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What Kind of Europe in Thirty Years Time

21 July, 2005

They say that a week is a long time in politics. Political forecasting is always a risky business, perhaps never more so than when attempting to predict the political shape of a continent in three decades time.


Who, thirty years ago, would have predicted the current shape of the EU?  Well, some academics and political pundits no doubt, either devotees of the founding fathers or trenchant critics of a process of rolling European integration might have foreseen the development of the system that we have today. But I think it’s fair to say that the vast number of Irish people, and I would hazard, people across other member states, could never have envisaged the transformation of what was a trading bloc in the 1970s into a political union with federalist ambitions.

Of course, the political objective of a Federation was there from the beginning. This is openly acknowledged on the continent, but has been denied by generation after generation of Irish politicians.  The first step was the Schuman Declaration of 9 May 1950, which launched the European Coal and Steel Community Treaty, the precursor of the EEC.  The Schuman Declaration announced that this Coal and Steel Community, which pooled the relevant industries of France, Germany, Italy and Benelux,   was "a first step in the Federation of Europe."

Over the last thirty years we have seen many other steps as the journey towards full EU integration has been pursued incrementally. The 1957  Rome Treaty, the 1987 Single European Act, the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, the 1998 Amsterdam Treaty, the 2002 Nice Treaty, and then the proposed EU Constitution,  have been presented to the Irish people and the peoples of the other EU countries as modest steps towards higher economic growth,  higher incomes and more jobs.  But in effect each was laying a new footprint for the EU.


This latest EU Treaty proposed repealing all the existing EC/EU treaties and founding which would be in effect a new European Union on the basis of its own Constitution, just like any State, rather than on treaties between sovereign States as before.


Democratic legitimacy is claimed for this journey, not unreasonably you may say, on the basis that each treaty step had to be ratified by member states. For the most part this happened by parliamentary ratification, in Ireland and some other states by popular referendum. The setbacks, when the people came back with the ‘wrong answer’ - whether in Ireland, Denmark or Sweden - were put down to domestic political factors in the particular state or were blamed on the ignorance of the electorate.  Popular unease or discontent with the direction of the EU project was not seriously countenanced by the political movers and shakers. Until last May. French rejection of the proposed EU Constitution changed everything, or so it seems. We are now in a period of reflection.

The truth is that none of us can say with certainty what the EU will look like in thirty years time. This is not just because of the long time scale involved, but, more importantly because there are radically differing views as to how this political project ought to proceed. The EU project is a contested one. The stifling political consensus in Ireland in relation to the EU does not alter this central truth. 


The integrationist and federalist route is just one of the EU road maps there are others.  Just as the policies pursued by the current Irish government represent just one option – one alternative.  What I don’t understand is that if we were to debate any other topic – health, education, US foreign policy, world poverty – we would have a healthy debate, with many different views.  But in relation to the EU, when any view - other than the view held by the political and academic establishment, is expressed – it is dismissed as scare-mongering, eurosceptic, naïve, using the EU for domestic reasons. I believe that we need a real debate, just as they had in France, on the future of the EU where all views are respected and can be held up to critical analysis. 


Advocates for the current direction of the EU point to the enhanced economic and political power, which member states collectively enjoy. They make much of the need for an EU that can maximise its leverage as a global player. They tell us that we need to counterbalance the hyper power that is the USA; that we must see off the economic challenges of the Asian tiger economies.  Ending state ownership, creating an open market and rigorously pursuing competition have benefited the consumer, we are told. Social Europe has brought protections and equality for the citizen, we are told. They assert that the concept of national sovereignty is null and void.


Reasonable? At first glance perhaps, but let’s ‘reflect’ for a moment.


Does anyone really believe that the answer to a North American hyper power is the creation of a European one? What of the implicit assumption that a European military power would be by definition more benign, a force for justice? History would suggest otherwise. The record of European empire is no more glorious than that of its American counterpart.


How do we compete with the Asian tigers? Worthy talk about innovation and knowledge based societies aside, the reality is that terms and conditions of workers across the EU are offered up on the altar of competition. 


Has state ownership really been deserving of the odium of the EU? Are there not sectors of the economy which should be in state ownership, in the public interest? And what about the concept of public services, shouldn’t the state honour its primary obligation to its citizens by guaranteeing access to affordable vital services?


What does the social Europe really mean? Is it just an after thought, a secondary consideration for the EU market? I am sure that the 68 million people living in poverty and the estimated 3 million homeless people across the union have a view of this.


If national sovereignty is defunct what replaces it? Where is the citizen in all of this, how do the people assert themselves to decide and shape their future, to ensure that their needs are met? How is the EU accountable to the citizen?


Proponents of the status quo have never answered these questions. In fact they usually brand people who have the temerity to raise them as negative and anti-European. Nothing could be further from the truth. Those of us, the many millions of us, who are pro-European, who argue for a new direction and who believe that a sustainable EU can only be built on foundations of democracy, social solidarity.


What kind of Europe will we live in  30 years time?  That is a long time away and prophecy is hazardous, but certain things seem clear enough.

The core Eurofederalist project is being challenged by the people across the EU. Many do not accept the inevitability of ongoing EU integration and the federalist EU which will emerge from it. People are looking for an alternative. There is no way of finessing those massive French and Dutch No votes and I believe that a No that would be repeated more resoundingly in Britain, Poland, Ireland, the Czech Republic and Denmark if the governments of these countries were so foolish as to put the EU Constitution to referendum in them.

I believe that people want a more democratic and less centralised EU. That  means repatriating powers from Brussels to the Nation States. That was mooted as a possibility in the Laeken Declaration which set up the Convention that drew up the EU Constitution. The Laeken Declaration told the Convention to consider drawing up an EU Constitution
only as a possibility "in the long run".  But instead of that happening the Eurofederalists who dominated it went straight to drawing up a highly centralised  Constitution that did not propose returning a single power from Brussels to the Member States, but instead proposed abolishing the national  veto in several dozen new areas, reducing thereby national democracy and increasing Brussels bureaucracy and centralization.


I expect that we shall see a growing demand across the EU for the returning of powers of government from the Brussels institutions to the Member States, in such areas as fisheries policy for example, or foreign policy, or in relation to all those unnecessary  "harmonising" regulations like those that prevent farmers' selling their jams and home-made bread to local people unless they install fantastically expensive new kitchens. 


So as democrats let us demand the repatriation of powers from the EU  instead of regarding the "acquis communautaire" as an untouchable  sacred cow. That is the only way the EU can be democratised. It cannot be democratised by giving Brussels more powers,or  by giving the European Parliament more power - in which the 32 Counties of Ireland  have only  16 members out of 732.

So I expect the Europe of 30 years time to be a continent where there will be some 50 or more States co-operating with one another in facing common problems, but with a balance of power between them to prevent any one dominating the others. And the Federalist  EU project will be seen by historians as a phenomenon of the 20th Century Cold War and early post-Cold War period, but not as permanent fixture on
the  world scene.


Europe's fortunes in 30 years time will be much more affected by what happens in the rest of the world - amongst the 10,000 million people that will then constitute humanity - as compared with Europe's 500 million -  than by what happens within Europe's  own borders.  The European Union can be changed and I believe, will be changed.  In 30 years time we will be having a very different debate.




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