The European Union currently faces a lot of trouble. Anti-European, nationalistic forces are on the rise, as the last European parliament elections have shown. This comes together with increasing distrust in and dissatisfaction with the actions of the European government and legislation. Radical forces are trying to disrupt and discard European institutions and rules constructed over seven decades while many citizens don’t mind or even support that process. It makes the impression that we have given up the belief in the idea of a united Europe, if ever it existed.
Does European Union still have its role to play in today’s global environment? And if yes, why?
The European Union was formally founded 1957 with the Treaty of Rome. The initial member countries were Belgium, France, the Netherlands, West Germany, Italy and Luxembourg. In the upcoming decades, the number of member countries gradually increased, to nowadays 28. Also, derivative institutions were founded and further agreements were implemented. In 1993, the European common market was founded, making it possible to pass and sell goods without custom barriers or legal obstacles. Furthermore, the Schengen agreement was signed in 1985, making it possible to abolish border controls within most areas of the European Union. The European Parliament was created in 1979, guaranteeing all EU-citizens the right to directly elect their representatives in Brussels every five years.
One of the incentives for the founding of the European Union was the appalling disasters Europe went through in the first half of the 20th century. After two wars with about 100 million causalities, centuries full of hatred and distrust, leaders of the main European countries decided to put an end to this vicious circle. They formed a union, giving up parts of their national sovereignty in exchange for peace and supranational structures. Regarding the stability of European politics then, countries aims have been fulfilled.
Nevertheless, 70 years after the war and periods of peace and democracy, those aims do nowadays seem very farfetched.
After years of recession in Europe, with unemployment rates high, youth unemployment hitting the 20% margin in numerous member countries, and years of economic stagnation, dissatisfaction is growing. This comes together with discontent about a democracy deficit within European institutions. Citizens complain that important decisions and laws binding the individual member states are developed by unelected technocrats in Brussels to be finally approved by ‘collaborating’ politicians in the European parliament. Nationalist parties offer simple solutions, like scrapping the union as a whole. With 25 % of the votes for the Front National in France and 28 % of the votes for UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party, these two nationalist parties have become the representative voices of their countries in the European elections. A question that therefore often arises today is: Why should we keep the union?
The continent of Europe is a place of shared values and culture. It is a place where important philosophical movements as the enlightenment or the concept of democracy emerged. Furthermore, great philosophers and thinkers, as for instance Plato, Aristotle, John Locke, Rene Descartes or Mark Horkheimer, come from Europe. The same can be said about music or art, just to name a few with Mozart, Vivaldi, or the famous painters Pablo Picasso and van Gogh. Europeans can be proud of their cultural heritage that has been accumulated over the last centuries.
In addition, the European single market is the biggest market in the world, above China and the United States. Its social welfare systems and its ecological policies are outstanding comparing to other continents. Furthermore, it is the place with by far the most liberal, tolerant and effective laws for minorities, immigration and integration.
However, the aim of this article is not to praise Europe while denying the reality. Europe is still in a recession and we are facing a major democracy deficiency in our European institutions. Nevertheless, we can be proud of what this continent has achieved within the last centuries and our union within the last decades. We are a community where democracy and freedom can be taken for granted. The union is our joint project to bring together all those great cultural achievements and combine them with economic prosperity.
The undeniable truth that many parties and people are reluctant to face, is the fact we all have to give up parts of our national sovereignty in order to advance the European project. It is the process of creating a supranational structure that makes us able to speak as a single, strong voice in a more and more multipolar, global world. We cannot afford to be alone anymore. Giving up parts of our national sovereignty for a greater order is an act of responsibility. However, that doesn’t mean that we give up our national identity. Our national differences will remain and it is, despite stated otherwise, very unlikely that Europe will ever become a strictly centralized entity. Even if more power is transferred to the EU institutions away from the national governments, EU is likely to remain very federal, respecting the needs of the individual populations. Nevertheless, the reluctance we see to accept to hand over certain tasks to the European legislation is comparable to small children hesitating to accept the undeniable: We need to act together to solve the problems we face in a globalized, interdependent world.
The European idea is great, but it is too little communication with the people. It is now up to politicians to go to the people and explain to them the idea of a united Europe. It sometimes appears that European politicians fear this process. They fear that their ideas might be rejected, that the European citizens will deny the idea of a united Europe. They fear the people might not be ready. However, the European Union is ought to be a long term project, one that could finally result in the ‘United States of Europe’. No such country could exist without the eager support of its citizens. Now, we need to catch up with what was missed within the last years and decades, before it is too late.
Zur Politik der europäischen Einigung gibt es keine verantwortbare Alternative. Wenn wir Frieden, Freiheit, Sicherheit und Wohlstand für alle Bürger unseres Kontinents auf Dauer sichern wollen, dann bleibt es unsere Aufgabe, mit Engagement und Optimismus für den Bau des Hauses Europa einzutreten. Denn Europa – und das gilt besonders für die junge Generation – ist unsere Zukunft.”
→ There is no legitimate alternative to the process of European unification. If we want to secure peace, freedom, security and prosperity for all citizens of this continent in the long term, then it is our task to stand up, with dedication and optimism, for the construction of a united Europe. Because Europe – what applies especially to the younger generation – is our future.
Helmut Kohl, German chancellor 1982 – 1998, honorary citizen of the European Union