu/?i=portal.en.news.10891 Unfortunately, the issue has been clouded by a very public spat at the European Council meeting yesterday, but the underlying issue remains and the Commission is, as it promised on Wednesday, still carrying out an urgent study. Let us wait to see what it finds. Martin

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