The decision of the British people to leave the European Union is not a catalyst for questioning European integration. It is another marker – a very significant one – in a series of events that have cast doubt on the concept and practice of European integration, which has enabled prosperity, security and the advancement of the continent since the Second World War.
Ever since France and the Netherlands voted against the draft European constitution, there have been increasing signs of “Europe” losing its appeal; claims that the project is exhausted; demands that it be replaced by other models.
This is also evident in the growing number of election victories for Eurosceptics and anti-EU parties within the founding states of the Union. Some of these parties have won seats in the European Parliament. Public support for the EU, regularly recorded by Eurobarometer, is falling in almost all of the 28 member states. Pro-EU sentiment remains high only in a few candidate countries, such as those of the Western Balkans.
Despite its progress in strengthening democracy, empowering the European Parliament and bolstering the subsidiarity principle, the Lisbon Treaty – this last attempt to create an EU based on firm ideals – did not bring a true fresh start or fuel enthusiasm for Europe.
On the contrary, Europe’s responses to major crises over the last few years – the global economic crisis, the eurozone crisis, the unresolved refugee crisis – have been hesitant. Citizens’ confidence in the EU, and its ability to control Europe’s fate, has been shaken.
Some member states’ solution was to return to policies that serve only the national interest and disregard European standards and European solidarity. As a result, the European Commission and the Parliament have lost much of their authority and ability to act.
It would be too simple and superficial to look at personal factors – in some cases, weak leadership at an EU and national level – as the primary or lone cause of this trend. Stellar names and visionary personalities – think Jacques Delors, Sicco Manshold or Sir Leon Brittan – are no longer on the European stage. Even the leadership of the German-French axis, which was predominant during the era of Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle or Helmut Kohl and François Mitterand, has grown weaker (although this axis remains essential).
European ideals are fading away and the desire for unlimited national autonomy has been revived. But the reasons for these changes must be analysed very carefully, not simply reduced to obvious factors such as the growing Brussels bureaucracy, its alienation from the people and its unrealistic decrees.
The reasons include the so-called “democratic deficit”. Many EU citizens feel powerless. They no longer expect political processes to solve their daily problems – especially in those areas administered by Brussels. This residual feeling intensifies when populist forces, such as those pushing for Brexit, blame Europe for all problems – old and new, related and unrelated.
However, it is debatable whether the unease many European citizens feel towards national and EU/European policies could be overcome simply by strengthening national sovereignty at the expense of EU (or even pan-European) bodies and institutions. Many of the causes of this unease have an authentically national origin – a fear of the future due to an increase in social inequality, environmental degradation or threats to public safety and security, regardless of whether they are real or only perceived. Slogans such as “More Europe” or “Less Europe” are, therefore, not useful for getting to the heart of the issue.
In fact, a sensible combination of national and EU/European measures is needed to restore Europeans’ confidence in their joint project – for overall prosperity and safety. National and supranational measures are necessary to secure our common social model, the European welfare state. Only a strong EU/European can protect people in Europe from the consequences of unrestrained globalisation. And member states have to ensure social justice within their own borders. There is no alternative.
The call for more autonomy and civic participation requires not only national but pan-European action. The democratic deficit exists not only at a European level – the EU institutions certainly need a surge of democratic ideas and practices – but within many of the member states. The limitations of a dismal representative democracy come to light when they only partially portray the will of the people.
If it is possible to address the needs and concerns of citizens, then it is also possible to continue with EU integration in the best interest of European family of peoples. National particularities and diversities – a firm characteristic of Europe – must be taken into account much more than is the case now.
But a reinvigorated EU, under this banner of diversity, can remain the Union of the four fundamental freedoms and its other accomplishments – the achievements that defined its historical cause and will define the lives of its people now and in the future.