Europe: An ode to fear?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The EU was not the cause of the crisis, even if it lacked an effective response to it. The next European Parliament elections should put European integration front and centre instead of slamming the EU too easily, writes Yves Bertoncini. 

Yves Bertoncini is the director of the Paris-based Notre Europe – Jacques Delors Institute.

National authorities and financial market failures are the main roots of the economic, financial and social crises affecting most of the European countries. The EU did not perform well in preventing these crises, but it is not its cause. The EU has become as unpopular as the IMF, not only in countries where drastic reform has been traded for European aid, but also in countries not keen on financing this aid.

It is hardly surprising, then, that a higher than normal popular support is going to political parties who slam the EU. More paradoxically, the climate of fear surrounding the European election campaign in many countries doesn’t benefit more European integration.

The European construction indeed began in response to a double threat: the prospect of killing one another and weakening the region once again, and the belligerence of the Soviet Union. De-colonisation and the Suez Crisis, which confirmed Europe’s loss of influence, enabled the common market to take off. Similarly, monetary union was set in motion to ward off instability resulting from the fall of the Berlin Wall and Germany’s welcomed reunification. All things considered, it would make more sense to celebrate the EU with Beethoven’s “heroic” 3rd symphony instead of his 9th “ode to joy”, looking at the future.

Europeans are indeed facing multiple challenges and threats: unhinged and deregulated finance; climate change and external energy dependence; dramatic population aging as an incentive for more immigration; instability in their neighbourhood; the growth of continent-states such as Russia, China and Brazil; terrorism in the Sahel, in Syria and elsewhere.

These challenges feed fears but also support reasons to unite, as member states are largely unequipped to face them alone. More cooperation and integration is the best way of doing so, regardless of the EU’s many faults, which are unavoidable in a union based on the compromises of 28 members, and which require unrelenting effort to correct them.

Many Europeans will admit better to Europe’s utility if they see it protects them. Most often, however, Brussels refuses to invoke this line of reasoning, likening it to ‘protectionism’.

But EU tariff and non-tariff barriers in international trade, mentioned only when they could be removed, are protectionist measures indeed. So are European standards, which protect consumers and so is European competition, which protects people’s purchasing power against monopoly profits. So is Europe’s banking union project, which will protect taxpayers by better monitoring banks via the ECB and making the latter pay for their own bad habits. Also emblematic of the protective approach of Europe is monetary union, as a safeguard against overzealous financial speculation on national currencies and the ravages of repeated competitive devaluation. This is why monetary union garners strong majority support from citizens in every euro area country, who prefer the rights and responsibilities that come with sharing a single currency, even grudgingly, as opposed to the risky idea of going back their national one.

Few Europeans would write an ode to their love of the euro, but just as few are willing to box themselves into the “euro area: love it or leave it” dilemma.

The European area of free movement elicits a more ambiguous response among citizens. While in principle widely supported, to the point of being perceived a key component of EU membership, some of its effects – unfair labour competition or immigrant crime, for example – are often criticised.

Such problems need to be addressed, by improving the monitoring of posted workers employment and by enhancing police and judicial cooperation, for example. But reneging on free movement, inspired by the Swiss vote, would have very negative consequences. What would then happen to the 300,000 French residents, of all levels, who go to work every day in another EU country (when only 11,000 foreign residents do the opposite)? As regards permanent border controls, they have not proven useful in Great Britain, another country where foreign crime is a problem: the only certainty is that day in, day out, such border controls weigh heavily on hundreds of thousands of travellers, lorry drivers and employees, who have nothing to declare but their wasted time.

The European election campaign must naturally draw positive attention to the opportunities and advantages of European integration, for example in terms of economic growth and employment or as regards human exchanges. But it must not leave the fear-mongering to “populists”, whose increased popularity is both an ineffective solution and an additional threat to Europeans.

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