The narrow result of the UK referendum to leave the European Union was not the catalyst for the increasingly pressing question of whether the concept and practice of European integration, which has defined the course of European history since the end of the Second World War as well as enabled prosperity, security and the advancement of the continent, are now exhausted and should be replaced by other models.
Ever since France and the Netherlands voted against a European constitution, there have been more and more signs of Europe becoming less appealing in its current form. This is also evident in the growing number of election victories of ‘Eurosceptics’ to ‘anti-European’ parties within the founding states of the Union. Some of these factions have already managed to gain seats in the European Parliament. Public support of the EU, regularly recorded by the Eurobarometer, is falling in nearly all 28 Member States (MS). It has only remained high in a few candidate countries such as those of the Western Balkans.
Despite all of its undeniable progress in the field of all-civic participation, in strengthening the European Parliament or the increased application of the subsidiarity principle, the Lisbon Treaty – this last attempt to create a Europe based on firm ideals, did not enable a true fresh start nor fuel enthusiasm or a positive attitude of citizenry towards the European project. On the contrary, Europe’s response to major crises in the last few years, ranging from the world economic crisis, the Euro crisis to the current refuge crisis that is still unsolved, is often regarded as hesitant and has visibly shaken the citizens’ confidence in the EU edifice an its ability to control the fate of Europe.
The most common response by some member states was to return to policies that only serve national interest and disregard the European standards and rules of European solidarity agreed upon. This has contributed to the EU institutions such as the EU Commission and the EU Parliament losing more of their authority and ability to act.
It would probably be too simple and superficial to just regard personal factors, and in some respects an undeniably weak leadership at an EU and national level, as the prime or single cause of such a trend. Starry names, visionary personalities such as Jacques Delores, Sicco Manshold or Sir Leon Brittan no longer exist in the European theatre. Even the leadership of the German-French axis, which was predominant during the era of Conrad Adenauer and Charles De Gaulle; or Kohl and Mitterand for that matter, has grown weaker , although the collaboration of this duo has remained essential to the present day.
Yet the reasons why European ideals are fading away and the desire for unlimited national autonomy has been revived have to be analysed very carefully without reducing them to the obvious factors – for example, the growing (alienation of) Brussels bureaucracy or their unrealistic decrees. This also includes the so called democracy deficit; a not uncommon phenomenon of many EU citizens feeling powerless at a national or supranational level, no longer expecting political processes to solve their daily problems – especially those administered by Brussels. This residual feeling intensifies when populist forces, such as was the case during the Brexit campaign in the UK, blame Europe for old and new, related and unrelated, problems.
However, it is debatable whether the uneasiness many European citizens feel towards national and EU/European policies could be overcome simply by strengthening national sovereignty ab dismantling the EU (or even pan-European) bodies and institutions. Many of the causes have an authentic national origin, such as a fear of the future due to an increase in social inequality, environmental degradation or threats to public safety and security, regardless of whether they are real or only felt. Slogans such as ‘More Europe’ or ‘Less Europe’ are, therefore, not suitable for getting to the bottom of the causes.
In fact, a sensible combination of national and the EU/European measures is needed to be able to restore the confidence of European citizens in their joint project – for overall prosperity and safety. National and supranational measures are also necessary to secure our common social model, the European welfare state. Only a strong EU/Europe can protect its citizens from the consequences of unrestrained globalisation. Hence, MS (Member States) have to ensure social justice within their own borders. Such a deliverables have no alternative.
The call for more autonomy and civic participation requires not only national but also all-European action. Democratic deficit have not only been unveiled in the European Union, whose institutions certainly need a surge of democratic ideas and practices, but also in many of the EU 28 MS (Member States). The limitations of a dismal representative democracy come to light when they only partially and incompletely portray the will of the citizenry.
If it is possible to adopt these kind of measures in a targeted manner and fulfil the true needs and concerns of the citizens accordingly, then it is also possible and manageable to continue the promised work of the EU integration in the best interest of European family of peoples. Of course, it will have to take national particularities, diversities, which make up the firm characteristics of Europe, into account to a much higher extent then it is the case now. A reinvigorated EU will also have to exist under the banner of this diversity and it can remain the Union of the four fundamental freedoms and all other civilizational accomplishments, which defined its historical cause and will define the lives of its citizens today.
- Dr. Peter Jankowitsch, Ambassador Secretary General of the Austro–French centre; joined the Austrian Foreign Ministry in 1957, was a close collaborator of the legendary leader of the Austrian II Republic, Bruno Kreisky for decades; country’s Foreign Minister in 1980s and the State Secretary for the EU Integration in 1990s.