23.06.2011 / 05:15 CET
The claim that crises strengthen Europe may be over-familiar, but it should not be dismissed, even in this crisis.
For lots of reasons, there is a widespread preoccupation in Europe with “the state of the Union”. For many observers, its weak leadership, fading economic vigour and evident social divergences suggest dire, possibly even terminal, stresses to come. By contrast, its officials plead for perspective and patience, arguing, in the words of Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, that “the state of the Union is not so bad but the mood is not so good”. Anxious to reassure, they promise that seemingly intractable problems are being steadily and successfully addressed.
There are times when these two poles of opinion talk past each other and are unable to engage. One such occasion was the annual conference last week of the European Policy Centre (EPC), one of Brussels' leading think-tanks. The EPC's team of senior analysts wallpapered the conference with a well-argued and thoughtful report that “the European integration process appears fragile and tired” and if not soon re-energised “will lose relevance for its citizens”. The EPC offered an à la carte menu of five grand projects “that could reignite integration, rebuild consensus and attract and tie the leadership ambitions” of the major players.
Neither Van Rompuy in his keynote address nor Viviane Reding, the Commission's vice-president, in her characteristically aggressive rebuttal of “prophets of doom and gloom”, really addressed the theme that “Europe needs a new project”. Both clearly believe that the Union has enough on its plate already and may even consider some of the EPC's candidates (such as a common migration policy) to be on its agenda already. Their purpose was to erase any doubt that the Union will survive its present difficulties.
Were they trying to keep our spirits up with a dose of breezy complacency while really whistling in the wind? They scored highly for effort, but most of their audience will have considered the backbone message of their speeches drearily familiar. A Brussels audience turns away from tired rhetoric that ritually lauds Europe's achievement of reconciling ancient enemies, creating a rich platform for economic prosperity and harnessing nation states together in shared sovereignty. The climax is more often than not a well-worn phrase about how Europe is always strengthened by its crises. We are word-perfect in that.
Yet perhaps we are too dismissive. At a time when the commentariat bleats excitedly about the car crash ahead, it is no bad time to be reminded of the shared experience of past battles won and of the leaps forward in integration that, when proposed only a decade or two ago, had cynics calling for the men in white coats.
Whether you are heading an EU institution or a national government, there is some comfort to be drawn from knowing that you are walking in the footsteps of men and women who overcame challenges that seemed at the time just as big a threat to the future of European integration as the sovereign- debt crisis. And while fighting these battles, leaders such as Helmut Schmidt, Emilio Colombo, Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, François Mitterrand and Jacques Delors were launching new projects for integration via the single market, European Monetary Union and almost constant enlargement.
These men were practical visionaries whose integration projects were built on foundations of public support not much stronger than exist across the EU today. They helped to create a legacy of political assets that the present generation of leaders, for all of its failings, sometimes finds irksome but will not discard. Europe's achievement is to have woven itself indispensably in to the political muscle and fibre of its member states. This does not guarantee comfortable outcomes nor linear progress in integration. But it does fix the mindsets of national leaders against entertaining the idea that lasting solutions to global challenges can be found outside the framework of European treaties and institutions.
This is why, in a most unexpected way, the eurozone crisis has become itself a new project for integration. Processes to ensure that the crisis will not be repeated have already been put in place. They give the Union a right to intervene in national budgetary and macroeconomic policies that was specifically refused by member states in the Treaty of Maastricht negotiations at the beginning of the 1990s.
But this is only part of the new project. The still uncertain outcomes of inter-institutional struggles will have lasting impacts.
If, for example, the European Parliament succeeds in narrowing the space allowed for member states to avoid imposing sanctions on governments that breach fiscal discipline rules, the Union will have chiselled away further at purely national freedom of policy action.
And, if as seems likely, Jean-Claude Trichet's European Central Bank wins its battle with Angela Merkel's government over the nature and extent of private-sector involvement in any rollover of Greece's debts, the German chancellor will have failed in her bid to establish the primacy of politics over markets.
The lasting significance of this political defeat will be that a European institution has become the arbiter of member states' relations with international financial markets. Europe has the project and it has momentum; now it has to solve the crisis.John Wyles is an independent consultant based in Brussels. He advises the European Policy Centre on a voluntary basis.
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