The current mood is reminiscent of the atmosphere prevailing on the eve of WWI which was so admirably described by Christopher Clark in his book “The Sleepwalkers”. The main difference is that the unconcern of the period has been replaced by ignorance, misunderstanding and a disregard for the reality of a situation in which political, social and technological factors are intertwined in a maze, the complexity of which has become difficult to apprehend. Combined with the increasing rejection of the political establishment by the population and the incapacity to bring concrete solutions to people’s preoccupations, a dangerous situation is emerging in which individualism is growing significantly, at the expense of collective interests.
As far as the EU is concerned, its failure to introduce the reforms that are key to its survival is, to a large extent, the result of a deliberate manipulation of public opinion that one refuses to confront: on the one hand, there is most probably, within the 500 million citizens of the EU27, a significant majority who support the Union; on the other, there is also a large majority made up of those who oppose the EU and vie for its dismantlement (a minority) and those who believe that Europe is not ready to contemplate an acceleration of its integration. The first round of the French presidential election was an emblematic illustration of the phenomena with the anti-EU vote amounting to some 40 % of electors, while those supporting radical EU reform were limited to the 24% who voted for Macron.
Extremists manipulate very cleverly and disingenuously the concept of “national sovereignty” by playing on the fears of a loss of identity, forcing supporters of the Union to adopt defensive positions or compromises that are bound to fail. In France, both the extreme right and the far left blame the EU/EMU for all and every problem (austerity, immigration, overvaluation of the €, etc.) and wave the illusion of a re-appropriation of sovereign powers by the Nation as the ultimate panacea. The European camp is itself divided between the reformist “Macronistes” and ambivalent “Republicans” who attempt to seduce the National Front by promoting the utopia of an EU under French sovereign influence.
Ignorance plays a major part in this controversy: the public at large is deprived of any serious clues by which it could evaluate the effects of a dismemberment of the EU. People are all too ready to swallow the simplistic rhetoric of the Eurosceptics who pretend that one can “simply” reverse the smooth process of introducing the € in order to restore “national” currencies, or re-introduce border controls to deal with both illegal immigration and terrorism!
Abandoning the € would have as immediate consequence the necessary introduction – at least temporarily – of exchange controls (unknown for at least half a century in Western Europe and totally absent of the collective memory) as well as a limitation of bank withdrawals (similar to those applied recently in Greece and Cyprus and reminiscent of the 1944 Gutt operation in Belgium). The financial crisis of 2007/8 would then appear as a cake walk when compared to the worldwide crisis that would inevitably be the consequence of the implosion of the EU, the Euro and the Single Market.
Brexit, the election of Trump as well as the growing appeal of populism elsewhere in Europe are the result of various causes coming together: on the one hand long term factors such as the lack of trust in the traditional political establishment which, whatever its color, has been unable to carry out differentiated policies in an interdependent world; the financial scandals which have been largely disregarded and have exacerbated the explosion of inequalities; inward looking sentiment and the rejection of foreigners stirred by immigration enhancing the vain hopes to find protection within national boundaries; on the other hand, temporary factors such as the recent improvement in the world economy which affected the EU only lately but, while it had mobilized public opinion against the “austerity imposed by Brussels”, is today, conversely, acting as an anti-depressor encouraging immobility and obfuscating the growing risks of economic, financial and geopolitical turmoil.
In such a context, is there any alternative to working towards a Union in which some powers are exercised jointly (on the model of the ECB’s monetary policy within the Eurozone)? Does the autonomous national management of defense, foreign affairs, immigration and border policing as well as failing to agree to environmental, sanitary or some fiscal and judiciary common norms, still make any sense?
Anyone who thinks about these questions must necessarily arrive at the conclusion that clinging on to – or repatriating – these powers at national level is irrational (as proven by the current acrimonious arguments being bandied about over Brexit in the UK). Far from reinforcing the control and the powers of individual governments, it leads inexorably to their “vassalization”, be it to more powerful States or to large multinational corporations.
The creation of a powerful European Union, capable of holding its own and commanding respect on the world stage, is the best guarantee for the protection and well-being of its citizens. Such a Union must be democratic and demand, in exchange for the necessary solidarity, the strict adherence by Members to common rules. A judicious use of the principle of subsidiarity should not impair the survival of the diversity of cultures at the origin of European civilization. The American example demonstrates that it is possible to implement a clear hierarchy among the levels of power while giving a large degree of autonomy to the States that make up the Federation. Indeed, each one enjoys its own executive, legislative and judicial autonomous powers (any matter implicating cross border aspects being automatically referred to the federal level); they also control their own police and “national guard”.
A federal Europe is not an objective in itself but rather a model which, adapted to European specificities, is best suited to guarantee the survival of national cultures and local traditions as well as promote its citizen’s prosperity. In a rapidly mutating world, no State among the EU 27 can pretend to shield its population by itself; only a Federal Union can ensure the effective sharing of a sovereignty, rather than the exercise of a virtual sovereignty at State level.
I cannot help but end on a rather pessimistic note: without being able to predict its precise timing, I feel that a major crisis is in the offing. As always, some individuals will profit but the overwhelming majority will be victims. Thereafter, we will all, once again, swear that it will never happen again having supposedly learned the lessons of the past.
I pray every day hoping to be mistaken and that self-interest, common sense together with solidarity and charity towards the needy will prevail, avoiding that the younger generations see their dreams vanish because of the selfishness and lack of foresight of our own!