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Europe: from Project to Identity

How the EU should focus on rebuilding its popular support before anything else

, by FM Arouet

The “permissive consensus” which once prevailed among European peoples and granted European integration blind popular acceptance is now over. This strongly jeopardizes the efficiency of European policies. European leaders have to admit it and focus on re-launching the “European project”, a much more useful tool than European identity.

Europe Day 2005 poster – Source : The European Commission http://europa.eu/abc/symbols/9-may/gallery_en.htm

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The EU was often confronted with urgency and burning priorities recently: avoiding financial collapse, re-launching economies, bail-out Eurozone members, find a common approach to Arab revolutions, etc. These crises were deep, and legitimately required quick action and reform. But if Europe is to avoid seeing its decisions and actions dictated by foreign trends and events, its main priority should be elsewhere. It isn’t in smiling pictures of leading heads of State, end-of-Summit ambitious declarations, or outstanding institutional reforms. Europe’s priority should be to rebuild its democratic underpinnings, not to feel good about the value it promotes around the world, but simply because it is an essential condition for ensuring the European project has a future.

The limits of European schizophrenia

Europe is, and has always been to a certain extent, schizophrenic. On the one hand, heads of State tend to push integration forwards without paying attention to the participation of European peoples in the whole process. On the other hand, they abide by political and social pressures in their countries, very legitimately indeed, by taking decisions which eventually jeopardise what they tried to build in the first place. The “permissive consensus” by which European peoples accepted European integration as a natural process is over. People across Europe no longer take integration for granted, and even start to doubt whether it is really a good thing for them. From the absence of a common European position over the Irak war in 2003 to the 2008-2011 financial, economic, social and budgetary crises, and without forgetting the “No” to the European Constitution in 2005 and the rather chaotic adoption of the Lisbon Treaty, the European project is definitely stuck.

Democratic legitimacy has become (again) a condition for efficiency

Democratic legitimacy is not only a cosmetic feature of policies which allows a country to deem itself democratic and give lessons to others who aren’t. It is a vital feature of a political system based on the broad acceptance of the authority emanating from the general interest. The EU, and European Member States need to understand that, and even more so as the current trends the EU is experimenting are broad and long-term ones. Hence, it is vital for the EU to reconnect its institutional process with the European project which came out concretely for the first time in the Schuman Declaration on the 9th May 1950. This is why commemorating this symbolic date is essential. Debates about European identity are now welcomed with broad scepticism rather than tacit acceptance like before, hence the need to focus on a tangible issue, “the coming together of the nations of Europe” (Schuman Declaration). Indeed, this issue is much less contestable than European identity, which even the most pro-European scholars struggle in defining and explaining to the broader public.

From Project to Identity

Hence, Europe needs to acknowledge the fact that it is, before anything else, a Community of Project. Like the United States after their Independence and along their history, where men and women from extremely different horizons committed to a project (freedom, opportunity, democracy) before this project became identity, Europe needs to commit to a project before anything else. This is an effort to be done on the very long term, but needs to be started now. The sense of a common project precedes any sense of common feeling., and hence of common identity. It is only when such a sense of common feeling exists that we can have a functioning political system encompassing diverse nations. These are the bases for a thriving economy with one efficient currency area, in which fiscal transfers are accepted as naturally as they are within Member States today. Not only must this be Europe’s priority, it is also its one and only solution if it is to remain united. Let Europeans voluntarily embrace this Project before telling them what is their Identity.

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