Time to get real about the European dream - and the American one


As part of our Scorecard debate here is a new guest blog post - this time we hear from Prof. Michael E. Smith (University of Aberdeen). You can also follow him on twitter @ProfMESmith.

May 9 was Europe Day - for the EU. The Council of Europe, however, set May 5 as its Europe Day. Europeans, it seems, can't even agree on when to celebrate their unity.  Worse, the EU in particular is having yet another identity crisis involving self-doubt and internal recriminations. This time, however, it seems different; a recent poll by the Pew Research Centre warns that support for the EU has fallen from 60% to 45%.  Perhaps most EU citizens realise that things are more serious this time, because the stakes are higher. The creation of the euro zone has locked a subset of EU countries into an uneasy, and unbalanced, relationship with each other, while simultaneously causing some non-euro EU member states to question their future membership in the arrangement.

So where to go from here? In my opinion, the EU needs to replace wishful thinking with a 'reality check.' Specifically, it cannot move forward unless six critical realities are confronted. Three of these realities involve external relations; the other three involve EU domestic politics. And they largely involve comparisons between the American dream and what might be called the European one.

The first critical reality is that greater EU foreign/security policy cooperation is not the answer to the EU's current malaise.  In fact, this issue is part of the problem, for two reasons.  One is that the political capital spent to enhance the EU's global profile is not providing an effective return in terms of actual influence. The second reason is that although EU citizens support foreign/security cooperation, this support does not outweigh their concerns with economic well-being. Moreover, as the European Foreign Policy Scorecard  has revealed since 2010, foreign policy cohesion is too easily undermined by internal crises. Simply put, EU foreign/security policy cooperation (to say nothing of defence; see below) is increasingly becoming a luxury the EU may not be able to afford, except on the EU's periphery. Border/maritime security and cooperation against organised crime/terrorism should be the priorities, not turning the EU into a replacement for UN peacekeepers or a 'world policeman'.

The second critical reality is that a common EU defence policy is the 'bridge too far' in European integration. Again, multiple factors are at work here.  One is that the EU's defence is part of the transatlantic relationship, a situation that will endure even if the US reduces its presence in Europe. As Germany recently confirmed (yet again), NATO will remain the core of its defence for the foreseeable future. A second factor is that EU member states still strongly disagree about the main rationale for a common defence policy - as a replacement (or back-up) for NATO, as the 'European arm' of NATO, as a humanitarian or peacekeeping force, or some combination of these. A third factor is that even if EU member states agreed on a common defence policy, they still disagree about devising a defence doctrine in terms of the balance of conventional and nuclear forces. Finally, EU politicians and citizens have no desire to increase defence spending at the expense of other priorities. There is one simple reason for this: they do not feel threatened enough by any external actor to justify such a change in spending. Thus, with stagnant defence spending and no defence doctrine, the EU will always lack credibility as a major military actor, especially compared to the US, China, Russia, and even some EU member states.

A third critical reality is that the EU is not, and never will be, a federal union like the United States. In fact, the phrase 'United States of Europe' should be banished from the lexicon. In legal terms, the EU is and always will be a negotiated, treaty-based order among sovereign nation-states, no matter how much power is shifted to common institutions. In socio-cultural terms, EU citizens retain a very high degree of loyalty to their individual states, no matter how many of them move about the EU to find new opportunities. Moreover, the EU's social contract differs from that of the US, and the EU should celebrate those differences rather than imitate the American model.  In many ways, the world needs a liberal counterweight against American hegemony, and the EU can provide it.  This is why the EU has pursued its own policies on a range of issues even in the face of American opposition: climate change, data privacy, banking regulations, market competition, and so on. The EU also attempts to find a more workable balance between economic growth and equality, which differs from American priorities.  In the US, 40% of the wealth is owned by just l% of the population - shocking news to many Americans themselves.  The US also scores very badly on a range of OECD socio-economic indicators: education quality, access to health care, infant mortality, carbon emissions, social mobility, and so on.  Why would the EU want to emulate this 'model'?

The obvious problem, of course, is that the EU also has not delivered in terms of employment and economic growth. This is the fourth critical reality of European integration: the single market and the euro programme have reached their limits in terms of improving economic conditions for the vast majority of Europeans. For years, the EU has used economic policies to achieve political integration, yet this strategy has run out of steam. Even worse is that these two policies have to some extent been oversold by EU elites to the average European. The EU may be able to save the euro in the long run by adopting a more robust fiscal union among the euro-zone members, but that alone will not deliver the economic growth the EU hopes to provide.  And since mobility within the EU will always remain very limited because of linguistic and cultural factors, the richer countries within the euro zone must be prepared for regular fiscal transfers to the poorer member states, until or unless they can diversify their economies enough to deliver sustained economic growth on their own. All EU member states must also invest in their human capital - chiefly through education and training - as austerity measures are relaxed, finally.

Fifth, since a number of EU member states will be uncomfortable with the ideas of fiscal union and the need for sustained transfers to poor EU states, the EU will have to formally institutionalize, and possibly modify, the several classes of membership that already exist. The would involve the 'core' membership option (i.e., what becomes of the current euro-zone, with Germany always at the centre of it), the 'first class' single market option (currently non-euro-zone EU member states, which would include free movement of labour); the 'second class' single market option (currently the EFTA/EEA members, which may include the UK at some point); the European Neighbourhood Partners (some of which may eventually be allowed to join the single market), and the 'special relationship' partners (chiefly Russia and Turkey). A full à la carte approach to membership would be unworkable, but the EU could certainly set out the rights and responsibilities for states who desire greater or lesser degrees of participation in European integration.

Sixth, the EU needs to encourage pan-European civil society to create a European political culture from the bottom up, not the top down. The EU is certainly a very democratic international organisation, but the European Parliament and regular EP elections do not make Europeans.  Moreover, given the amount of anti-EU propaganda spreading about at the moment (especially in the UK), the EU needs to go on a 'charm offensive' about how it actually enhances the daily lives of its 500 million citizens. At the same time, all Europeans must recognize that the EU is still an international organization composed of sovereign states, and it simply cannot be compared to democratic practices in those states. It can, however, lead by example among OECD member states - or within the 'zone of liberal democracies' - but only by first getting its own house in order, and by teaching the vast majority of Europeans to truly appreciate the EU as far more than a necessary evil in managing Europe's economic and political space.

These, then, are the conditions for EU success: re-focus its foreign/security policy closer to home, re-think a common defence policy, reject the American dream in favour of a European one, protect the euro-zone, formalise various classes of membership, and build European civil society from the bottom up. By scaling down its global ambitions the EU can also maintain its internal legitimacy and external credibility without forcing its citizens to submit to a 'top down' political integration process that almost certainly will do more harm than good. In these ways the EU can balance its often incompatible norms - unity vs. diversity, growth vs. equality, centralisation vs. decentralisation, freedom vs. security - to protect the single most important European goal: preventing a return of Europe's bloody past.


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