What future for the EU after Brexit? European leaders meeting at Bratislava on 16 September promised Europeans that this would be the beginning of a process leading up to the March celebrations of the EU’s 60th anniversary. Critical areas where they would seek concrete progress ranged from control of migration and external borders to deeper cooperation in internal and external security or youth employment.
Even assuming they deliver some concrete results in the next six months, will these be enough to bring back to the fold a European public beguiled by the sirens of Brexit? To demonstrate that the EU remains relevant, Europe’s leaders need to sound decisive and consensual, bold and cautious, visionary and pragmatic. Can they really square that circle? Can they signal to the European public that Brexit or no the European ship is still afloat? In six months’ time, how can they manage not to announce too much for the people demanding a break in European integration but not to do so little as to appear clueless?
A core message of the Bratislava summit has to do with “protective Europe”, responding to the anger of people who reject the kind of globalisation which the EU upholds, and the fear of people who feel vulnerable to the kind of free movement that the EU allows. As European Council President Donald Tusk told the media: “all of Europe expects that the EU, after Bratislava, will again be a guarantee of stability, security and protection – protection in the widest meaning, including social and economic protection.” This theme echoes that of a resilient Europe put forward in the new global strategy by the EU’s chief diplomat Federica Mogherini. Europe needs to proactively prepare itself for future shocks and threats rather than just reactively respond when they happen.
But it is unclear how the EU can truly deliver on such a grand promise. Moreover, what does it imply? An overwhelming focus on protection runs the risk of overreach. It means a Europe equipped with more powers, tools and resources to achieve the kind of protection people feel they need from Riga to Nice – the federalists’ dream of a Fiscal Tsar and a Migration Minister as well as an EU border policy, an EU FBI, an EU army. While no-one fears that the EU will become a Leviathan on a continental scale, we all know how historically state machineries have been set up and allowed to grow precisely in order to “protect” populations from internal and external rifts. This should not be the EU’s destiny.
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A ‘better Europe’?
If the protection motive is to be embraced by those who want more and those who want less Europe, we must take what is good about the EU while guarding against its own propensity for centralisation drift. In other words, EU leaders need to focus on the essentials, “the Europe of necessity”, or, as Chancellor Merkel likes to say, a “better Europe.” But these terms still fail to convey a concrete and positive vision for what we want our future EU to be like after the shock of Brexit. To put the challenge another way: can we reshape a Europe that a majority of citizens in every EU member state, including today’s Britain, would want to be part of?
Sustainable integration could be seen as a truism: integration is about staying together over time by definition. Except that it is not. The idea of exit is good even if Brexit itself is bad. It is truly a good thing that the peoples of Europe take part in this Union by choice and have the right to leave if they so wish. But it is a terrible thing to imagine an exit-domino where the unravelling of the union leaves everyone worse off. Sustainable integration then starts with warding off disintegration, stating loud and clear to the world and to ourselves that the EU is here to stay.
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More radically, sustainable integration is about changing the way we change. It builds on our avowed commitment to sustainability as a goal for our global environment as well as our cities, our security, our welfare states, or in UN parlance, sustainable development goals (now applicable to the EU). But it turns this commitment into a broader philosophy of transnational governance. It is the name of the game when boundaries of all kinds have been radically reconfigured. Politics-across-borders must change too in our virtual times, with emphasis on empowerment, resilience, robustness, distributed intelligence and adaptive learning. It must mirror the potential and restraint called for by contemporary patterns of technological innovation. For the EU, sustainable integration would be a new governing idea of integration calling for moving away from the old remedies of “deeper faster” in favour of “better and fairer” – through processes that are politically acceptable across generations. It is altogether a practice, an ethos and a state of mind.
Guardian of the long term
Sustainable integration as a political ideal starts with the recognition that precisely because the EU is a sum of governments which cannot be collectively impeached, it ought to be about democracy-with-foresight, partially shielded from the short-term ups and downs of electoral politics, yet open to participatory democracy and attuned to the overwhelming desire of the public to preserve our world for our children and grandchildren. To atone for its current shortcomings in collective accountability, the EU must become accountable to those who are not represented and be seen as the guardian of the long term for all its citizens.
For such an agenda to be politically desirable, it needs to be applied through empowerment rather than centralization, through the channeling of local democratic energies, in the spirit of the groundswell of ‘bottom up’ climate action pledged under COP21’s fourth pillar. In order to foster a sustainable integration culture, EU actors must systematically assess short-term actions against long-term goals by shaping bolder and more political versions of its current tools such as the Strategic Environmental Assessment and Regulatory Impact Assessment.
Sustainable integration means changing the way negotiated change occurs in the EU and recognizing that inter-governmental deals need to be sustained by inter-societal and inter-generational bargains. It means that inclusiveness must be paramount even at the cost of further flexibility, differentiation and opt-outs by individual member states. A mosaic EU is more appealing than pushing half of its states to the brink of exit.
It is not anti-European to warn that European political leaders must give up the recent strategy of integration by stealth which has so damaged the integrity and popularity of the European project. The EU will likely continue to lose support amongst the public if it simply goes on muddling through without substantiating why and under what conditions the kneejerk quest for “more EU” is a credible response to Europe’s woes. British leavers were generally not bigoted, racist or ignorant. Unfortunately, and faced with what they perceived as the complacency of the London and Brussels elites, they were no longer ready to give the EU another chance.
“But, as the House of Lords discussed in its recent report, what should come first?” Finding a lasting solution to the well-known shortcomings of the single currency continues to be paramount. More financial integration is desirable to spread risks and resources across Europe, including through a more effective banking union and capital markets union. The German government insists that risk-sharing – stuff like macro-stabilisation, bank supervision and resolution or a deposit insurance scheme – must go hand in hand with risk reduction – through policing government budget deficits. But what should come first? When creditor countries ask why they should share the risk if debtor countries have not reduced it first, debtor countries reply by asking why they should accept interference with their democracy without the reward of risk-sharing.
In the end, however, EU leaders need to ask ‘what is the minimum integration necessary’ to sustain a common currency among such different economies. For they can no longer shy away from dealing with the main structural reason for EMU’s failures, namely the tension between national ownership – the aspirations and positions expressed in democratically legitimated politics – on the one hand and the inter-dependence of European economies and societies on the other. The old colonial trope of governing at a distance is unsustainable in a Union of democracies or demoicracy (see here also).
What does this all mean for a country like the UK that is leaving the EU but not leaving Europe, as British foreign minister Boris Johnson likes to say? For sure, sustainable integration means that no country, whether insiders or close outsiders, can just pick and choose among a body of law that is a shared good among European peoples. For this to be a plausible proposition, however, these laws must be sensitive to local and national specificities and adjusted to conform to the precept of sustainable integration. What the British saga over Europe has taught us is that if the EU as a whole does not sufficiently take account of the unequal impact of its principles and laws, if it does not offer differentiated and flexible approaches, then it is the member states and their citizens who will take such differentiation in hand, unilaterally. And that, we have now learned, can mean walking out and shaking the whole edifice in the process. Other Europeans should at least draw the correct lesson from Brexit: the urgent need to think and act long term.