A coalition of the willing has to bring Europe back on track
The shock waves of the Irish No are still being felt across Europe. But however bitter the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty is, Europe has to look ahead.
The challenges Europe is facing are too big to be blocked by one single Member State. European citizens and businesses deserve better than a perpetuated institutional crisis.
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The defeat of the Reform Treaty marks a turning point. More than ever before we have to ask ourselves what people expect from Europe. Where should Europe stand in 10, 20 or 50 years? And how should it look?
There are two conceptual approaches on the table. Some, most importantly the UK and a few others, want the European Union to be little more than a free-trade area. "Make the four fundamentals of the internal market – the free movement of persons, goods, services and capital – perfect and that's fine", is their credo.
Others advocate advanced political consolidation of our continent. They call for a stronger political framework allowing the European Union to develop an active strategy for globalization and to be a real global player. Although far from being perfect, the Lisbon Treaty would have been a further step into this direction.
This chance is gone. Now it is time to get back to work.
A strong and united Europe is vital
Whatever the reasons for the Irish No, one thing is crystal clear: In the near future, it will certainly not be possible to reach consensus on either option – an integrated political European Union or a loose free trade zone – with 27 Member States. The underlying philosophies simply differ too widely.
At the same time, a strong and united Europe is vital. One needs only to look at the Balkans to understand that an enhanced role of the European Union in the field of foreign and security policy is desperately needed.
Moreover, 15 and very soon 16 out of 27 EU Member States share the euro as their common currency. Thus, factors like inflation, exchange rates or macroeconomic stability have become common issues which affect each and every citizen. But while interest rates are rightly decided upon by the supranational ECB, economic and social governance in the true sense of the word is still missing.
Most EU citizens want more Europe, not less. This was also the key message transmitted by hundreds of lorry drivers and farmers demonstrating at this weeks' European Summit in Brussels against soaring oil and energy prices.
Whether national governments like it or not, European citizens expect concrete answers and solutions to their everyday problems. But how can Europe overcome the current stalemate?
I am deeply convinced that the time has come for a courageous step by those who want to go for a more integrated European Union.
Core Europe has always been inevitable
One of Europe's fundamental values is individuality. Individuality could also be the way out of this dead end.
Just like there are two groups of countries within the EU Schengen agreement or like there are Members and Non Members of the Euro area, it should be possible that certain countries form a group that works closer together.
Nobody should be obliged to participate in this core group. At the same time nobody should be able to object to this process either. Each and every Member State would have to decide whether it wishes to be in or out, whether it wants to be part of a pure economic community or also a joint political entity.
Yet despite different speeds, the renewed EU must not become an exclusive club for a few countries. Latecomers have to be able to join the core group as soon as they want to and are ready.
A core Europe has always been inevitable. The only question was how it would come about.
Apart from the Euro and Schengen, the old Constitution and the Lisbon Treaty offered opt-outs in some areas in order to satisfy countries that were unenthusiastic about further integration.
As this has not worked, a fresh start is necessary. The time is up for mini-compromises and mini-solutions. We need a coalition of the willing to get Europe back on track.
The author is President of SME Union (Small and Medium Entrepreneurs Union), the business organization of the European People's Party and Honorary President of Eurochambres - The Association of European Chambers of Commerce and Industry.