The perspective that the Union is a project is holding us back. The Union simply needs to be pragmatic, writes Žiga Turk.
Žiga Turk is a professor at the University of Ljubljana. He has served as Slovenia’s minister for growth and was the secretary-general of the Reflection Group on the Future of Europe, chaired by Felipe González. He is running for the European elections for the Christian Democrats of Slovenia (EPP-affiliated).
In 2008-2010 I served as secretary general of Felipe Gonzalez’s reflection group on the future of Europe. The title of its final report was “Project Europe 2030”. While several recommendations remain valid, I have been gradually realizing that the title was a mistake.
That it is exactly this kind of understating of the European Union that is holding us back. The Union is not a project. It is not an unfinished project. It is a product. It is a product of countless thinkers, politicians, civil servants and citizens. It is a result of centuries of dreams and decades of institution building.
The Union is here to be utilised. It is not here to be upgraded, rebuilt or reformed.
With the coming European elections, political parties and politicians are publishing their election platforms. Promising change has always been an effective political strategy. Almost everyone is promising some kind of a reform of the Union.
The other usual strategy to motivate voters is creating some kind of sense of urgency. It is supposed to be urgent to reform the Union. Because of populism, economic crisis, Brexit, migration … What I will explain is that most reforms are neither urgent, nor possible, nor reasonable.
Project ‘socially just Europe’?
The reform that the progressives are promising is in the direction of a fairer, more social Europe. What they understand by justice is redistributive justice. This is not something that can be achieved on the EU level. For the Union to redistribute between the rich and the poor it simply does not have the budget.
Technically it could create such a budget but the citizens are willing to show solidarity within their group, their nation-state. It is quite unlikely that the, say, Germans would be willing to pay for Italian social benefits. Such promises are just creating expectations which, when unfulfilled will create the disillusionment with the European project.
The other possible interpretation of more socially just Europe is for the Union to instruct member states how they should redistribute between the rich and the poor. But it does not have this competence. Indeed, it could be reformed to get it. But it would be stupid to centrally prescribe the social model, harmonize tax policies, social security policies etc.
The strength of Europe has always been diversity and the opportunity for different countries to search for solutions in different directions. Then we have been quick to learn from each other. The social model innovation will be important because of the changes in the labour market caused by the technological revolution therefore it is important to keep Europe innovative in this regard. In summary, more social Europe is mostly hot air.
Project ‘ever closer Union’?
The reform that the liberals are advocating is an ever-closer Union. United States of Europe. Union of European Socialist (well, liberal) Republics. This is not impossible. An ever-closer union has been a kind of underlying belief of Brussels European, of the EU administration. It is the “project Europe” by excellence.
The project would be unfinished until there is a European super-state. Such as state is possible. But it is not possible for it to be democratic. For one simple reason. Democracy assumes there is a demos. There is no European demos. There are demoi – Germans, French, Slovaks etc.
Demos is not an intellectual construct that could be created by good PR coming from Brussels. It is a feeling of belonging. And according to Eurobarometer, Europeans identify with their nations an order of magnitude more than they identify with the European Union.
A monolithic Europe is also not European. It does not matter if European competitors, like China, are growing stronger. China has always been a centralized empire. Europe’s strength has been its diversity.
In fact, periods of fastest progress were when European entities were competing with each other – like rivalries among ancient Greek states, among city states of renaissance Italy, among the members of the Hanseatic league, among the kingdoms on the Atlantic competing for colonies.
Even when it looked that the Catholic Church would create a single authority over the continent Martin Luther rebelled.
The Italian renaissance from which Emmanuel Macron is borrowing a title for his vision was a result of a competition among many city-states of ununified Italy and not a centrally driven project.
Generally, the Union is close enough. Macron’s plan is an “ever-closer union light” with a couple of new Brussels agencies, including the rather scary “European agency for the protection of democracies”. Centrally policing the political systems in member states sounds like something from the Warsaw pact playbook.
Yes, human rights, freedoms and liberties need to be guaranteed at the European level and the EU would do well to position itself as the ultimate defender of human rights on the continent. But is should be the judicial arm, not the political executive that should be dealing with it.
Project ‘Europe of Nations’?
The far right rather unintelligibly pasted the idea of nation copied from a member state context to a Union context. While one can understand (though not endorse) the idea of the national populists to pit the original citizens against immigrants, the French against the Arabs, the Germans against the Turks, etc., Europe of nations suggests those ethnicities are represented at the European level.
Which is very different from the Union of the member states, which is what we have today and works reasonably well. Member states are represented at the European Councils, states elect representatives into the European Parliament, states appoint one Commissioner to the European Commission. This reform too is hot air, a dangerous one.
Even further to the right are those whose reform would be to dismantle the Union altogether. Which might get them some protest votes. But they can only advocate the breakup of the Union while there are enough of us who understand that the Union is a tremendously valuable achievement and want to protect it.
The problem with projects is that they are by definition unfinished. They require attention. They are an excuse that work they should be doing is not done properly.
Imagine a family starting a project of a summer home. As long as the summer home is a project they work on the summer home. They do not enjoy it for vacation. They don’t go sunbathing, they are adding another porch. If the stove is not working properly it is because it is a project. It will work when the project is finished, but not yet. Guests should tolerate some cold. Temporarily, of course.
Thinking of the EU as a project is preventing us from exploiting in full what we have built so far. Instead of thinking how to solve problems at hand – such as migrations, terrorism, security, growth, innovation – the institutions are tempted to think how these problems could be solved if the institutions were reformed, if the project was more advanced, if only Brussels had this or that authority, if only this or that agency existed in Brussels.
Instead of making use of what is available, administration is tempted to dream of what would be nice to have. For politicians too, advancing the project is a more noble call than using the institutional and legal tools the project has created so far.
Of course, we need to work on improving the Union. Like living organisms, the Union needs to adapt to a changing environment. What could be needed is an evolution for which current treaties provide many possibilities. If the political will is there. It is the lack of political will not the inadequacies of the treaties that is preventing action.
Perspective is important. And the perspective that the Union is a project is holding us back. The Union simply needs to be pragmatic. In the service of the citizens, businesses, regions, member states. It should provide services that make life safer, easier and the economy more competitive and productive.
This does not sound as noble as starting a renaissance, but someone has to do this as well. As Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer wrote, there is work to be done. Let’s just do it.