A new ambition for the EU? Call it “Sustainable Integration”

16/09/2016

What future for the EU after Brexit? As European leaders emerge from their Summit in Bratislava on 16 September they will try both to sound decisive and consensual, bold and cautious, visionary and pragmatic. Can they really square that circle? Can they signal to European publics that the prospect of EU life without the UK may be hard to swallow but that nevertheless the European ship is not going adrift? How can they manage not to announce too much for the sway of peoples and countries who demand a break in European integration but not to do so little as to appear clueless?

There is an idea in the air of a protective Europe, responding to the anger of people who reject the kind of globalisation which the EU upholds, and the fear of people who feel vulnerable to the kind of free movement that the EU allows. As European Council President Donald Tusk told media, “.all of Europe expect that the EU, after Bratislava, will again be a guarantee of stability, security and protection – protection in the widest meaning, including social and economic protection.”

In a world where internal and external policies are inexorably intertwined, this theme echoes that of a resilient Europe put forward in the new global strategy by the EU’s chief diplomat Federica Mogherini. Europe needs to proactively prepare itself for future shocks and threats rather than reactively responding when they happen. Makes sense.

Yet, one potential pitfall with this focus on protection and resilience is that once again, it could mean a Europe equipped with more powers, tools and resources to achieve the kind of protection people feel they need from Riga to Nice: an EU army, an EU FBI, an EU border policy as well as a Fiscal Tsar and a Migration Minister. No one fears that the EU will become a Leviathan on a continental scale, but we all know that state machineries have been set up and grown in the last centuries precisely in order to “protect” populations from internal and external rifts. 

If the protection motive is to fly and be embraced by both member states who want more and member states who want less Europe, and among citizens who feel ambivalent about Brussels in every single member states, we must take what is good about it while protecting it against its own propensity for centralization drift.

In other words, EU leaders need to focus on the essentials, “the Europe of necessity”, or as a Chancellor Merkel likes to say a “better Europe.” But these terms, worthy as they are, still fail to convey a positive vision for what we want our future EU to be like and feel like after the shock of Brexit. To put the challenge another way: can we reshape a Europe that a majority of British citizens, and for that matter a majority of citizens in every EU member state, would want to be part of?

What does sustainable integration mean? It could be seen as a truism: integration is about staying together over time by definition. Except that it is not. It is truly a good thing that the peoples of Europe take part in this Union by choice and have the right to leave if they so wish. But it is a terrible thing to imagine an exit-domino where the complete unravelling of the union leaves everyone worse off, even if one or two defection could be handled successfully. Sustainable integration then starts with warding off disintegration, stating loud and clear to the world and to ourselves that the EU is here to stay.

But sustainable integration is more than that. Sustainable integration borrows from the aura of sustainability as a goal for our global environment as well as our cities, our security, our welfare states… but it is not just a fashionable label. It is the name of the game at the beginning of a XXIst century when boundaries of all kinds are being radically reconfigured by technological change: politics-across-borders must change too. And it chimes with principles underpinning the internet revolution, with its emphasis on empowerment, resilience, robustness, and adaptive learning. Sustainability is not about the status quo but about radically changing the way we change.

For the EU, sustainable integration is very simply a new governing idea of integration calling for moving away from the old remedies of “deeper and faster” in favour of “better and fairer” through processes that are durable, resilient and politically acceptable across generations. It is both an ethos, a state of mind and a practice.

Sustainable integration as an EU ideal starts with an acceptance that precisely because the EU is a sum of governments who cannot be collectively impeached, it ought to be about something else, something we could call democracy-with-foresight, somewhat protected from the short term ups and downs of electoral politics, yet open to participatory democracy and attuned to the overwhelming desire of the public to preserve our world for our children and great grand children.

To atone for its short term shortcomings in collective accountability, the EU must become accountable to those who are not represented anywhere, our future selves, and be seen as the guardian of the long term for all its citizens. For  such an agenda to be politically sustainable each and every national political system needs to be empowered with the mission to implement these long term commitment thanks to the creative potential that can best be mobilised through local democracy and engagement.

Sustainable integration also means changing the way change occurs in the EU and recognizing that intergovernmental bargains need to be sustained by inter-societal and inter-generational bargains, and that deals in Europe must be struck across all of its multiple divides. And it means that inclusiveness must be paramount even at the cost of further differentiation and opt-outs.

It is not to be anti-European to warn that European political leaders must not continue with the strategy of integration by stealth of the last few years which has so damaged the integrity and popularity of the European project. Rhe EU will likely continue to loose support among European publics if it simply goes on muddling through without substantiating why and under what conditions the quest for “more Europe” is a credible response to Europe’s woes.

Finding a lasting solution to the well-known shortcomings of the single currency continues to be paramount in this story. More financial integration is desirable to spread risks and resources across Europe, including through a more effective banking union and capital markets union. The German government may be right to insist that risk-sharing (through say macro-stablisation, bank supervision and resolution, deposit insurance scheme) must go hand in hand with risk reduction (through policing governments budget deficit). But this is not a simple sequencing story. When creditors ask why should they should share a risk if they have not reduced it first, debitors reply by asking why they should accept interference with their democracy without the reward of risk-sharing that a common project entails. Risk will only truly be reduced through growth and growth will obtain if firms and countries can borrow more cheaply by sharing risk.

In the end, instead of continuing to increase both sides of the equation, and in the face of bottom-up resistance, EU leaders need to ask ‘what is the minimum integration necessary’ to sustain a common currency among such different economies. For they cannot longer shy away from dealing with the main structural reason of EMU’s failures, namely the tension between national ownership - the aspirations and position of democratically legitimated politics- on the one hand and the interdependence of European economies and societies on the other. Democratic pre-emption and governing at a distance in not sustainable in a Union of democracies where domestic reforms must be democratically sustainable in order to be effective. 

What does this all mean for a country that is leaving the European Union but not leaving Europe, as British foreign minister Boris Johnson likes to say? For sure, sustainable integration means that neither insiders not close outsiders as the UK will surely remain can just pick and choose among a body of law that is a shared good among European peoples. But for this to be a plausible proposition, how these laws are crafted and what they contain must be adjusted to conform to the precept of sustainable integration. What the British saga over Europe has taught us is that if the EU as a whole does not take account of the unequal impact of its principles and laws, if it does not offer differentiated and flexible approaches, then it is the member states and their citizens who will take such differentiation in hand, unilaterally. And that, we have now learned, can mean walking out and shaking the whole edifice in the process.

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