The Idea

A Fitness Regime for the European Union

It started the New Year at 53, hopelessly out of shape and in the midst of an existential crisis of such terrible complexity the Greek Gods would wonder whether they hadn’t missed a trick or two. The poor old EU, battered from all directions – surely we should just give up on it.

A recent slew of media commentary predicts a coming generation of euronihilists who think in precisely this way. The youth of today, it is claimed, will reject the pro-European enthusiasm of their parents in favour of a destructive, devilmay-care attitude towards the European Union: if the EU is anyway doomed, they will reason, why waste time on it?

Happily, this diagnosis of burgeoning euronihilism is misplaced. Although the coming generation will probably never be truly enthusiastic about their unlovely inheritance, they will not give up on it. Whatever carefree ideological excesses euroenthusiasm may have known, the coming generation simply cannot afford to replace them with the carefree ideological excesses of euronihilism. The reason is as straightforward as it is ugly: uncertainty.

An apocalypse that is certain and foreseeable has a liberating effect – we’d all gladly cast off the doomed pension scheme and dip our feet in the ever-rising sea. But so long as the future remains uncertain, the temptation of joyful nihilism will have to cede to something a lot less fun. Whilst there is still hope for the EU, there is no other option but to fret about it. Turning the EU from liability into solution will be a hard grind, and one to which this collection of essays makes its own contribution.

We hope that this pamphlet will amount to a sort of austerity-programme for any flabby EUthink which crept in during more comfortable times. We set our authors a straightforward task: to revisit one undervalued strength of the EU, and to show how this might be better exploited to revitalise a policy area of their choice. The resulting essays cover a lot of ground, but three themes crop up regularly.

If the European Union wishes to go from liability to solution, we believe it should adopt the following fitness regime:

1. Less inconsistency, more flexibility

On paper, the EU stands out amongst other large international organisations because of its capacity for flexibility: it has the potential to move beyond rigid, rule-bound cooperation and narrow quidpro- quos. Such is the degree of understanding and integration between its members that they should be able to take things on trust.

But if that’s the theory, the reality is rather different. Far from being flexible, the EU has become outwardly inconsistent and inwardly rigid: whilst the EU seems constantly to move the goalposts for Turkish accession for example, the member states imprison themselves in an increasingly rigid constitution. It is an untenable situation in the current climate, and these essays show how the Union can achieve not only size and depth but also flexibility in areas such as its constitutional policy (Almut Möller), Turkey policy (Nora Fisher Onar) and energy policy (Sami Andoura).

2. Less arrogance, more self-confidence

The EU articulates a set of normative values of the highest calibre. Human rights promotion, regional cooperation and social inclusion are all part of its canon. Yet, the reason it articulates these values is too often because it ought to believe in them, rather than because it actually does: the EU has made little effort to reconcile its values with its own political realities and interests. The result is a blindness to problems within the EU and a blithe tendency to lecture others.

In the current political climate, the Union’s long lists of principles amount to nothing more than a suicide note. These essays show how the EU can go from being a shallow arrogant character, to an altogether more interesting and nuanced one. They run the gamut from the EU’s Middle-East (Timo Behr) and enlargement policy (Deniz Devrim and Jordi Vaquer) through to its social (Irena Cerovic) and counter-terrorist policy (Toby Archer). 

3. Less fantasy, more imagination

The feature which marks the EU out from all other international organisations, is its statelike qualities. These could be a real trump card in this uncomfortable global climate, where not just size but cohesion is key. Yet, at present such qualities owe more to fantasy than to reality: there is little appreciation amongst thinkers for just how difficult the vision of a cohesive, state-like EU would be to achieve. Indeed, if the past months have shown anything, it is the limits of the cohesion between the 27.

If we wish the EU to take advantage of its state-like capabilities, then we face the wearisome task of harnessing different national traditions and interests. With a little more imagination, this is possible, whether it be in “better regulation” initiatives (Mirte van den Berge), economic policy (Cornelius Adebahr), foreign policy (Thomas Renard and Sven Biscop) or home affairs (Roderick Parkes).

Now that the distracting Sudoku exercise which is treaty reform is all but over, the EU must get back to the serious physical exertions of real politics. We trust that these short essays will make a meaningful contribution to that.

Almut Möller & Roderick Parkes
Brussels & Berlin, 10 January 2011