The EU needs a new rallying cry and a new unifying statement of what it stands for. 'Make Europe great again' will not cut it.
2019 will see elections in May for a new European Parliament. It will be followed by the appointment of a new European Commission and a new President of the European Council.
Both the Commission and the European Council have a tradition of trying to act collegially and by consensus. In addition, for much of its history, two centrist political alliances (the European Peoples Party & the European Socialists) have dominated the European Parliament. They have together pushed forward an integrationist agenda.
With changeover imminent, EU leaders need consensus, centrism and an integrationist momentum to continue to prevail at the heart of the Union. They have to avoid, at the EU level, contagion from the political polarization infecting so many member states. Polarization takes different forms. What is common is that, in many member states, the traditional centre has been squeezed. Nationalist and Eurosceptic views have been on the rise. The centre is having to be reconstituted in new forms.
The backdrop is encouraging. According to recent Eurobarometer polling, a majority of people in the EU hold a positive view of the Union and are optimistic about its prospects. Moreover they are more inclined to trust EU institutions than their own national government. The EU therefore wants to build on the current positive mood.
In order to build on this favourable background one potential rallying cry is that the EU is the champion of a ‘rule-based’ international order.
At first sight, this is not the kind of rallying cry likely to set the pulse racing. However, in the first instance, the appeal is to Europe’s political elites. It is for them to fashion from it, simpler and more understandable messages for their electorates.
Judged as a unifying call for Europe’s political elites, the EU as a champion of rule based systems has plausibility. It describes what the EU does internally. It also describes how the EU tries to act on the international stage.
A rule based order
‘A rule based system of government’ is an apt description of the essence of internal governance within the Union. There is a stock of over 80,000 items that comprise the EU’s existing rule book – the EU laws that it’s Member States are expected to comply with. Currently, about 150-200 new items are added each year.
In addition, the single currency area, the Eurozone, comprising 19 Member States, can also be seen as a rule based union. Its members have agreed, in principle, to follow rules that maintain fiscal discipline. Its key institution, the ECB, is constitutionally independent of governments in order to insulate it from short term political pressures.
The EU’s rule book has a far reaching significance for its internal order. The principles of democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights are enshrined in the EU’s treaty base. The principles apply also to any potential new member. The extension and observance of the EU’s rule book is part of this wider vision of the rule of law.
The EU also aims to project its influence as a rule based system in its approach to international affairs. This applies first and foremost to foreign trade. It is a member of the WTO. It is concluding other international trading agreements, such as with Canada and Japan consistent with WTO rules. Beyond trade, the EU has also played a leading role in the Paris Agreement intended to provide universally legally binding commitments to mitigate climate change. And, it has supported international sanctions against international rule breakers – notably N. Korea and Iran over nuclear arms.
However, an emphasis on the EU as a supporter of a rule based order within the Union and in the external world is intended to go beyond being simply a plausible description of what the EU currently is and does. It is also intended to provide a platform for a renewed integrationist momentum.
There are three components to its appeal as a platform. The first is about short term tactical goals; the second about longer term strategic objectives. Thirdly, and most important, it is about projecting an identity, a fresh sense of what the Union stands for.
Historically, the EU has advanced its integrationist aims by periodically setting new and ambitious policy goals. At the moment there are several competing ideas for goals that might provide renewed integrationist momentum. They include capital markets union, energy union, fiscal union, and defence union.
Each of these alternatives has its own drawbacks. Capital markets union is overshadowed by the potential loss of what is far and away the EU’s most important financial market – London. Energy union is overshadowed by the geopolitics of import dependency on Russia. Greater fiscal harmonisation and a budget for the Eurozone is also divisive. Some countries fear the re-imposition of stronger rules as they emerge from austerity. Others, such as Germany, fear having to pay for the ‘profligacy’ of others by being drawn in to underwrite the ‘mutualisation’ of financial obligations. Defence union is being pushed by France. But for countries in Eastern and Central Europe, NATO and the US guarantee remain key. France has a long post-war history to live down of being an unreliable and subversive actor within the Atlantic Alliance.
An emphasis on the EU as a rule based order is not simply a question of being the ‘least bad’ among alternatives. It also responds to the need to define a new rules based relationship with the UK. Furthermore, it responds to the strains of relationships with some Central and Eastern European members. Some appear to be backtracking on their commitment to the rule of law. In others, corruption undermines the commitment to a functioning market economy and the ability to implement the EU’s rule book. A rallying cry around the importance of a rule based order is a timely reminder of the wider rule-of-law obligations of EU membership.
An emphasis on the EU as a rule based order also serves two important longer term strategic objectives. First, it is comprehensive in scope. It allows for other more specific goals to be included under its umbrella. If any particular goal, such as defence union, meets resistance, then advances can still be made on other fronts. Other fresh initiatives can be included as they come along. It is compatible with ideas about the EU integrating at different speeds in different circles.
Secondly, it provides a way of combining new goals for the EU with a statement about what the EU stands for. It expresses the character of the EU and not just its current policy goals.
There is a further dimension to the appeal of the EU as a champion of an international rule based order. Arguably it is more important than either tactical or strategic goals. It is about building the EU’s own identity. It is about building the European ‘demos’ that, it is often said, the Union signally lacks.
EU Identity can be built around the negative – what it is not. It can be built around the positive – what it stands for. Both the negative and the positive can be equally strong binding forces.
As a statement of the negative, the call of an international rule based order is a response to President Trump. He is seen as an unpredictable actor, a unilateralist and someone ready to walk away from Treaty obligations as he did with the Paris Agreement and threatens to do with WTO. In other words, it is about what the EU is not. It is not going to behave like President Trump.
The call is also about projecting a positive identity. In the past the EU has relied on fear of the past for much of its glue. However, for younger generations in Europe the Second World War is for the history books. Even the Cold War is a receding memory belonging to an older generation. A message that the EU is going to abide by and continue to try to build an international rule based order has a forward looking appeal to a new generation lacking direct memories of either World Wars or the Cold War. Its message is about the EU standing on its own feet, weaning itself from dependency on the US and playing its own positive role in world affairs.
The idea of the EU as a rule based order strengthens the EU’s sense of identity in another way. It provides a ‘home grown’ identity associated with economic success. It can claim roots with the German school of ‘Ordo’ liberals whose teachings provided the underpinnings for post war German economic recovery. At the same time, Ordo liberalism is associated with the idea of the ‘social market’. It thus ties in with the various models of the welfare state that are also seen as part of Europe’s identity.
Despite the many attractions of promoting the EU as a rule based order there are three main drawbacks.
First, even if expressed in simple terms, it remains an abstraction. It has to compete for attention with immediate gut issues such as immigration, inequality and low paid, low skilled employment.
Secondly, it has to contend with other expressions of identity. We live in a world of multiple, overlapping identities. They include narrower identities. They also include wider international identities.
Thirdly, identity cannot replace consent as the foundation for European political integration. Relying on a sense of identity continues a long standing policy of keeping off the agenda the question of a more settled constitutional structure for the Union. Fostering a sense of identity cannot substitute for the need to arrive at a federal or confederal structure for the Union based firmly on popular consent.