EU supporters are not a bunch of nostalgics who stubbornly defend an obsolete legacy: they are lucid observers of international realities
By Lia Quartapelle
When, at the height of eurozone crisis, the EU won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, it was all too easy for its detractors to voice their criticisms. They mocked the award as if it was given as a lifetime honorary award, having a long list of evidence on their side, suggesting that the EU was not working as an effective actor for international peace: the long and bitter debates between heads of governments inside the European council; the European parliament concentrating too exclusively on the nitty-gritty of European legislation, and thus failing to be effective; and European governance afflicted by low-level compromises far from the ambitious measures that were needed to confront an unprecedented economic crisis.
But these critiques, however well-grounded in the reality of the situation at the time, failed to recognise the process of European integration as a powerful tool in promoting peace when the European project was launched in the aftermath of the second world war – and one which is still valid in today’s interdependent world. The current British debate on whether to leave or remain in the EU is a very good occasion to test the validity of this proposition, for without an integrated Europe the world would be a less secure place and the EU’s member states would suffer more directly from the vagaries of international politics.
The European integration process brought peace in a region that was the epicentre of the two most horrific wars the world has experienced in modern times. The EU architecture was conceived in the postwar period to ensure peace and prosperity to a continent devastated by two world wars, wars which began as intra-European conflicts. This has worked, as the violence of the first half of the 20th century has given way to a period of peace, stability and economic development unprecedented in European history. Because of this success, we tend to take these results for granted. But as the history of the interwar years between dramatically taught us, it is not.
The fall of the Berlin Wall proved one again the value of European cooperation as an instrument of peace: the eastern European countries that wanted to access the EU democratised their institutions, consolidated the rule of law and transformed their economies into market economies. The prospect of accession to the EU, and then accession itself, provided powerful incentives and what could have been a potentially dangerous time of instability turned out to be a relatively smooth, and almost totally bloodless, transition towards stability.
It could be argued, however, that the enlargement process resulted in a too heterogeneous coalition of states, one which is making the EU less effective and consequently no further enlargement should be pursued and no further integration can be achieved. Or it could be argued that, having performed its primary function after the two major upheavals of our age (the end of the second world war and the collapse of Soviet communism), the EU has fulfilled its historical task.
However, EU supporters are not a bunch of nostalgics who stubbornly defend an obsolete legacy: they are lucid observers of international realities, supporting an institution that is still highly necessary, if not essential. Not only should the EU not be reduced or dismantled, but in the globalised world we actually need more European integration.
Achieving more together
Today’s challenges – energy security and sustainability, climate change, instability and wars, migrations, international terrorism – are too great to be solved by individual nations alone. One of the main arguments of European nationalist parties is that leaving the EU is the only way for each nation to regain control of its sovereignty. This ignores the fact that over the past 60 years, European governments have chosen to progressively pool aspects of their countries’ sovereignty within the EU in order to achieve national objectives that they could not have achieved on their own. This decision was also designed to enhance their say in international affairs in a world that, with the end of the cold war, has become more and more multipolar. In a world that is much more interdependent today than it was when the idea of European integration was first conceived, faced daily with global and transnational challenges, it is unrealistic and self-defeating to think of returning to a pre-integration model.
The main tool of integration has been, from the outset, the economy, or more specifically, trade. Throughout history trade has always been an instrument of peace and it also boost countries’ individual economies. Each member state has seen its growth rate benefit from the reduction of economic barriers, and each member state gains from the commercial strength which the EU has in the world. No single European country will be a major economic power in the next 20 years, but Europe as an integrated actor, is and will continue to be, the strongest world economy, and the biggest player on the global trading scene. This means that the intent of the EU’s founding fathers is still relevant to today’s challenges in terms of global economic competition.
No single European country will be a major economic power in the next 20 years, but Europe as an integrated actor, is and will continue to be, the strongest world economy.
Unity also means strength in the face of global international threats. As previously mentioned, the EU was born out of the need to guarantee the security of each member state by preventing the outbreak of a new war between European nations. While peace among member states is now taken for granted, the concept of security, however, has become more and more extensive. It is no longer about the internal security of each state, but about the security of Europe as a whole, in the face of transnational and global threats. This emerged even more clearly with the terrorist attack in Brussels in March.
This was an attack at the heart of the EU, at its institutions and values. Beside emphasising the need for a common counterterrorism strategy, and of greater coordination between member states’ intelligence services, this links to the larger theme of the challenge to western-style globalisation by the terrorists. So called Islamic State, like Al-Qaeda before it, is contrasting the notion of globalisation-as-Westernisation, and attempting to spread its own alternative vision of the world. The involvement of Europeans in IS through the phenomenon of foreign fighters indicates the difficulty of containing its ideas within national or regional boundaries. Efforts to combat this pervasive form of terrorism, therefore, need to be undertaken across national frontiers.
The radical model promoted by IS is violent, totalitarian, expansionist and incompatible with the basic western values of democracy, freedom and the rule of law. The EU, although often muddled and reluctant, is the embodiment of these values and they underpin its identity. The EU has, on several occasions, done its best to make its neighbors respect those values. The “idea” of Europe, as much as its institutional architecture, is therefore even more important now than it used to be. In a world where the differences between world views seems to be dangerously deepening every day, Europeans should rely on their shared values and support them in countries that are struggling on the path towards modernisation.
European integration is not some outdated architecture to which we remain attached by habit, or a purely economic vehicle, but it represents the essence of the world as we want it: open, free and fearless. This is why we cannot afford even the smallest step backward within the space of freedom created inside the EU. That is why, by defending and perfecting European integration, we are defending our values of democracy and freedom gained over the centuries at the price of many battles. This is of particular importance now, when these values, identified by a certain part of the world as western values, are coming under challenge.
Promoting our values
The failure of the Arab spring led many to conclude that the Middle East was not ready for Western political values. Given its geographical proximity, and the recent US policy of scarce or no involvement in it, it is up to the Europeans to promote a process of democratic transition and institutional stabilisation in those countries. This can only be done by engaging together, as a strong and unified Europe, in a constant dialogue with the governments, where possible, and with representative of civil society. Once again, stabilisation in the Mediterranean is a task that cannot be undertaken by individual countries alone. And it is a task that is vital to the future of all European nations.
This is true in Libya, were we need a strong, united Europe to be able to give support to the process of internal stabilisation and particularly to the efforts to create a Libyan national unity government. In Tunisia, which needs European support to continue along the path of democratisation now threatened by the recent terrorist attacks which have so undermined its economy. In Syria, the task for Europe is not only in the field of humanitarian aid and refugee management, but also in fully supporting the UN-led process to bring an end to the conflict. A united Europe is also needed to help contain the regional consequences of the war, in particular by assisting Syria’s neighbours, chiefly Lebanon and Jordan, which are absorbing, respectively, 1.1 million and approximately 635,000 people who have fled their homeland, and thus register the world’s highest ratio of refugees to local population.
Another critical area where a coherent and concerted European approach is need is sub-Saharan Africa, where the root causes of migration, namely fragile states and poverty, can only be tackled through an integrated strategy focused not just on vertical cooperation but, but on an horizontal partnership that would include African states in a virtuous trade circle. Again, no single European country can alone confront and overcome African poverty and underdevelopment. Together, however, European countries can devise and pursue an agenda that, in the long term, can contribute to the continent’s stability and growth.
The ultimate winners from Brexit would thus not be British citizens but emerging powers like China or Russia.
No European country alone can aspire to have a voice in today’s world, not just economically, but also in term of the ability to have a major influence on events. Along with a United States, whose economic and political influence, although resized to fit a multipolar world, is still that of a great power, there is a China, whose economic and military growth seems inexorable, as well as Russia’s military build-up. Both Moscow and Beijing, as shown by their government’s policy respectively in Crimea or over islets in the South China Sea, believe that they are entitled to establish spheres of influence in their vicinity, whatever international law says. The same is true of rising powers such as Iran, whose goal to exert greater influence in the Arab world has found an opening in the failure of the Arab spring. Once again, Europe can advocate the rule of law only as a unified, strong actor speaking with one, single voice. If Europe begins to lose members, such as Britain, then that will assist Russia, Iran and all those countries that would benefit from a weaker Europe, and from a weakening of the influence of its values. The ultimate winners from Brexit would thus not be British citizens but emerging powers like China or Russia whose power can only be balanced by the existence and global assertiveness of a united and strong Europe.
When looking at the global role the EU as a whole is playing and should play, one cannot fail to realise that it is nonetheless an incomplete one. The current refugees crisis is probably the instance where it is more clear that our continent lacks the political will to deal with a global challenge.
Probably one million migrants entered the EU in 2015 from the southern and eastern Mediterranean. This is less than half the number of those who enter the EU every year with a working visa. However, their arrival exposed all the contradictions of the European integration process. The issue of the concentration of large-scale immigration through the eastern Mediterranean and western Balkans to a limited number of destinations, the “frontline countries”, combined with the choice of several governments to impose temporary border controls in an effort to stem flows of refugees, has provoked a fierce debate about the principle of free movement of people inside the EU, which is a crucial, inalienable pillar of the EU integration process. The need to save the principle of free movement, and the necessity of finding a consensus to manage the refugee crisis, has forced the members states to take some step forwards after an initial period of deadlock.
As much as we resist giving up our national borders and accepting the concept of an external, unique, European frontier, migrants abroad actually risk their life to reach the coasts of “Europe”. This “European dream” means that, whether we like it or not, the external frontier already exists, at least in the perception of foreign citizens.
The recognition that the EU might not survive without drastic measures has led in the past six months to the review of the so-called Dublin system, among whose rules is that people must claim asylum in the state where they first enter the EU, which has impacted frontline states such as Greece and Hungary; the realpolitik bargain with Turkey with its pledge to clamp down on migrant flows in return for the EU giving money and visa-free access, as well as taking refugees from Turkish camps and resuming accession talks; and measures to strengthen the EU’s external borders.
A lot still needs to be done. However, from this crisis important lessons can be learnt. As much as we resist giving up our national borders and accepting the concept of an external, unique, European frontier, migrants abroad actually risk their life to reach the coasts of “Europe”. Not a single country, although some destinations are more favored than others, but Europe as a whole. This “European dream” means that, whether we like it or not, the external frontier already exists, at least in the perception of foreign citizens. We need to reach an agreement on how to best manage it, through a combined set of more controls, a unified system for the management of migration (including repatriations) and a common asylum policy. This combined set of measures cannot be left to the goodwill of single nations but it should be tackled as a European challenge.
In conclusion, in an increasingly unstable and challenging world, not less but far more European integration is needed. No European nation alone can overcome today’s challenges, which are mainly transnational. We need a coordinated agenda on climate change to bring about sizable changes in our countries and in order to exert pressures on other countries in view of the 2030 goals. We need a common policy on both immigration and asylum. We also need to build a common European foreign policy enabling us, on the one hand, to deal on an equal footing with other world powers, and, on the other, to manage regional crises and tackle the root causes of migration. We are the biggest donor in terms of international cooperation in those areas of crisis, as well as the greatest recipient of refugees. Now we must ensure that this is accompanied by the definition of a coherent EU strategy that would allow us to positively influence the internal processes of these countries. Being an active part of, and furthering the European integration process, means all of those.
Lia Quartapelle is the leader of the Democratic Party group in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Italian Chamber of Deputies