Sunday

21st Apr 2019

Opinion

Requiem for a European dream

  • Luxembourg's finance minister Jean-Claude Juncker signs the treaty of Maastricht in 1992. He is now president of the European Commission, at a moment when we may need to go back to the pre-Maastricht situation (Photo: European Commission)

The founding document of European integration, the Treaty of Rome, is celebrating its 60th anniversary next year. Sadly, it may be its last one.

Like many others in Central and Eastern Europe, I spent my formative years studying European politics and policies in the hope that my country, Hungary, would one day become an EU member. When this happened in 2004, an overwhelming sense of 'arrival' at the 'better' part of Europe took hold. Just like Francis Fukuyama many years earlier, we thought that history had ended, and liberal democracies had won the war of ideas.

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Little did we realise that the edifice constructed in the same year as his book was published may go tumbling down: half-baked solutions and hubris will end it.

Europeans and EU institutions tend to see themselves as champions of values: human rights above commercial interests, high ethical standards that staff and politicians should respect, appreciating science above popular pressure. But few think these ideals are still upheld today. The EU has lost its narrative.

Le Pen is not the problem

Despite what most Eurocrats think, the EU’s grave-diggers are not the Orbans, Kaczinskys and Farages. It's a general disillusionment, including on the political left, as they, too, can hardly support the EU in its current form. British Labour's half-hearted Remain stance, Renzi's removal of the EU flag from his public appearances, the disappointment of Hungarians and Poles at the EU's impotence in tackling the corruption and dismantling of democracy in their countries has sapped support.

The EU's reaction has done little to demonstrate their acknowledgement of a problem, let alone their willingness or ability to fix it. Critics have been labelled racists or forced into a binary category of pro- or anti-European, a disgraced president is running the European Commission, and citizens have been ignored when they have vetoed a new treaty, or approved Brexit, or pointed out the pathetic nature of the refugee relocation scheme.

The real problem, however, is how shaky our European institutions are. While their popularity is even higher than that of the US Congress, their legitimacy is constantly challenged. If a French or Dutch election can call into question the sheer existence of these vanguards of European integration, we should start to doubt how strong the foundation of our system really is.

And the pressure is mounting. We don't need to have Marine le Pen elected for the euro to crumble. Italian banks, the European Commission's leniency about deficits, and the half-baked structure of the Eurozone are enough of a deadly mix to explode just 15 years after the bridge-decorated banknotes were introduced.

A lesson from Jobs

In 1997, Steve Jobs became Apple's CEO again. Being given the opportunity to revive an ailing company, the first thing he did was to clean up the clutter that accumulated since his dismissal: he cut out 70 percent of the products to focus on what Apple did best. It was painful but necessary: the alternative was bankruptcy.

In the EU, we are facing a similar moment. We may need to go back to the pre-Maastricht situation where the single market was the European Communities' objective, as that is where the European consensus is today. Even pro-Brexiters were in favour of staying in the single market (though the free movement admittedly remains contentious). The eurozone, Schengen, Dublin rules, foreign policy are all increasingly divisive and have become untenable.

Running ahead by creating an inner circle of European integration is unworkable. Institutional and political paralysis, also partly linked to the messy decision-making arrangements in the post-Maastricht years, prevents such ideas from gaining momentum.

The same populist forces and lack of honest discussion that got Donald Trump elected are present and gaining traction in Europe. Dismissing them, as most American newspapers did, is a grave mistake. It will not only get populists elected, it can bring Europe to its knees. Unless we look into the mirror, admit our hubris, and refocus European integration, the EU as we know it will soon be over.

Andras Baneth is an EU expert and managing director of the Public Affairs Council's European office. He is also a member of EUobserver board. He is writing in his private capacity.

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