Europe as a continent is at a crossroads. But it is not just an economic or a political dilemma. The continent suffers from an identity crisis and a lack of direction.
Since the eurozone economic crisis and the refugee emergency, the hiatus from the big-bang EU expansion in 2004 seems to have withered away and now the EU has to deal with a growing euro-scepticism, Brexit and a change of direction in the Visegrad states.
The question is what do we, the citizens of Europe gain from all this. We have managed to establish a stable, prosperous continent which is now one of the richest in the world and most of our problems lately seem to revolve around who gets more, pays more and the ethnic background of the people that do the jobs that we prefer not doing.
Not that Europe does not have some serious problems or challenges. But in their majority were created by corruption and mismanagement predominantly on a national level. Of course, the EU institutions have had their fair share of scandals, but the lack of transparency can solely be laid on our national governments. The EU’s democratic deficit is a direct outcome of the unwillingness of our national politicians, to proceed with what their predecessors started after WWII. The European integration was a vision for peace and stability, born in the ashes of the continent after the two major disastrous conflicts.
But once prosperity set in, despite it being a direct result of policies that were decided on a European level plus naturally due to the stability that peace created, our governments claimed this success as the result of their own work. The citizens were kept in the dark on how the EU works or how the decisions are taken, in order to be kept preoccupied with national issues and nationalistic agendas. To the benefit of course of local elites and politics. For every bad policy the EU was blamed, while for every success, national governments were claiming the praise. They have striven to maintain a nation-centered culture and mentality, while in fact a Europe wide one was being formed since the free movement of people encouraged it.
Yet, in recent years due to major mistakes that state administrations have committed on a European and national level, a surge of euro-scepticism gripped the continent, giving extreme nationalistic political parties the chance to get a good foothold in European politics. The process was faster in Eastern Europe, which only a few years after joining the club, some returned to the authoritarian political elites that they fought so hard to overthrow to join the EU. Many of the region’s leaders modelled themselves after other authoritarian leaders like Putin and Erdogan, turning against the EU and its values, or shunning further European integration. Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, once proud to be joining the club and while they are ripping all the benefits of their membership, have recently flagged themselves as opposition to many of EU’s policies, notably on immigration and the refugee crisis, but also the euro.
Britain, on the other hand, decided to leave altogether, in hope of joining states like Norway and Iceland in EEA, or going it alone altogether. While EEA offers some certain economic benefits, it lacks democratic legitimacy, something that the EU is often blamed for by many Eurosceptics. The decisions are taken by the EU institutions and members of EEA must abide, while only having a lobbying presence in Brussels. It may suit small states like Iceland, but for a big player like Britain, it surely is absurd not to to be at the heart of Europe, leading it.
Under such grim political and economic environment, the European public is understandably confused, angry, divided and naturally sceptical about the future of Europe and the EU itself. Yet they must understand, that going back to what we had before is not the solution. We have been there before, if we want to progress, the way is forward.
Room for improvement
As things stand, it is obvious that Europe isn’t functioning properly. We can either go backwards to what we know and trusted before, the nation states that collaborate solely on an economic level, or move forward to a fully fledged European democracy. It will be easy to think that the best solution would be to stop or even reverse the integration progress and maintain a free trade agreement. But what would be the cost of abandoning the euro, closing the borders again and halting the free movement of people, some of the dominant reasons that Europe prospered and progressed for the past few decades? We must consider if the outcome would be greater than the risk. What would any of us benefit by dismantling what we have built all these years?
If we go the other way and form a European Republic, there is room for improvement and something to build on. The problem of inequality and lack or transparency or democratic deficit, lies solely within our national governments. They refuse to let go the control of our national resources, thus keeping EU governance on an intergovernmental level. Something that any citizen should be wary of. What is being discussed, agreed or compromised by our governments behind closed doors, that we never hear of? In such arrangements, it is naturally the bigger, more powerful and robust economically nations that have the upper hand, pushing their interests through. But if we citizens, take the EU fully in our own hands, by giving the European Parliament (EP) all the powers that it must have to function like any parliament, then we take this power away from our governments and the lobbies that run Brussels. The EU Council and Commission can be joined to the second chamber of government, like the US Senate.
By becoming more engaged, committed EU citizens, it doesn’t mean that we become EU cheerleaders, blindly accepting or applauding anything that the EU does. We are simply safeguarding our own interests and what better way to achieve this, but by having a fully fledged European Democracy, supported by its main pillar the EP.
EU citizenship must become something more than the right to travel anywhere in the union, rather become engaged in a pan-European civil society, criticise the EU institutions and their failures and lobby them, just like citizens are doing in any nation-state across Europe. It does not mean that we are giving up our national identity, rather enhancing it with an additional one, that of being European. An identity that we already possess, yet we haven’t given it a legal and political dimension.
A three tier democracy
Europe should be governed in three levels; local, national and European, with each authority to be given certain legislative powers and responsibilities. It could well work, as long as we citizens are engaged in all three and have trust in them. That perhaps could be our task and purpose for the future, a target that we must reach. Our legacy to the future generations of Europe. Rather than leaving behind a fragmented continent, we could be the ones that will finally unite it. The benefits can be substantial. In the future, we will have a multi-polar world, with numerous emerging economies and states. Europe will have to collectively invest in order to keep being relevant and competitive. A region that is prosperous needs political stability to maintain its wealth and that is what a fully functioning European Republic is offering. Otherwise, Europe will be just a trading block, a huge market that will benefit multinationals for as long they do not discover new, emerging economies to invest in.
In addition, decisions that are being taken solely on trade rules and purpose, can never have democratic legitimacy as they are agreed on intergovernmental level. That must be something that should always worry us, citizens. If we want more equality, we must demand more transparency and democracy in Europe. But that either we like it or not, this can never be achieved with less Europe.
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