Saturday

4th Feb 2023

Opinion

What is Europe for?

What is Europe for? That is the current question. No longer is it possible to say convincingly that Europe is entirely about peace: if the Union dissolved itself tomorrow no-one now could conceive of a war in Europe. Nor can we say that it is entirely about prosperity or even the provision of plenty of food at stable prices, one of the driving motivations of the EU's founding fathers. So what is Europe for? That is the question that European leaders are pondering following the rejection of the proposed Constitution by voters in France and the Netherlands, earlier this summer.

If it is no longer about peace, prosperity of food, then it may be about an issue that has reared its head in different ways and on different subjects several times in the last few weeks. That issue is protection. Not protection in the old-fashioned trade sense that left mountains of Chinese pullovers all over Europe's docklands - but protection of European ideals and values in a cruel and changing world.

Three ideals

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  • "The need for some overarching protection of European values continues" (Photo: EUobserver)

Three such ideals seem to me of singular importance: protection of the environment; protection of a European quality of life and protection of human rights.

The forces of reaction are already knocking on the door of human rights, hard won over fifty years. They do so in the face of the immediate challenges of terrorism and organised crime. Speaking to the European Parliament this week, the British Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, said that the European Convention on Human Rights had to be reviewed and that EU citizens would have to accept some erosion of civil liberties if they were to be protected. Of course, human rights include expecting the state to take reasonable action to protect citizens against such evils, but not at any cost.

In a second example, the same Home Secretary is proposing to send deportees back to their home countries relying on diplomatic assurances that they will not be tortured, even though it is known that torture is a common practice in many such countries. This, said the UN's Rapporteur on questions relevant to torture, would be a breach of the UN Convention Against Torture. Indeed, the value of such diplomatic assurances, he suggested, could be gauged from the fact that most of the countries in question were already signatories to this Convention.

Governments say 'trust us, we act in good faith.' But then no government acts in bad faith. Even Mr Mugabe does what he does because he believes - however misguided and wicked his actions and however starving the people of Zimbabwe - that he is a benign and wise ruler.

Of course there is a balance to be struck. Nothing should automatically be sacrosanct, even in Europe; but the road to perdition, as we all know, is marked by a series of small and insignificant steps and there is such abundant evidence of the road to hell being paved with good intentions that it is right that legislatures at every level should fight to defend their freedoms. Terrorists abuse human rights; Europe should help ensure that our democracies don't.

Europe is also there to protect European standards of quality of life. Nowhere is this thrown into sharper focus than by considering the differences between (Old) Orleans and New Orleans. Where in Europe would we find such concentrations of private poverty and public squalor - of routine violence and degradation - as we have seen on our television screens recently night after night?

If the New Orleans reality can exist in the world's richest and most powerful state then it can exist anywhere unless, that is, it is kept at bay, the 'it' being, in this case, lack of public investment. Those who wish to challenge the principles of social protection and the necessity for sustaining public expenditure in Europe should perhaps dwell on the New Orleans experience.

That is not to say that there aren't desirable changes that we can make - but European society, has broadly been well protected from the excesses of laissez-faire over the last fifty years by social investment and ambitions of social cohesion. These are our levees that keep back the dark floodwaters. Under the pressures of globalisation and in a fiercely competitive environment Europe should be reinforcing these protective barriers from the transnational level. That is another instance of what Europe is for.

Research

To have the money and skills to do this, however, we need research. European member states and their businesses have not been high research spenders, lagging behind both the United States and Japan. Jan Poto?nik, the Slovenian Commissioner responsible for science and research, pointed this out just the other day.

European R&D investment is stagnating, he said, while that in China is growing by 10% each year. In five years time, China will be investing in R&D a share of its wealth comparable to Europe. Rather than Europe catching up with the US and Japan, China is catching up with Europe

We need more research also to protect the environment - a task so gigantic that even EU25 is but a small player. But we do have influence, as evidenced by a vital climate change agreement, concluded this week with China.

Whatever the fundamental causes of climate change there can be little doubt that it is being exacerbated by an elevated level of atmospheric carbon dioxide as a result of mankind's various activities in the skies, oceans and on land. We need cleaner energy, renewable for preference, with baseload power coming from low carbon or no-carbon sources,

Europe is leading the world's research into nuclear fusion that in fifty years may provide unlimited supplies of safe, clean energy. For the moment, Mr Poto?nik thinks we should build on existing fission technology that already supplies one third of Europe's electricity without contributing to emissions. But more research is badly needed if safety is to be improved and public acceptance won.

Against this background we learn that the British Presidency is actually proposing cuts in the European research budget for 2006. The question will be debated later this autumn. It is an odd proposal, at variance with the pro-research sentiments expressed by Prime Minister Blair last June.

Then the proposed post 2006 budget was rejected on account of too little money for research and too much for agriculture. Now we seem to be back to trying to save cash. This contributes to my view that this British Presidency is turning out to be rather longer on rhetoric than it is on substance. Given the importance of the issues let's hope I am proved wrong. Meanwhile, the need for some overarching protection of European values continues.

The author is editor of EuropaWorld

Disclaimer

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

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