The EU is out of step with the huge changes taking place in the 21st century. If it does not reform itself within the next decade, it will disappear.
A little more than sixty years after it was founded, the European Union is undergoing an existential crisis that could lead to its disintegration. Sluggish growth has caused an economic crisis – 1.5% growth in the EU and 1.2% in the Euro zone. There is a social crisis: the middle classes are being destabilized, and this is fostering populism throughout the continent. Brexit has brought about an institutional crisis: since last April’s summit, the UK – which seems as incapable of leaving Europe as of staying in it – has been exporting its chaos to the EU. Finally, there is a political, intellectual and moral crisis caused by the wave of populism and the dominance of an illiberal model of democracy in eastern Europe, which puts into question both the basic principle of the EU and its values.
The EU finds itself out of step with the huge changes taking place in the 21st century. Its market of 500 million consumers, which is an open one and is governed by competition law, has become the adjustment variable in the major clash between the USA and China. It finds itself isolated and helpless in the face of the new empires that are competing for world domination.
And yet, rather than showing its unity and strength in face of these challenges, the EU is displaying its weakness and its divisions. The plan for an ever-stronger integration centered on technocratic governance is being rejected by Europe’s citizens, who are rediscovering the importance of the sovereign state. The EU members are tearing themselves apart over management of the euro, immigration, respect for the rule of law and democratic values, security, and strategy with regard to China. The Franco-German driving force has broken down because of the two countries’ divergent economic performances.
If the EU does not reform itself within the next decade, it will disappear. Certainly, it still retains its whole raison d’être. European nations are not big enough to equal the empires of the 21st century, and only Germany will figure among the top ten economic powers worldwide in 2030. On the other hand, Europe is the ideal size for dealing with the global challenges of the era of universal history, whether it be in terms of immigration, climate change, energy, the digital revolution, and security to face up to the Jihadists and the démocratures [a combination of democracy and dictatorship]. For that, it can draw on its achievements in integration, which are far from negligible: the single market, the euro, the European rule of law, and the Schengen area of freedom of movement.
But the EU will only survive if it takes a profoundly new direction, in five areas:
- An economic and social pact based on inclusive growth and the fight against inequality, which implies investing massively in education and making changes to the rules governing the single market, which cannot remain based on the current rules of economic and fiscal competition.
- Faster progress towards a model of sustainable development, including conditions governing contributions to structural funds or access to the single market dependent upon adherence to social and environmental preconditions.
- Assertion of the commercial, digital, fiscal and monetary sovereignty of the EU, so as to prevent the plundering of its resources and rare assets – brains and talent, data, areas of excellence, innovations… – by the USA and China.
- Massive reinvestment in internal and external security so as to move towards strategic autonomy, not by creating an untraceable European army but by means of a continent-wide defense treaty.
- The preservation of the principle of a world order, which means mobilizing democracies in order to safeguard multilateralism from being battered by Donald Trump.
Just as after World War II, Europe is awaiting a revolution in its organization a renewal of its values in the face of a major historical shake-up. It cannot pursue further integration if its members are against it, which underlines the absurdity of the supposed conflict between progressives and nationalists; integration must be transformed along the lines of nation states, as conceived by Jacques Delors: recognizing the strength and permanence of its identity and the diversity of the people who make up the Union. At the same time, the specific culture and values of Europe – i.e. its roots in critical reasoning, its moderate and supportive conception of freedom, and its sense of universality – must be defended. Not with the prospect of the improbable restoration of Europe as the dominant power in the 21st century world, but in order to ward off some of the risks that could lead Europe into even worse tragedies that those that destroyed our continent in the 20th century.
(Column published in Le Figaro, 13th May 2019)