The following longer comment is based on a shorter intervention I wanted to make during Friends of Europe annual debate on the “State of Europe”, which this year took place under the very appropriate title “”Re-thinking the European Project”. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) I did not get the floor so I decided to use this blog to develop my thoughts further.
The session where I wanted to intervene had been given the following positioning and questions by Friends of Europe:
“Project Phoenix: setting out a real political agenda for Europe
In this second decade of the 21st century, Europe must confront global challenges which are very different from those that were the catalyst for the European project in the first place. How can Europe confront such challenges as its waning competitiveness, resource competition, energy insecurity, food scarcities, demographic and labour imbalances and, of course, climate change? … How can leaders rebuild Europe around a political, social and sustainability narrative capable of protecting its values and prosperity rather than inflicting what amount to cutbacks in the EU’s budget?”
At the beginning of the debate, two VIP speakers were given the floor to set the scene: Polish finance Minister Jacek Rostowski and ex-Commissioner for Internal Market Mario Monti. Both opening speakers clearly had not understood that the session was supposed to tackle more than just the Euro crisis. Mr Rostowki presented in an elegant way the views on the Euro crisis seen from a country outside of the Eurozone and Mario Monti found it necessary to ridicule the idea of a project Phoenix altogether by referring to a funny Wikipedia entry on finding extra-terrestrial intelligence (which looking at the spectacle of failing political elites might well be needed in the end – WDB).
Both European leaders were apparently unable to frame the debate in any other narrative than the one which Monti himself nicely described later as the “tyranny of the emergency”. The debate which followed therefore remained stuck in that short-term Euro crisis narrative and had no eye for the broader long-term challenges mentioned in the session description. So, let’s develop here further how I would have wished to reframe the debate.
Let’s start with one point Mario Monti made which I did like. Several countries in the Eurozone “feel cheated”, the former commissioner said. Indeed correct, dear Commissioner, but not just countries but European citizens “feel cheated” and not just because of the current “emergency”. Having worked for more than 25 years in EU affairs, I remain a strong believer in Europe but even I “feel cheated” by the growth-obsessed and consumption- and debt-driven “Internal Market first” Europe which certainly in the last ten years has not improved the happiness or prosperity of its ordinary citizens. Looking at the increased social inequalities, rising youth unemployment and all the sustainability challenges which our children will be facing, was this the Europe we were promised in 1992? We had the famous Cecchini report on the costs of non-Europe, maybe we should do the exercise again but this time on what this neo-liberal project Europe is costing us?
The big problem is, of course, that Europe is not facing ONE emergency crisis but TWO interrelated and re-enforcing crises which both have their root cause in the fact that we have been living above our means. Our inherently growth-dependent casino economy has been based on financial debt (cheap money) and ecological debt (free ecosystem services and cheap oil). Now that we are witnessing the geopolitical shift to the emerging economies which want our way of life and our “wealth”, we have reached the limits of debt and the limits of growth. We have entered a fundamentally different world. From the rich and ivory towers of Brussels it seems hard to recognise that this transition to a post-growth, post-carbon economy needs a new Europe. Business as usual is indeed not an option (a phrase used all the time in Brussels’ debates but without seriously questioning what it means).
Therefore also, Eurobonds, more economic integration, a stronger ESFS will not be enough. Sure we will have to solve this Eurozone emergency crisis but we will have to do this with the citizens, not against them and taking into consideration the interconnections with the sustainability crisis. And yes austerity will be needed but much more social and fair austerity (also ecological austerity, a theme for another blog post).
Therefore we do not need just a Treaty change, we need a new European narrative and a new social contract with European citizens built around a new definition of prosperity and a strategy to defend our European social welfare. We need to go “beyond GDP” and re-think our future as Europeans. The “kicking the ball forward” strategies that we are witnessing now are the flames which might in the end burn our great European house.
Europe is not reduced to ashes yet but if we remain locked into the 1992 narrative and vision of Europe, we will need a project Phoenix before the end of this decade. Let’s start thinking about it.