Monday

8th Mar 2021

Column

Where will Europe's new mojo come from?

In a recent column for EUobserver I wrote that Europe could easily become the big geopolitical loser of the Corona pandemic.

Resonance to the piece was strong, and it did not come without plenty of well-meaning suggestions.

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Many of these suggestions weren't actually just well-meaning, the were also well-rehearsed:

Europe finally needed to act as one, it needed to restart the Franco-German engine, build a core Europe, strengthen economic governance, create political union, reform the euro, get closer to America, distance itself from America, embrace equidistance between China and the US, be tougher on Russia, be softer on Russia, complete the single market, rein in capitalism, save the WTO, be more protectionist, launch the green new deal, focus on Orban, focus on Africa, focus on Ukraine, focus on the Balkans, focus on Erdogan, remember the refugees, fight fascism, adopt a new Marshall Plan, adopt a new Schuman plan, open borders, close borders, do it like the Swedes, intervene in Libya, watch Iran, become more resilient with respect to economics, health, defence, social cohesion, climate change and democracy. It also needed to spend more on education and research to become a leader in IT, AI and VR.

And of course it also needed to overcome the nation state, that classic adage of well-intentioned post-whatever-crisis pompousness.

Everybody suggests what they always suggest, and all of it is as generally right as it is broadly out of reach. It is easy to dismiss the ever-similar suggestions of the Europe debate as stale, ritualistic and laughable.

However, we have reached a point in the Europe discourse where the repetitiveness of the debate is no longer the main problem. The main problem now is that even if we were to agree on a way forward, we have no idea how to accomplish it.

Where is the energy source in Europe for the heavy political lifting that will have to be done if this continent is to come halfway intact out of the multiplicity of crises afflicting it?

It does not matter these days whether you are in favour of a European army or stronger national militaries or disarmament.

There isn't enough juice in the system for any of it.

The same applies to so many of the heated policy debates about the right way forward on the euro, on borders, China, social Europe or migraton.

Empty tank

The problem is: it does not matter whether you turn left or right, your fuel tank is empty either way.

Where is the secret well from which Europe can source the oomph for the big tasks ahead? Who can generate energy at a level that can move this exhausted continent? Will it be voters? Leaders? Youth? The elites? The business community? EU institutions? Populists? Artists? Civil servants? Protesters? Churches? Celebrities? Lobbyists? Experts? Rich philanthropists? Workers? Will imagination, vision and the longing for a better future unlock the potential? Or history and memory? Or anger? Or will it be fear and pain, external shocks, recession and war?

Until not too long ago there existed a unspoken confidence, that Europe would always have one more trick in in its repertoire, if needed. It was always clear that progress would never come easy and compromise was hard earned. But it was equally clear that the horse would be able to jump high enough to deal with the situation.

Somewhere between the lost constitutional referenda of 2005 and coronavirus in 2020, this confidence died.

In the financial crisis after 2008, the Europeans pulled a rabbit out of the hat once more, but the ultimately saving act did not come from politicians but from the European Central Bank. Politicians just did not have the vigour any more to deliver.

Partly this paralysis has to do with the fact that integration is much harder to pull off in the policy fields that matter today, as opposed to the ones that were integrated first.

Partly it is due to the fact that there are no longer all-dominant parties that garner 44 percent of the vote and create momentum towards outcomes.

Europe today is the continent of the solid 15-20 percent party which means loads of energy gets absorbed just by keeping coalitions together and majorities stable.

In many respects, European integration has been a fair-weather affair so far. Bickering was tough, but the stakes were only medium high.

Now the issues become existential for our democracy, economic prosperity, social peace and international security. As a consequence, what was once thought to be deep levels of integration looks only half-deep today.

Real cooperation in these existential fields needs to be much deeper to be meaningful. Much more political capital will have to be spent on it, and much more money too. All that at a time when political capital is small and pockets are empty.

The standard answer of realists will certainly be: the will be no giant leaps, just an infinite number of small, incremental steps. The problem with this answer is that on the big issues, even small steps are big steps. Even tiny progress requires sovereignty transfers of a kind previously unknown.

Plus, there is little time for extended incrementalism. Europe's geopolitical clock is ticking, everything around us changes faster and more dramatically than we can absorb or react to, let alone be ahead of.

Where will the energy come from for Europe's heavy lifting?

Whoever suggests a grandiose plan that would surely save Europe has to answer this question first. Show us the money! Or at least show us the way to get there. It is the real European question of our time.

Author bio

Jan Techau is a senior fellow and director of the Europe Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF).

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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