Time to shake off the gloom: Europe matters

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Critics like to depict the European Union as undemocratic and unpopular, but their arguments are too often based on myths and misunderstandings. This does us all a disservice, and in this period of uncertainty about the future of Europe it is more important than ever that we have a firm grasp of the issues at stake, writes John McCormick.

 

John McCormick is Jean Monnet Chair of European Union Politics at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis. He has written several books on the European Union and will release his newest essay in July titled Why Europe Matters: The case for the European Union

"A spectre is haunting Europe, but it is no longer communism (as Marx once warned). Instead it is the spectre of euroscepticism, reflected in the gloom that seems to have settled over the European project in the wake of the euro zone crisis. The news coming out of the European Union is often bad, it is easier to identify the EU’s critics than its supporters, and we seem to have become fixated by all that is wrong with Europe rather than remembering what is right with it.

And yet Europe continues to matter, and to exert an overwhelmingly positive influence in our lives. Yes, it has problems. Yes, it is imperfect. And yes, it could be improved. But the same could be said of every large network of rules and institutions ever created. The EU has always been sailing through uncharted territory, its design and objectives made up on the fly, and its destination debatable. But this does not mean capitulating to what Commission president Barosso once called the ‘intellectual glamour of pessimism and constant denigration’ that was doing so much harm to Europe's image.

There is no question that the problems of the euro have presented Europe with the greatest crisis in its history, and that nothing will ever be the same again. But as we emerge from that crisis, it is worth remembering all that Europe has achieved, setting aside the myths and misconceptions being bandied about by the more hard-core eurosceptics, and making sure that the EU comes out of this crisis both stronger and better.

If there is a silver lining to the woes of the euro, it is that they have sparked unparalleled levels of debate about Europe. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, there is only one thing worse than bad headlines and that is no headlines at all. But bad headlines will only take us so far, and what we need to do now is to go behind them and consider the opportunities that post-euro change will generate.

The British case offers some interesting lessons. Prior to David Cameron’s January announcement of his intention to hold a referendum on UK membership, most of the debate in Britain had been dominated by dyspeptic Tory backbenchers and the likes of Nigel Farage.

Small wonder, then, that polls showed significant majorities in favour of Britain leaving the EU. But the referendum announcement encouraged people who had never previously had much to say about the EU – including business leaders – to begin warning of the costs of leaving. Before we knew it, polls showed a majority of Britons in favour of staying in the EU.

As  we emerge from the euro crisis, let’s think strategically. First, let’s get a better handle on how the EU actually works, and once we do that we will realize that many of the problems currently blamed on the EU were actually generated by bad decisions and desultory leadership on the part of national governments. The plight of the euro is a case in point; in principle it is an excellent idea, but it was undermined by a perfect storm of design flaws, bad luck (in the form of the global financial crisis), and bad fiscal behaviour on the part of several of its member states.

Second, let’s remember all the good the EU has done. It has contributed to the longest spell of generalized peace in Europe’s recorded history, and was a deserving winner of the 2012 Nobel prize for peace. It has been a model of the benefits of soft influence and civilian power, showing how change can be achieved without pointing guns or dropping bombs. It has been behind the creation of a large new marketplace, along the way creating new jobs, opportunities, and efficiencies, and reducing – not expanding – the regulatory burden on Europeans.

Third, let’s appreciate that much of what the EU has done needed to be done anyway, but would have taken much longer. We needed to remove the costly and generally pointless barriers between European states, we needed to remind Europeans what they have in common, we needed more innovation and competition, we needed to replace exclusion with inclusion, and we needed to replace self-interest with shared interests. All this, and more, the EU has helped us achieve.

And finally, let’s remember the fashion in which the EU has helped reshape Europe’s place in the world. Even its biggest and most powerful states would be no more than middle-range powers were they acting alone, and their influence on the United States, Russia and China would have been negligible. But as a cluster of states that together form the wealthiest marketplace and biggest trading power in the world, they are both more attractive to foreign investors and more likely to be heard by others.

The story of European integration has been far from pretty, to be sure, but its problems should have come as a surprise to no-one. If a camel is a horse designed by a committee, then the EU is an organization designed as a result of decades of rear-guard actions fought in the interests of its member states. Add to that just how little most Europeans understand the EU, how tempting it is to blame the largely defenceless EU for problems that have entirely different sources, and how effectively eurosceptics have been able to fill the vacuum of public knowledge about the EU, and the present climate of negativity was a problem just waiting to happen.

It is time to shake off the gloom, to put the scepticism in context, to remember all the positives that the EU has brought us, and to work creatively at addressing its problems. Eurosceptics have dominated the debate for far too long, and while the doubts they express are an essential part of the discussion, those doubts need to be balanced against a clear statement of the benefits of Europe.

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