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Sunday, 28 June 2015

The End of an Idea? Europe facing Decline

Adenauer, Schuman, Monnet, De Gasperi and other founding fathers of Post-World War Two European Integration would probably rotate in their graves if they could see what is going on in Europe nowadays. With a Greek default only days away and a possible Grexit not completely improbable, the EU is facing its biggest crisis yet, with unknown consequences for the integrity of the Union as a whole – politically and economically. Some say that everything that is about to happen next week might lead to the beginning of the end of the European Union – or at least of the Euro as a common currency.

It hasn’t been an easy time for the EU in the past years, specifically in the view of the economic and financial crisis in many of their Member States – combined with a rapid enlargement in the past 10 years and the humanitarian and security challenges right at its periphery. Europe is facing more and more complex challenges in which the integrity of the Union – economically, monetarily and politically – will have to face increasing scepticism throughout all levels of society.

The rising scepticism

It is not only the UK that has a reputation for notorious EU scepticism, it is visible basically everywhere, in any EU Member State, in different variations. While UKIP leads the British scepticisms, Germany is facing a notorious PEGIDA movement (“Patriotic Europeans against Islamisation of the Occident”) and the anti-EU AfD-Party (“Alternative for Germany”), in France the Front National is gaining more and more support, while Spain will most likely witness a massive vote shift to the left wing warty “Podemos” (“We can”). No matter from which perspective you look at it, or of what political ideology, or civil movement these sceptics come, they all articulate their disagreement with the current form of the European Union and their policy agenda on various fields. Some points, however, are similar: Lacking democratic legitimacy, non-transparent decision making processes and lobbying activities, humongous administrative costs of the entire EU institutional system, a legal framework through the Treaty of the European Union which is mostly incomprehensible for non-lawyers, and legal/political decisions which question the basic understanding of a democratic participatory system and make daily life for citizens unnecessarily clumsy.

Too quick, too big, too complicated

The integration process – if you want to keep calling it like that – got a real boost after the year 2000. Two mile-stones essentially changed the image of the EU: the introduction of the Euro in 2002, and the big Eastern enlargements since 2004, with ten new members joining the EU in a single day, three more to follow in the next nine years, boosting the member count from 15 in 2003 up to 28 members ten years later. This hastily growth was a huge economic, fiscal and above all monetary challenge the EU had to deal with, especially regarding the accession criteria for the European Monetary Union (EMU). By know it is apparent that some member states did not fully provide accurate economic data in order to meet the EMU accession criteria. Combined with the financial crisis kicking off in 2008, vulnerable countries got into a maelstrom of rising debts, down-turning GDP performance, and massive job cuts.

In addition, an average EU citizen is unaware of his influence to the bigger EU picture, nor does he truly understand how the EU functions on an institutional base and how Brussels made decisions might or might not affect his daily life. He or she is left with the impression that there is no way to affect or maybe even change the EU system, not even through European elections or any other elections and as a result, his frustration level is increasing, leading to a withdrawal from political participation; or turning to a radical alternative.

The Weak Soft Power – Unable to face any Challenges

Taking a look at the ongoing refugee disaster right at its shores or the dragging Ukraine crisis and rising tensions with Russia, the EU has failed to implement significant strategies to efficiently address the humanitarian aspects of a self-appointed soft power. The security matter totally remains in NATO hands, leading to the impression that Europe cannot ensure security at its own doorstep without the help from the big brother over the pond. The repetitive talks of a need for a Euro-Army remain limited in rhetoric and theoretical concepts, without actually implementing visible security policy actions.

To make matters even worse, the humanitarian disaster happening in front of their eyes paralyses the EU policy makers and instead of taking action to facilitate the access of refugees to Europe and enable them to settle and work in safety, the member states apply a policy of locking refugees out or distributing them across the continent based on quotas. The image of the “Fortress Europe” is very present and unfortunately Europe does not present itself as a room of peace, freedom and stability, but rather of outlawing, closing-down and over-regulating even most urgent humanitarian necessities, completely free of common sense or human sympathy. It is questionable how someone wants to explain this policy to a refugee who has just escaped with his bare life from hardship.

No more visions, but practical solutions, please!

What Europe needs at this point is neither more top-down guidelines lacking 100% democratic legitimacy, nor hastily calls for more union, nor federalist unification ideas or more administrative regulations – and surely no more visions that lack practical feasibility.

Surely, the EU cannot be undone and shouldn’t. But neither can we start from scratch or go back to the drawing board. Europe needs to reinvent itself again, and learn from the mistakes made in the past years, and above all, resign from the “Function Follows Form” mantra that had been used over the past 15 to 20 years and go back to a maybe slower, but more stable “Form Follows Function” approach.

In this sense it is advisable to reduce the pace and turn inwards, with an intensive re-consideration process taking political, economic and social actors into consideration of how to keep the EU functioning as a political and economic system in which all current and potentially future member states can ensure a maximum amount of economic, financial and social stability. As a matter of fact, stability should be the main key target for the upcoming years.

Essentially, all upcoming strategies need to be down to earth, feasible and rational, free from political or over-idealistic thoughts and readdress the key basis for European citizens. Above all, they must be free from utopian or far-fetched visions that cannot be complied reasonably.

To quote former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt: If you have visions, go and see a doctor!

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