European Union

The EU must relaunch or die

Enrico Letta, the former Italian PM, says this is the moment statecraft must replace bureaucracy

If the European Union does not undertake a concrete and effective re-launch within  the next few months it will move towards irreversible decline. There is little time to avoid it. The reaction must be rapid and courageous.

Brexit was a heavy blow but the aftermath of the vote has produced some even more serious effects. The British decision, a consequence first and foremost of a British problem, has come to be seen as a Europe-wide rejection, with all the unfair and extremely damaging side-effects that brings.

The reaction of continental Europeans was one of division at the start followed by  excessive passivity. As if ‘business as usual’ could be sufficient to manage an event of such historic importance.

Now we seem to be moving towards the Bratislava summit on September 16 in the dark and with our headlights off. As though we can permit the meeting to end with the usual formulations, ‘The European Council welcomes ...’, ‘The European Leaders encourage …’

The truth of the matter is that a profound revision of the process of European integration would have been necessary even without Brexit. Now Brexit offers even greater reasons for doing it.

Though we are now dealing with the consequences of the worst possible decision that the British could have taken for themselves and for the rest of Europe, Brexit is now a reality that could help the EU recognize the impossibility of doing business as usual.

It is often said that you should never waste a crisis and never has that been truer than now. Any reaction must make a clear distinction between divorce and a fresh start. At the heart of the efforts of the 27, and more particularly the 19 members of the eurozone, must be the fresh start. They must not be tied to nor conditioned by the divorce which will be complex, exhausting and unsatisfactory from almost all points of view. This divorce must be managed with professionalism and a cool head. The nub of the question should be addressed, but dispassionately. It should, in short, be reduced to a legal question.

In the fresh start, on the other hand, there must be the fullest possible political and emotional investment.  And this must start with the euro itself, whose full realization is the most important goal.

Achieving this will make the euro better able to guarantee the prosperity and wellbeing of citizens while making the eurozone more stable and preventing new crises.

European leaders must have as their objective a Union better able to protect its own citizens economically and socially, not to mention guaranteeing their security.

‘The truth of the matter is that a profound revision of European integration would have been necessary even without Brexit’

The rupture that our society is experiencing has its origins in the rift between globalization’s winners and losers.

Before the financial crisis of 2008, the winners were in the majority and this gave rise to the mistaken idea that the rest of the population – the losers – were just an unfortunate side-effect.

The crisis overturned this received wisdom. Fear in our society prevailed and the many who missed the boat for the advantages of globalization found ways to express their desire for the ‘good old days’.

They found parties that amplified their fears, and they expressed those fears in a progressively more vocal and determined manner. In Britain, they were able to move towards that most tumultuous of backward steps, Brexit.

Any idea of a return to the ‘good old days’ is the purest delusion. The world has moved on. When the UK joined the then European Economic Community, China was 1 percent of the world’s economy; now it constitutes one fifth. That is equivalent to the whole of Europe.

If a return to the certainties of the past is a delusion, then likewise it is a mistake to gloss over the fractures of our own time without addressing the growth in inequality in our own society.

Any refusal by EU leaders to heed the lessons of our current predicament would be the worst possible reaction. Europe cannot be only for globalization’s winners. Europe must protect all its citizens.

It must rekindle popular enthusiasm at a time when crisis and uncertainty have destroyed the perception of gradual but inevitable progress that brings with it advantages for each and all.

This offers us the opportunity to return to the origins of the European ideal that has, in recent years, lost its way and ended up in bureaucratization.

This is the moment for statecraft to replace bureaucracy. Our citizens are turning to their representatives because they are looking for certainty and asking for security and protection.

Our political system in Old Europe, crisis ridden though it is in other ways, has a unique and unrepeatable opportunity to regenerate itself. It must not be wasted. We must not permit ourselves to waste it.