The European Project – What Future? (part 1 of 2)

logo blog post about the future of the European Union

>> Part 2 of this article


I think the first time I truly reflected on the European Union was in the last year of high school, when our history & geography teacher asked us our opinion about it and how it impacted our everyday life. At the time I didn’t really know what it was and certainly didn’t see how it had anything to do with my life, and I said so. That got me the following comment from my teacher: “in tartiflette we trust” (tartiflette being a typical dish from the Savoy region, in the French Alps, where I was born and raised), which was the slogan the locals used to show their pride at being from the region. Of course that was her way of highlighting that my perspective was limited to where I lived and that I didn’t see bigger, but isn’t it true for everyone? Until you see something or its consequences for yourself, it doesn’t really exist in your world… And I still believe it was smarter to write down things as they were (i.e. that I didn’t really have an opinion on the EU since I felt like it didn’t do anything for or against me) than listing praise or critics about something I actually didn’t know.
However I gained new perspectives on Europe when I went abroad for studying. First the simple fact that I was able to study in another country without visa or special papers gave me a positive opinion of the European Project and showed me some of its use. And then the contact with non-European students allowed me, via their point of view and experience both in Europe and at home, to understand the opportunities the various European agreements opened up.
Finally I went to study Public Policy 4 month in South Korea. There I met plenty of government officials and advisors in every possible fields, many of them believing the European Project would never work. I studied international relations and saw what a mess it was and why, I went to the border with North Korea and saw a war zone, understood the underlying tensions between Japan and Korea because of World War II and centuries of conflicts… And I realized how much the European Union had already done for Europe and what it could mean for this region of the globe and for the world.
From there I felt like I should write about it to describe what I had learned and remind everyone of the project’s successes, of its potential (what it could become) and why it was so important. Given the current situation (massive immigration, terrorism, Brexit…) it feels even more important to do so.

I hope the time it took for me to write my thoughts on paper will allow for a richer article, beyond a simple praise of the European Project: I hope it will get people all over the world to reflect on what is truly at stake, to question the origin of their opinion about the project (may it be positive or negative) in order to confirm what they think or change it, to reflect on how we should move forward and of course I hope to get as many people as possible excited about this project (at least as much as I am)!

The European Project

The Vision & the Methods

Any endeavor contains a vision: the thing we target, what we want to build. Sometimes it’s clear from the start, sometimes it comes later. Sometimes it’s clearly expressed and sometimes not. And then there’s the methods we use to reach the goal. That’s exactly the same when we talk about Europe and we’ll go through the vision and the methods further down. For now the question to answer is: why is it important to differentiate methods and vision?

  • First because this will help everyone define what it is they support or not in the European project rather than talking about it as a whole.
  • Second because challenges related to inefficient methods need to be addressed in a very different way and have very different consequences compared with challenges related to a poor vision.
  • Third because this should remind everyone that the methods in any given project need to be improved and refined: trying, failing and trying again until we find what works is the normal process behind any endeavor, and you never give up on the vision because the methods used don’t work.
  • Finally because it should remind that it’s difficult to judge a vision as good or bad: either you believe in it or you don’t (though I guess we could probably label visions based on fear, hatred and other negative feelings as bad. They usually aim at hurting or controlling others and one’s surrounding). On the other hand methods can (and must) be judged as regard to the goal they were implemented to serve: if it doesn’t bring us closer to it then it’s bad. If it does, it can be more or less efficient and necessitate improvements.

The Vision Behind the European Project

So then, if every endeavor has a vision, what is the one behind the European Project? I honestly don’t know, and a look at the European Union’s website didn’t really help: you only learn that the initial vision was to maintain peace and the method chosen was to increase economic cooperation (via the EEC). That makes sense and is quite a success, but what about nowadays?
And there we have it: the very first problem behind the EU and any other European agreements! Why do they exist? Where are they leading? There’s some heavy work to be done here in terms of leadership (picking a vision) and communication because I strongly doubt anyone knows where we’re going…

Dear reader, you are welcome to write in the comment section what you think is the vision driving the EU and other institutions. I think we may already see here that different people look in different directions, which is one reason for the disagreements regarding the methods used to drive the European Project forward.

As far as I’m concerned I strongly believe in the idea of the United States of Europe, though I can’t tell whether this is where we’re headed. That’s just what I see and support behind the various European agreements and institutions (including the EU), and here are some of the reasons explaining why I support this vision:

  • Succeeding in building the United States of Europe would prove that international relations can reach a whole new level of maturity, leaving behind the current kindergarten-like situation where ego-driven individuals constantly try to crush one another (see the prisoner’s dilemma to better understand the current state of international relations) or need third parties to settle their disagreements, in exchange for a new reality based on true cooperation, where everyone gives so that everyone receives (so-called win-win situations, a topic that has been discussed for decades in the business sector and widely accepted as necessary and efficient, but still seems like an ideal in politics).
  • The United States of Europe would be an inspiring example for the rest of the world, and especially for regions plagued by conflicts and strong tensions: it would show that it is not a fatality, that if a region with a history filled to the brim with conflicts and with as much diversity as Europe can succeed in cooperating and leaving behind grudges then it is possible anywhere.
  • It would mean the victory of people’s similarities over their differences, the success of a project based on positive human emotions and attitude (love, empathy, compassion, respect…).
  • It would allow for efficient actions in the field of environmental protection since these specific issues, by their very nature (i.e. related to the planet), demand an extremely high level of cooperation; a level we’re far away from. (Do note that I’m not saying it would solve everything: the specific question of the environment demands first and foremost a profound change in how we perceive ourselves and the world around us. But the United States of Europe would certainly help.)
  • It seems like a logical evolution in human societies: we went from tribes to villages to regions to countries. Why should countries be the final unit?
  • It would ensure at long last a lasting peace in a region plagued by centuries of war.
  • It would mean a bigger interior market with more business opportunities for local companies and that is more attractive internationally, all this leading to greater economic prosperity.

The Methods for the European Project

We’ve seen the vision (or lack thereof) behind the European Project, so let’s now look at the methods employed to move forward. I’m talking here about all the agreements and institutions that have been signed/created throughout the years to advance the European Project: European Union, Euro Zone, Schengen Space, European Parliament, etc.
They are, indeed, nothing but methods created to serve a purpose. And we’ve seen that methods should be judged as regards to the vision they were implemented to carry out. However since the vision is unclear, it becomes very difficult to judge the methods: who can tell what works or not, what needs to be adjusted (and how) or thrown away since we cannot tell what goal they are supposed to help reaching?
Doesn’t this already shed a new light on the “pro/against EU” debate raging out there? On people discussing a method without even knowing clearly what it is here for?
Now if we assume we’re moving towards the United States of Europe then there are some undeniable successes, among which:

  • The European Union in that it has brought together bitter enemies from World War II (Poland, Germany, France…). That kind of post-war cooperation is far from being a standard everywhere as I have discovered while in Korea… And isn’t it an inspiring example? Not just of peace, but of remembrance and yet forgiveness in order to move on?
  • The Schengen space in that it has made it possible to study, work, travel and live wherever we want, along with opening up great opportunities for cultural exchanges and learning new languages.
  • The European financial support granted to various projects (from renovation of historical buildings to research) in that it shows how international cooperation is beneficial for everyone.
  • The single market in that it has made EU countries more attractive internationally on top of simplifying export as a growth strategy (it’s now an option even for SMEs).
  • Most of the agreements and institution to date in that they led to years of uninterrupted peace (more than 70 for some countries).

However things are far from perfect and much needs to be adjusted, rethought from the ground up even perhaps. I won’t go into details here since many have already listed the limitations of the current methods, but let’s look at two examples:

  • The Schengen Space is definitely not ready if it breaks down as soon as the operating conditions change. Let’s pick a random example: handling a massive flow of refugees.
  • The relationship between the member states still looks a lot like a kindergarten, with people struggling between “protecting” national interests at the expense of a greater vision (basically trying to get the most out of any given situation even if it means less for others) and working towards that vision.

Conclusion on the Current Situation

It seems like, nowadays, few people are making a difference between vision and methods when discussing the European Project, and the lack of clarity of the official vision only contributes to make things worse: we’re looking in different directions and thus expecting different things from the agreements that are made. This confusion leads to debates and opinions that mix up various goals and also mix up arguments in favor/against vision-related elements and method-related elements.
For example I’ve seen lists of arguments against the EU that put side by side the fact it has more power than the member countries (which seems to be a vision-related argument questioning what we’re trying to build) and the fact the decision processes are not democratic enough (which obviously relates to the methods; how things are done). But these are two very different things: remaking a vision isn’t the same as adjusting a way of working! Add to this the fact a supranational institution can only be a problem if it doesn’t fit what you’re trying to achieve (in my vision it is for example perfectly ok) and you get a general idea of how everything is mixed up in everyone’s mind.
As far as I’m concerned I see a vision worth achieving (for all the reasons exposed above), with a huge potential for Europe and the world, and presenting lots of successes but also obvious shortcomings. This leads me to agree with most arguments against the EU (because they attack methods that I agree must be reworked) and yet defend it strongly (because of its potential)!

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