Europe should dare to think big again

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

Nikola Dimitrov

Distinguished fellow at the Hague Institute for Global Justice.

In this piece, Nikola Dimitrov, from the Hague Institute, argues that the crises in Europe’s neighbourhood and periphery represent a crucial challenge for the European project itself and calls on the leadership of the Union to not lose faith in its own narrative.

Nikola Dimitrov is a distinguished fellow at the Hague Institute for Global Justice.

“Europe, for many Ukrainians, is not so much a geographical concept as an idea representing honesty, decency, and stability. This is why protesters fought so hard to remove Yanukovich …” underlined recently Oliver Bullough. Maidan was a collective cry for what Europe stands for, for the European narrative. That’s why a crowd yearning for freedom, democracy, good governance, the rule of law and prosperity endured the cold, the threats and the snipers. It seems that the people of Ukraine have taken this narrative, the normative power of the EU, very seriously. From this perspective, Maidan is a triumph of European soft power, as eloquently argued by my colleague Joris Larik. But what about Europe itself?

Europe was in fact taken by surprise by the remarkable impact of its own values based appeal. For those who are inside, it is all too easy to forget how cold it is outside. Those who are used to living in pluralistic free societies governed by the rule of law for decades have a tendency to underestimate the immense driving force of these principles. And as Russia continues to challenge the direction Ukraine is taking, one wonders to which extent the crisis is about sway over its Western neighbours or in fact part of a larger effort in rolling back the – from Kremlin’s point of view – “intimidating” power of the European narrative per se.

Preoccupied with deep soul searching, with shaken self-confidence related to the continuing economic crisis, Europe struggles to find the proper response to this challenge and is in real danger of falling into the trap of defeatism. Rising Euroscepticism makes politicians shy away from honest debates about the benefits of European integration, creating a vicious circle leading towards more Euroscepticism. Henry David Thoreau rightly wrote: “Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion.” European leaders need to show conviction in the power of attraction of the EU’s model. It is time for them to dare to think big again.

The long term success very much depends on persistently strengthening Europe’s values based normative power, regardless of the fact that national interests do not always appear fully in line with the goals of the community. Even after the unthinkable tragedy, the shooting down of MH17 and killing 298 passengers on board, shortsighted nation-centered business interest are still at work. That will be costly. For the European narrative is based on consistency, on what David Coombes called “living by virtuous example”. The moment Europe loses its aura of “honesty, decency and prosperity” is the moment Europe loses everything.

The challenge to the European narrative, though most intense and violent in Ukraine, resonates far beyond Russia’s immediate neighborhood.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, in his quest for a “state that is most capable of making a nation successful”, prompted by the 2008 “huge Western financial collapse” and inspired by what he considers to be the “stars of international analyses” (Singapore, China, India, Turkey and Russia) recently announced that Hungary will be “parting ways with Western European dogmas” and that he intends instead to build what he calls “an illiberal state”.

In the Balkans, the appeal of the European narrative proved its pulling force in resolving one of the last war and peace issues in April 2013, with the Serbia – Kosovo agreement. It is clear that the EU is the only show in town for all countries of the Western Balkans. There is simply no realistic alternative for stability and prosperity to the European integration process.

Yet, the process has stopped delivering, in particular with regard to the more difficult cases. Today, we live in the “double bluff” world of EU enlargement, as coined by Stefan Lehne – candidate countries are pretending to reform, member states are pretending to be open to further accession. To learn how politically contaminated the enlargement policy has become – not long ago widely praised as the most successful foreign policy of the EU – one does not have to search very hard. The President-Elect of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, outlining the political guidelines for the next Commission, turned the obvious into a political commitment when he said: “no further enlargement will take place over the next five years.” The deteriorating situation in Macedonia, a candidate country for 9 years, is a direct result of the inability to separate a dispute between a candidate country and a single member state from the bigger picture. The accession process has been discredited and turned on its head when it comes to its transformative effect. The Greek Prime Minister Samaras, debriefing the European Parliament on behalf of the Greek Presidency last month, did not exactly cover Europe with glory when he said that the Macedonian language was invented by the communists.

When the European narrative is compromised, the negative implications multiply. As Dimitar Bechev pointed out: “Moscow doesn’t really object to the membership of these countries, but it is against EU as a vision. The failure of the process in the Balkans is subsequently used as a counter narrative in its own neighborhood.”

Europe can simply not afford to lose faith in its own narrative, and to stop living up to it. The focus on internal consolidation doesn’t mean that the core of the European integration can be disregarded. As Lord Robertson used to say: “If you can’t ride two horses at once, what are you doing in the circus in the first place?”

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