December 24th, 2006

The Eurovision vision contest

Terrific pamphlet by Tom Burke and Nick Mabey of E3G. Their Europe in the World publication is a vision for Europe painted on the broadest possible canvas – an inspiring call for Europe to cast off its paralysing anxieties and face the globalising world with confidence and purpose. This is about defining a European mission that is outward-looking, and aimed at playing the most fundamental role we expect from any state institution: providing security. But they have a broad definition of security, making the case for Europe as a key actor providing in energy security, climate security, water security and food security. They define success not in raw GDP terms (which remains the obsession of the EU’s Lisbon Agenda and most leaders), but in terms of quality of life, health, security and well-being. For me it opens some interesting questions…

China and Europe to buddy up

The idea that the rising prosperity of China per se is somehow a threat to our prosperity is rightly dismissed as nonsense, with the real threat identified as the unsustainability of China’s (and Europe’s) style of growth. They advocate a grand strategic alliance between Europe and China to shift to a model of growth consistent with their wider definition of security and the use of soft-power and co-operation as the basis for international relations – drawing on the lessons of Europe’s outstanding great success – the conversion of states at war to a peaceful single market and political co-operation in securing high standards of living and environmental protection.

Contract with the future
They also draw attention to the vast inter-generational plunder that is presently underway (through pensions, healthcare costs, climate change, demographics and so on) and call for a new social contract drawn between current generations and the future. This is an important observation and deserves much greater attention.

A pamphlet for the progressive sceptic?
I sometimes (pretentiously) describe myself as a ‘progressive Eurosceptic’ – believing that the EU tries to do too much of the wrong things (subsidising farmers, over-regulating the wrong things, fraud, juste retour politics) and not enough of what we really need it for (as an outward-looking world-wide champion of European values). So, it’s great to have this vision – and good vision is in short supply in Europe, and certainly not embodied in the failed EU Constitution or the efforts of Europe’s leaders to sell it. But finishing this pamphlet and then thinking how the EU really behaves was like enjoying a pleasant dream set in Tuscany only to wake up in a damp bedsit in Peckham. See, for example, the outcome of Europe’s highest political summit, the European Council [Economist report /BBC / official conclusions] The highest Google rank for a search on European + Commission + Vision for official documents returns a page on the future of e-government from 2001.

Democratic renewal so that leaders actually lead
The EU is a long way from realising the Burke-Mabey vision. Though they suggest welcome democratic reforms based on participative and deliberative techniques, I’m not sure that is the only or main problem. The problem is leadership. And why is there insufficient leadership? Because the leaders we have don’t have to sell a vision for Europe or even have a vision. The electorates and politicians can join together to kick the EU and use it to blame for difficult but important measures or to duck responsibility for tough choices which can be positioned as ‘made in Brussels’. When the EU does something we don’t like (but might be good for us) who do we blame or force to justify it – when the 27-person Council of Ministers is responsible, no-one is. To his credit, Tony Blair did a good job on the vision thing in his speech to the European Parliament in 2005, but has struggled to translate words into deeds and presided over an unseemly haggle over the budget and enlargement – and through his Iraq adventure, has degraded his capacity to lead in Europe.

So I think the key is to arrange the affairs of Europe so that our leaders – the Blairs and Chiracs of the future – have to own the European project and take it to their people. One way would be to link the weighting each member state gets in qualified majority voting not to population, but to number of people voting in the European elections – thus incentivising domestic politicians to increase turnout.

Make real politics from real choices about Europe’s future
Another would be a referendum on the future of Europe – but not couched as a ‘yes’ / ‘no’ vote on the rules of procedure needed for smooth running of the institutions (ie. the ‘constitution’) – who really cares about that? But on rival propositions for Europe’s future (each of which could contain identical rules of procedure). If it has to be a binary choice, the real choice is an outward-looking/insular response to globalisation, not a yes/no to 6-month rotating presidencies. The government of each member state would be required to act consistently with the vision that its people voted for. If necessary, a two tier system could be more widely established so that member states could choose Europe-fort or Europe-leger – that’s not such a big deal as it is sometimes held up to be… we have it for border security and monetary union, and it might facilitate enlargement by allowing accession to be a process of graduation.

Walk before you run, but in the right direction
Finally, I think Europe’s leaders have to win confidence one battle at a time: stop the absurd double location of the parliament in Brussels and Strasbourg (if they can’t do that, how can they shape a global pact with China?); complete the single market in services; bring Turkey in and make the case for enlargement; replace the CAP by shifting the funds into sustainable development; set up a real peace-keeping force to aid the UN and promote the ‘responsibility to protect’ principle; pool member-state development budgets into European budgets; rethink the European Investment Bank as an institution promoting stability and accession for countries outside the EU; have a long-standing president; find a new settlement with Russia… and so on.

E3G’s pamphlet is a great contribution on Lewis Carroll’s principle:

If you don’t know where you are going, then any road will get you there“.

But the other principle that comes to mind is from Lao-Tzu:

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step“.

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