Big strategic decisions are usually made in times of crisis and pain. In that sense, Europe is moving toward decision time. The fate of the euro, the war in Libya and the developments in North Africa and the Middle East, the impasse in Turkey’s EU accession talks, and the collapse of Europe’s multiculturalism all prepare the ground for new thinking on the Old Continent. But thinking alone is not enough. Action is needed, and it is only possible if there is strong political will and inspirational leadership. At this point, both are in short supply.
In the wake of the Cold War’s end, the talk was of the “Hour of Europe.” Unification of the divided continent seemed to offer the prospect of Europe as a strategic whole. This promise was not entirely unfulfilled. The European Communities evolved into the European Union, with a common currency in most of its member states. Membership in the EU was extended to more countries than there were members when the Berlin Wall fell. The enlarged EU became a pole of attraction to its neighbors to the south and east. Yet, the EU has so far turned out to be more of a space than an actor.
The introduction of the euro has not been accompanied by a fiscal union. The sovereign debt crisis has brought the message home : turn the eurozone into such a union, or see the eurozone collapse. Solidarity in bailing out heavily indebted countries requires cross-border accountability in government spending. Sovereignty has to be shared much more than is the case today. Financial government is a must if Europe simply wants to keep the euro and the benefits it brings. To go forward, it needs to advance on other fronts as well.
Financial government needs to be supported by more pro-active political government. The Lisbon Treaty was a step in that direction, but even this modest step has not been fully utilized. The current presidency of the European Council looks more like chairmanship in a presidium of an assembly than the “Presidency of Europe” as it was originally billed. To put it differently, the current presidency facilitates the intricate proceedings among the many national leaders rather than uniting Europe and leading it forward.
The companion position of a “European foreign minister” has likewise been allowed to become, at best, an addition to the national foreign policy apparatuses rather than a symbol of European togetherness in a global world. If this situation is allowed to continue, Europe, in the international arena, will be less, not more, than the sum of its constituent parts. Europe’s dismal diplomatic performance amid the developments in the Middle East and North African countries this year is a warning. If this is not heeded, the European External Action Service may be a largely wasted effort.
The NATO operation in Libya has added a new—military—dimension to the list of areas where Europe comes short. For decades, Europeans have relied on the United States not merely for security, but also for strategic leadership. This may have been both necessary and inevitable in the Cold War, but it is both anachronistic and less tolerable two decades after the Cold War’s end. Americans will probably never fully lose interest in Europe, but they are losing respect for a continent unable to get its act together and back that act with a unified force.
Unless the issues behind the symptoms described above are treated, Europe’s condition will not stagnate, but deteriorate further. The fruits of the European project, which are many and precious, are in danger of being lost. Europe’s unity is not a given ; it has to be fought for. Beyond a certain point, Europe will no longer be a solution to problems elsewhere ; it will itself become a problem. After which it will only be a matter of time before a new scramble for Europe begins.
So, what needs to be done ? To achieve a unified financial and political government, a common foreign policy and an ability to protect its own security, and to project stability beyond its borders, Europe needs a new integrationist effort. After the Cold War-era common market and the post-Cold War union of nation states, Europe, if it still wants to go forward and not slip backward, must become a federal unit. This will be Europe 3.0.
This is not a new concept. In the past, Europeans had the luxury of looking at it and rejecting it in favor of their more familiar and cozier national ways. Today, this luxury is no longer affordable. To have widely diverging fiscal policies ; a vast bureaucracy in Brussels divorced from ordinary voters in the nation states ; two dozen militaries of varied quality supported by a plethora of national defense industrial capacities ; many hundreds of diplomatic representations without a single voice in the global arena—all this is too much for Europe. It deserves better.
A new political process is in order. This cannot be powered by the EU’s heavyweights, imposing their vision of federalism on all others. It can only start from below, through an EU-wide political process. Europe’s politicians, who for decades have been followers rather than leaders—whether in relation to their domestic publics or in their relations with the United States—need to rediscover leadership if they are to retain Europe.
It is quite possible that the present crop of politicians is largely not up to the task. It is likely that new faces will need to be recruited. Thanks to the degree of integration unprecedented anywhere else in the world, there is a generation of Europeans who actually feel European—not German, French or Polish first. They all are fluent in English. There is a pool of pro-European energy and élan in some of the new members of the EU. These young men and women are the political base for new Europeanism. Using direct elections to the European Parliament, they can start changing this institution, so that it can eventually live up to its name. Politicians can yet again become political leaders.
European business communities are among those who reap the most benefits from a more unified Europe. They need to give support to political leaders’ efforts to achieve greater unity, which means more competitiveness, and, consequently, more and better-paying jobs. Where consolidation is long overdue, like in the defense sector, it needs to be pursued in conjunction with a European security strategy which seeks to turn NATO into a more equitable arrangement, in terms of material and intellectual contributions of the parties.
Consolidation will be helpful not only in the defense industry and in NATO. In the international arena, reducing European representations abroad is likely to result in much greater European presence. A merger of British and French UN Security Council seats would greatly enhance Europe’s global role, and a merger of their strategic nuclear assets would stimulate Europe’s defense integration.
In terms of the conventional debate in Europe, all this is either a dreamland completely out of reach or a nightmare to be avoided. One thing must be clear by now, however : Europe 2.0 as a bureaucracy-driven process in a continent of growing Euro-apathy has run its course. The bureaucratic process cannot win ; apathy can. It is time for a new 3.0 effort. Of course, it is up to the Europeans themselves to remake or unmake their Union. The rest of the world is watching with interest—as allies, partners, or neighbors. They would all be better served by a more unified and capable Europe. They hope that Europe steps up, rather than down.