Published: June 2 2010 [ Financial Times]
Start from the top. Over the past half century, the European Union, the largest economy in the world, has been a spectacular success. On a blood-soaked continent, it has buried the worst xenophobic nationalism of the past without destroying patriotism. Its institutions have won acceptance for binding disputes settlement that has enabled the transformation of sovereignty through sharing it in an unprecedented number of sensitive areas. It is a union of nation states that has created something less than a federation and more than an alliance.
All this has been the result of both vision and pragmatism, sometimes subordinating national decision-making to European institutions and rules (the so-called community method), sometimes working through intergovernmental agreement.
Vision provided the EU’s original impulse with the historic reconciliation between France and Germany. The visit of Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand to the Verdun ossuary in 1984 dramatically exemplified the message that political integration would be achieved through generous-spirited diplomacy as well as economic means. But how much did that vision presume the blurring or even fading away completely of national boundaries and identities? Was ever closer political union a way of describing a federal or super state?
Obfuscation and deliberate dissembling have complicated this fundamental debate. Some political leaders have concluded that the best way of making progress towards a more federalist outcome is to play “grandmother’s footsteps”. Take a political step forward, and if the electorate does not notice then take the ground gained as the starting point for the next advance. This discredits the EU, and gives voters the impression that it is an elitist conspiracy.
The danger today is that vision – short-hand for a great leap forward – will be taken as the solution to the EU’s problems, and pragmatic reforms will be criticised as small-minded and inadequate. The truth is that the vision we are offered is too often dated, irrelevant and impractical, and that we require pragmatism, common sense and honesty to bridge the yawning gulf between rhetoric and reality.
To argue that the democratic legitimisation of what happens in the EU depends on its component nation states is not to display a lack of vision. Germany’s attitude to inflation and prudent public financing is a result of its history and social culture; so too is France’s approach to industrial policy. Britain’s approach to parliamentary sovereignty owes much to our own history. So, to take two occasional aspirations of the soi-disant visionaries, there will not be a single economic government for Europe nor a single foreign and security policy.
Pragmatism would address Europe’s major problems differently, sometimes using the community method, sometimes intergovernmentalism. One is not inherently superior to the other. What matters is which works best in particular circumstances.
Europe’s woes today begin with the crisis of confidence in the eurozone. That, of course, requires greater openness about national economic management and properly policed rules governing performance. But beyond the immediate crisis, there are larger worries down the road.
Europe set out in 2000 at Lisbon to turn itself into the world’s most competitive, knowledge-based economy by 2010. Having failed first time round, it has recently reiterated the same ambition for the end of the coming decade. With an ageing and falling population and a growth rate well below that of our competitors, the prospect is that we will soon have a rapidly falling share of world trade and output. We will find it more difficult to compete in high-technology industries.
These issues require strong and resourceful political leadership if we are ever to combine high employment with high productivity – something that only the Netherlands currently achieves in Europe. Europe’s political leaders have been heard to say they know what needs to be done; they just don’t know how to get elected if they do it. It is time for a display of what London cabbies call “bottle”.
The second accumulation of issues concerns whether we are to matter globally in foreign and security policy. What Americans call the demilitarisation of Europe results in insufficient and badly deployed defence expenditure. Moreover, there is a lack of willingness in some countries to commit to actions abroad that involve risk.
This too is the product of our history. To be undiplomatically blunt, our parents and grandparents used to grumble about Germany spending too much on armaments. Today, the complaint is the reverse. If Europe is to play a bigger role in geopolitics, much will depend on how much France and the UK can do together.
A third question points to the role of Europe beyond the achievement of a sort of glorified customs union. Through example and enlargement Europe has promoted stability around its borders. The task is not yet completed. We still have much to do in the Balkans. Above all, we should understand that the really existential issue for Europe is how we handle Turkey’s membership application.
What narrative do today’s advocates of a federal union offer? Are we to be shown the prospect of implausible surrenders of national accountability in pursuit of a destiny that remains obscure and undefined? Better to aim for welcoming a reformed and democratic secular Islamic state to our union, a bridge between civilisations, an energy hub, a dynamic contributor to our labour and product market.
The sooner Europe focuses on the century that lies ahead rather than on the century in which its institutions were founded and its ideas first formed, the more prosperous, competitive and globally relevant it will be.
Lord Patten is chancellor of Oxford university. He is a former Conservative party chairman and cabinet minister and a former European commissioner