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An EU “fit for purpose” in the global age: Can we rise to the challenge?

After the long and painful Lisbon Treaty ratification process, the EU has a revamped institutional settlement, a new commission, a stable presidency within the Council and a European External Action service which is under construction. Are we now free of our long phase of introspection, ready to confront global challenges and to provide a European strategy to get out of the economic crisis? Loukas Tsoukalis, Olaf Cramme and Roger Liddle of the Policy Network examine the challenges facing the European Union and suggest ways to tackle this questions in the coming years.

Post Lisbon Treaty : A new chapter for Europe

We should be under no illusions: this period of ratification was an expression of a deeper problem concerning the legitimacy of the process of integration and the direction the Union was taking. The negative results of the French, Dutch and Irish referendums made clear that European citizens are no longer prepared to give their leaders a carte blanche. The major political crisis that ensued caused the EU to turn inwards at a time when new big challenges were sweeping a rapidly changing international scene.

Can we draw the right lessons? And can we do so without cutting back on the high expectations and demands placed on the EU by many people both inside and outside the Union?

An EU “fit for purpose” in the global age: Can we rise to the challenge? is aslo the title of study published by the Policy Network. What is the role of the European Union as a political entity in a rapidly changing world and how it should reform itself, both internally and externally, in order to overcome and respond to the multifaceted challenges of the global age we now live in? Read the study here [pdf]

The stakes are very high indeed. The world is still rife with instability, with unresolved conflicts, failed states, nuclear proliferation, messianic ideologies, terrorism and organised crime, abject poverty and new waves of international migration, fierce competition for access to raw materials and a time bomb under the name of global warming. On top of this worryingly long list of challenges, history also tells us that the transition from one political order to the next is rarely peaceful. The era of unipolarity seems to have been short-lived.

The centre of gravity is moving Eastwards

At the same time, Europe no longer occupies centre stage. Power has gravitated elsewhere and mainly eastwards. The relative weight of individual European countries, measured in terms of population, income and trade, has been steadily declining for more than two decades; it can only decrease in the foreseeable future. On their own, European countries no longer hold much sway when in the company of big powers, and they will count even less tomorrow. This is a hard reality to reconcile oneself with, especially when it concerns the old great powers of Europe.

In the next few years, the key challenge for Europeans will be to identify and collectively defend common interests and values in a world where size still matters a great deal. Europe’s comparative advantage may indeed lie in soft or normative power, although in many cases action needs to match the rhetoric, of which there is plenty. But soft power may not be enough in a world in which martial arts are still widely practiced. Europeans will have some hard decisions to make, not least whether they make them together or separately. They have a model, at least a collective experience, worth exporting to the rest of the world, which is now grappling with new ways of managing global interdependence. And they also have a neighbourhood that includes several countries where poverty and instability combine to form an explosive mix. This is another challenge for Europe as a regional power.

Shaping globalisation, defending common interests and values, exporting its model of governance and adding more substance and elements of hardware to its soft power, without doubt combine for a very tall order. There are, however, many forces of inertia and a multiplicity of interests that have to be reconciled. When it comes to the crunch, the most powerful driving force may, indeed, prove to be a negative one, namely the fear of being marginalised in a world in which power becomes more diffuse but still very much unequally distributed.
The economic crisis, in turn, is challenging some of the fundamentals of the European acquis. It has caused many people to reflect on both the tremendous value and the fragility of the single market and the euro, achievements that tended to be taken for granted. In a different and more adverse economic environment, governance mechanisms and the overall internal bargain need to adjust. There is no way back to a pre-crisis world.

The EU needs to regain the confidence of its citizens

European integration is clearly at a crossroads. There is a vicious circle that needs to be broken: the legitimacy foundation of the integration process has been weakened, giving rise to a knock on effect which constrains the ability of European institutions to take big and bold decisions. The EU will need to be re-justified in order to sustain its relevance. It will need a new narrative and concrete measures in order to regain the confidence of European citizens and thus secure, renew and expand the foundation upon which European policymaking is legitimised. The more robust the foundation becomes, the more decisive EU action will be in the future.

For some, Europe is already doing too much and needs to be reined in. Although there is surely room for more subsidiarity in specific areas, those trying to turn the European and world clock backwards simply refuse to recognise the reality of interdependence and the many benefits associated with it. However, in managing interdependence the EU should also address more effectively the sensitivities and concerns of those negatively affected.

When it rains, it makes more sense to look for an umbrella rather than pointing your finger menacingly at the clouds. For the large majority of its citizens, the European Union provides such an umbrella, and much more: it is part of the answer to the numerous policy challenges Europe’s proud nations are confronted with. This is the message that European institutions and national political leaders should get across: with deeds more than with words. We can rise to the challenge!

Loukas Tsoukalis, Olaf Cramme and Roger Liddle

The authors have recently concluded a major research initiative on the challenges and choices facing the EU post-2009. Three edited volumes and a compact synthesis report combining 35 original contributions from leading experts on EU politics can be found at www.policy-network.net The Policy Network is a member of European network of Touteleurope.fr.

En savoir plus :

The website of the think tank Policy Network

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