Forward, Europe – but which way?

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

Britain at a crossroads

Britain at a crossroads. [Shutterstock]

Every crisis is a chance so with the debate on Brexit, Europe must have right now a huge opportunity, writes Melanie Sully.

Dr Melanie Sully is a British political scientist and director of the Vienna-based Institute for Go-Governance. This article originally appeared on 10 February in the Wiener Zeitung under the title “Vorwärts Europa – aber wohin?”

Europe is busily engaged with theories of its own demise. Last year it was the collapse of the Euro and now the bloc is not sure after all if it can cope with the refugee crisis or if it will fall apart. Whereas the Scots saw leaving the UK as a risky option, for many in Britain getting out of the EU while the offer is there, seems less hazardous. After all who knows what else Brussels might dream up – and does it know itself?

The Member States play the blame game. Some are cherry-pickers, others not democratic or moral enough, not supportive of the European cause, too mean or just moaning too much. Every crisis is a chance – so Europe must have right now a huge opportunity. But for what?

Frustrated and impatient many wait for a joint European solution to the current crises on how to cope with refugees seeking asylum, work and accommodation. That 28 member states can reach a consensus fast enough to deal with the magnitude of the problem has proved illusory but does not mean we sink back to national egoism or pronounce the end of the European project.

That much flaunted word “subsidiarity” enshrined in Article 5 of the European treaty is rarely explained and even less understood but it is held dear by Britain and the current holders of the EU presidency, the Netherlands and there is even a Commissioner responsible for the difficult concept. But this is the hour of subsidiarity, the idea that some things can just be better done at national or even local levels. Austria too is an ardent proponent of the subsidiarity principle.

Economic and social problems vary in the individual Member States and a “one size fits all” approach on crucial issues is unlikely to work. A distribution of refugees which does not take account of the situation in a specific country will meet with resentment.

The future of the job market as well as existing levels of immigration are criteria which have to be considered. Poland has already taken in refugees from Ukraine and the UK has experienced higher levels of EU migrants seeking work than some other countries. Historical experience also is a sensitive issue and as some Poles have remarked, no one need lecture them about solidarity, especially if the rebuke comes from Berlin. The EU should not open wounds of its own history in seeking solutions to the problems of the present and future.

Pointing the finger at others for supposedly “not doing their bit” is unhelpful. As UK Prime Minister David Cameron has pointed out he is accountable to the national parliament in Westminster. The state budgets of each country are the matter for these parliaments and any extra burdens have to be explained to taxpayers, to the voters in a dialogue.

But each country can make its own contribution which does not have to be identical but ideally coordinated between the Member States. The UK for instance lays importance on being active in the Middle East region, something that neutral Austria might not be able to match.

Other countries can make their own contributions. Each country has its strengths and weaknesses and the EU should play to its strengths and not irritate its own members.

More Europe does not mean less national or vice versa.

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