In 2007, the United States caught a serious – and highly contagious – economic cold. Eight years later, it is finally making a convincing recovery – so convincing that last month the US Federal Reserve raised the country’s base interest rate for the first time in almost a decade. Europe, however, remains in bad shape. Not only has it not recovered from its post-2008 cold; beset by multiplying crises, it is now on the verge of developing pneumonia.
The best defense against pathogens is a strong immune system. And that is what Europe lacks today, in the form of political leaders who provide an inspiring and forward-looking vision to their people. With political disenchantment reaching levels not seen since the continent’s darkest times in the 1930s, the risk that Europe will succumb to the destructive forces of populism looms ever larger.
But it is too soon to give up hope; on the contrary, Europe is well positioned to succeed in the long term. To secure that future, Europe’s political class, rather than struggling to cope with crises as they arise, must begin to look at the big picture, anticipate and address challenges, and inspire people once again.
Is this too much to ask? History tells us that the answer is an emphatic no. Sixty years ago, with Europe’s economy reeling from the destruction caused by World War II, Europe’s leaders lifted their eyes above daily hardships to shape a more hopeful future, underpinned by European integration. That same vision and foresight is needed today, and the European Union, with its unmatched ability to facilitate regional cooperation, will remain essential.
Of course, there are some key differences between the circumstances that drove the EU’s creation and those that Europe’s leaders face today. Most notably, thanks to the EU, Europeans today have largely not endured war and absolute economic deprivation. With the dangers of demagoguery not embedded in their living memories, they are far more vulnerable to fear-mongering and false promises – illustrated in the growing influence of nationalist narratives and populist movements. Even worse, faced with an erosion of their voter base, many mainstream parties are playing catch-up with these destructive forces, engaging in EU-bashing of their own.
Clearly, the EU needs a new impetus that reflects twenty-first-century challenges and opportunities. But this will be virtually impossible to establish – and use to inspire people – until the EU and its member governments get a handle on the crises that are threatening to overwhelm them. That is why it is so urgent that Europe puts its economic house in order once and for all.
Such a reckoning will not be quick or easy, not least because it will require us to address the many issues that have been swept under the carpet over the years, as half-baked projects were foisted on the EU to implement. The foremost example of this is the partial economic and monetary union that has been around for nearly two decades, and that must now become a full union if it is to be successful and deliver results.
It is time for Europe’s leaders to break the decades-old habit of pursuing half-baked projects that blunt the symptoms of crises, and to implement real reforms that address the root causes. Only with a new approach – and tangible progress – can solidarity within Europe be regained.
My call for a renewed commitment to the EU does not stem from some federalist mantra. I would be the first to emphasize that political actors at all levels have a role to play in Europe, to the extent that they are able to implement policy effectively. And I would also recognize that EU institutions need reform, so that they manage the big picture, instead of the details.
Nonetheless, the EU and its institutions remain integral to efforts to respond to challenges that require a united front – challenges like those that Europe faces today.
If Europe’s leaders are to inspire their people to build a shared future, they must demonstrate an understanding of what that future has in store – and how to make the most of it. They should start by changing their attitudes and committing to working together to face present and future crises head-on.
While we cannot know for certain what the next 10-20 years will bring, we have a few important clues. For one thing, there is the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which promises to transform our economies and societies in fundamental ways. Plenty of other transnational challenges – from addressing the root causes of the Middle East refugee crisis to implementing last month’s Paris agreement to mitigate climate change – are also in the cards.
It would be ironic if Europeans, enthralled by illusory promises of blissful national self-containment, threw away 60 years of deep cooperation at a moment when such cooperation is needed more than ever. Of course, self-destructive national behavior is not new. But, more often than not, leaders have managed to pull back from the brink. The key for Europe will be to deliver a coherent and compelling vision that justifies our need for cooperation in the decades ahead.