We are in the midst of a major political contest over the future shape of Europe, basically whether it should lean towards federalism or intergovernmentalism.
Federalism is about a set of tighter integrative values, about the European dream, the Kantian garden of eternal peace that elites have held dear, but it has less and less support from among the peoples of Europe. There is no European demos, the demos has remained attached to the nation-state, the nation-state has the legitimacy of acting in politics, whether we like it or not. That part of the European dream has failed and the elite-led future of Europe has less and less support from those whom the elites would count among the demos.
In this connection, the vote for Brexit contains multiple messages. A significant part of European societies have rejected the elite message and want a different kind of world, one in which their status is not neglected, not taken for granted. The elites themselves are divided among those who are committed to federalism, those who look for a pragmatic intergovernmentalism and those who want the end of integration entirely – these last are widely dismissed as populists, as “dark forces”, as xenophobes.
This dismissal is an error. Are we ready to dismiss the 17.4 million British citizens who voted for Brexit as populist xenophobes? Surely not. And much the same applies to the various other new political movements that define themselves against European integration. We have to take them seriously, for if we don’t, very little will be left of the European project. We have to find answers to their concerns, to their loss of status, their sense of having been left behind and ignored. It is worth noting here that the Brexit yet again demonstrates that people are not necessarily motivated when voting by their economic interest, but by intangibles, like status, identity, dignity and respect.
A further aspect of this phenomenon is the loss of trust, the loss of institutional authority, the loss of belief in what elites say. Notionally, this should have been entirely avoidable, whether at the EU or the member state level – elites should have taken the equality of citizenship seriously and not dismissed as irrelevant or populist the argument that not everyone benefits equally from globalisation. Clearly they don’t. A greater openness towards social Europe would have helped. Millions may have been “lifted out of poverty” in the world, as the protagonists of globalisation like to reiterate, but this has been at the cost of leaving a fifth or a quarter of the population of Europe without an economic role, one that contributes to their identity and civic esteem.
But over and above this, we have to recalibrate the relationship between the European Union and the member states. Whether or not the Commission really is bureaucratic, technocratic, insensitive, remote is beside the point, for it is perceived as such and that perception – justified or not – is one of the building blocks of the upsurge against the EU. “Take back control”, the slogan of the Brexit camp, was not used by chance.
So, if we want the integration process to continue, we have to clarify why it is important. We can talk about the single market, but that to my mind is a blind alley or worse, in that the emphasis on market freedom has helped to conserve the backwardness of the poorer, weaker member states and, equally, the poorer, weaker sections of society, those who voted for Brexit and their counterparts elsewhere. So, yes to the single market, but not without a social element, a social Europe, something that I don’t see. The reintegration of those left behind is, therefore, an urgent task if democracy and citizenship are to have meaning.
Then, for me, European integration is centrally about the European Union as the most effective instrument of conflict resolution ever. Those who warn of dark forces are inclined to forget this as the pivotal attainment of Europe since 1945. But that does mean accepting the ongoing role of the member states as the primary focus of Europe. And in this context, there should be an immeasurably greater emphasis on mutual respect, on the parity of esteem of all member states, on the acceptance of the particularities of each and every member state.
At the same time, if the future of integration means an enhanced role for member state governments, then their accountability for what happens at the EU level, in Council, must also receive greater emphasis. This accountability, which must incorporate feedback as well, has to take place at the member state level, signifying a more active role for national and regional parliaments. Movement in this direction does not require treaty change, but a tangible transformation of the behaviour of member state governments about what they do in Council. Any move in this direction may even undercut the negative symbolic value of the “Brussels” that is so readily denounced by Eurosceptics.
The diversity of Europe is every bit as important as its unity. Further, that diversity must mean accepting the full panoply of political, ideological, cultural approaches, as long as they remain within the bounds of democracy. Liberalism cannot claim a monopoly over democracy. If it does, when it does, there’s trouble. The same was true of communism and fascism and any other all-exclusive political ideology.
At the end of the day, we have to establish a new narrative, a new formula for Europe. It has to be one that citizens can identify with and, ideally, is acceptable to those who are suspicious of Europe. If this formula does not emerge from the debate that is starting, Europe itself will be the loser.