Why the European Union works and is crucial for Europeans and the world, now more than ever


Dear Partners in thought,

The May 26 European Union parliamentary elections getting close it seemed like a good idea to stress the benefits of the EU so all voters remember what they may at times take for granted and so they can look beyond the naturally obvious imperfections of the institution.

The aim of the EU, which is not “a marxist dream without the revolution” nor “an evil federation bent on killing who we are” as often heard at populist party meetings, is to promote European harmony through the creation and improvement of a single market for its member states that enables the free movement of services, goods and indeed people (within the EU).

1. Peace and Harmony. The EU and its predecessors like the European Community have allowed for peace to be the norm between European nations ending centuries of bloody rivalries and wars, this process also helped with NATO and good old fashioned US leadership. The EU is about peace and international cooperation.

2. Rule of Law. The EU enshrined legal and human rights with a commitment to and a model for preventing discrimination and enforcing the rule of law. Sheer muscle strength no longer prevails in most of Europe.   

3. Role Model. The EU and its membership process provided a strong set of incentives for countries with a low historical tradition for democracy to change and improve their course in terms of human rights, the rule of law and market economics – even if the rise of populism in some member states shows a return to the old ways as a way to consolidate power.

4. Economic and Trade Might. With its 500 million population and 23% of the world GDP, the EU has become one of the strongest economic blocs and the leading trading area in the world giving it unparalleled clout in relations with its dealings with other countries.  

5. Cost Efficiency. The EU’s free trade and removal of tariff barriers have driven costs and prices down for EU consumers with enhanced job opportunities and higher income for all EU nationals. The removal of customs barriers eliminated the completion of 60 millions customs clearance documents per year in the UK only.  

6. Road to Prosperity. Many once economically-poor EU member states like Ireland, Spain or Portugal not to mention Central & Eastern European states made strong economic progress upon joining the EU through economic assistance.  These structural  programs such as the Social Cohesion Fund that certainly benefitted exports of the older and more developed EU member states also paved the way to self-supported prosperity for new EU joiners – a fact often easily forgotten by populist anti-EU parties particularly across CEE. The EU also greatly boosted inward investment from outside the EU zone like with the UK that once became the 5th inward investment market in the world due to its image as a key EU entry market notably with Japanese firms. 

7. Free Movement Benefits. The EU freedom of capital and labour gave enhanced flexibility to its economy and that of its members like the UK that could fix shortages in its pumping, nursing and cleaning sectors, making a net contribution in tax revenues and increasing productivity. People started being able to work across the EU developing career plans that once were constrained by national borders. EU migrants (about 15 m of them), most of them young, have been net tax contributors while using a relatively small share of social and retirement benefits and improving the dire demographic state of some of the larger EU economies. Tourism and trade became easier and cheaper while a large number of students – 1.5 m – were able to join the cross-EU Erasmus programme that became a greatly popular educational and cultural achievement in also building a more European-minded population at its youth.

8. Useful Regulations Aplenty. The EU brought common safety standards and rules to firms and individuals of all member states. It made it easier for using work qualifications and degrees across member states. Worker have benefited through the EU Social Charter from common protection such as a maximum working week, the right to collective bargaining and all sorts of fair play measures in relation to employment.  

9. Much Better Environment. As of 2006 the EU has vowed to fight global warming well ahead of the COP 20 Paris agreement and has committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050. The EU has raised the quality of sea water and beaches with nearly all tourist locations meeting water quality standards. It has set strict restrictions on the use of pollutants such as sulphur while tackling wide environmental problems such as acid rain. 

10. Consumer protection. EU competition policy has harmonised the regulations and abuses of monopoly and cartel power in Europe while leading deregulation of the airline, electricity and gas markets to enhance competition. It has also reduced the price of making mobile phone calls within the EU while recently successfully pushing mobile operators for dropping roaming charges. Consumers can shop in any EU countries without paying any tariffs or excise duties when they return home. The EU Commission today is working on ensuring data privacy and fair taxation in an era of vast technological changes and the ascent of social media.                      
And yet EU nationals should not be happy with the state of play…and many are not judging by the rise of populist parties…

Is the EU perfect? Absolutely not as it is a work in progress. Is the EU staffed always with the best and the brightest? Probably not but they have done a great job so far at managing a multi-cultural group of nations, large and small, with at times centuries or decades of historical and ideological oppositions. 

Do EU member states send their best nationals to hold high office in Bruxelles?Probably not and very often the Commission is a refuge for lost politicians or those their capitals want far away. However and putting aside the pioneers like Jean Monnet the Commission has had great leaders too like Jacques Delors or more lately Donald Tusk, Margaret Vestager or Michel Barnier who “made” the EU institutions even if there are some most of us would prefer to forget or have done so already. 

Does the EU parliament has the best legislators? No and they are often little known back home. However they also give Strasbourg a feeling that ordinary people are indeed poorly represented and by non-professional politicians as judged by the composition of many MEP lists on offer for the next EU parliamentary elections. Strasbourg and its elected MEPs does legislate and Bruxelles mostly execute contrary to popular populist beliefs that the EU is ran by faceless bureaucrats without any mandate from the European people.   

Do we need a language for each or the member states so they feel better represented?Do we not need to improve EU communication? Certainly not and while Esperanto is no longer in the cards, there will come a point when sanity and efficiency will prevail and English may become the official language (in a week to Brexiteers even if the Netherlands may become the new England within the EU), perhaps with two or three others that are mostly spoken in Europe. The simplification of the message through a reduction of languages should go hand in hand with a communication revamp to improve EU clarity and the link between he institution and the nationals it represents.    

Is the EU too bureaucratic? Without a doubt but bureaucracy is an institutional hazard that is multiplied by 28 member states. And large institutions do indeed hire very expensive rootless supranational staff to carry out their missions that can cut them off from the people they represent. In parallel the EU has needed to work on regulations which if they protected nationals and consumers within the EU also had the imposition of forcing myriads of local items like egg calibration which were not always liked locally but were a small price to pay. Working together meant that trade offs were necessary with French and British farmers benefitting greatly from EU assistance (even if the latter massively and strangely voted to leave in June 2016) while some fishermen felt constrained (and indeed English fishing areas also massively voted to leave).   

Was the EU harsh with struggling member states like Greece through austerity programs so they could recover? Undoubtedly and people did suffer, some of them very much for some time, but today Greece is back to showing budget surpluses and Prime Minister Tsipras, once a fierce critic of Bruxelles, is warning all member states about not imitating Brexit. Interestingly and looking at the British example – this potentially being the greatest contribution of the Brexiteers to the EU project whatever its ending at home – no leading populist party across Europe has “leaving the EU” as a magic plan for greatness today.  

Did the EU manage the 2015 refugee crisis and its aftermath in the best of manner?Probably not even if they tried their best. National interests prevailed, starting with Germany wanting to deal with its ageing problems while other member-states refused the quota system at a time when populism and national identity rose. Italy did bear the brunt of the refugee crisis due to its geography leading to the rise of Matteo Salvini’s Northern League, whom today thinking in terms of European partnerships among nationalists, forgets that Hungary’s Viktor Orban was only too happy not to help Italy in time of need.     

Should the EU slow down accession at a time of populist uprising? Yes it should be slowed down for some years simply to take stock, recognise the concerns that, if they are taken cheap advantage of, are also real and focus on reforming the EU while getting its message more clearly across to the populations of its member states. Recent EU gatherings involving some key national leaders communicated this message to accessing countries especially in the Balkans. However the EU dream should not stop so interim partnerships should be developed while an admittedly longer accession process should be maintained.   

When looking at all those fields of anti-EU concerns and sorrows, it is key to remember the real benefits of the institution and that the EU is a job in progress – indeed an imperfect human project – that is improved year after year and reflects who we are and want to be.  

In an era of blocs, at a time of a rising China (with whom the EU will trade productively as there is nothing wrong with China restoring its position of five centuries ago as it does assuming fair game), a more erratic America (with whom the EU will keep working hoping for a better post-2020 era, also for America and the world), a more aggressive as economically declining Russia  (with whom the EU will always engage as it is also about greater Europe) and new powers or blocs profiling themselves such as India, maybe eventually Brazil or even longer term Africa, there is no no doubt that the EU is the only requisite for Europeans for survival and success. Without the EU, small EU member states such as those in Central & Eastern Europe would no longer viably exist or would be the preys of natural imperialism while the great powers of old like the UK or France, while they would keep their identities, would no longer seriously matter. The French historically pushed for the EU project in order to pull above their weight which has become an unavoidable recipe for all nations even if some are tempted by the memories of past glory and putting absolute concepts of sovereignty ahead of economic power, the latter that ultimately ensures concrete sovereignty.

As political thinkers try to grapple with a potentially gradual disintegration of the liberal world order, all the more in case of a Trump II post-2020 (Joe forbid) there are nascent views of a tri-polar world order with one built on arms control and old post-1945 values and two each led by the US and China competing trough their own networks of alliances and economic pacts, eventually  structuring a duopoly of powers driven by intense security competition (Read John Mearsheimer in International Security). If that were the case, the only way for the first world order to be sustained would be with a strong EU that could also attempt to avoid a return to Cold War Redux. It is indeed crucial in that context for the Europeans and the world at large to have a strong EU going forward as a stabilising force so a multipolar world can emerge, avoiding a new Cold War road to senseless destruction.          

Without pushing for federalism in our uncertain times (even if some like me may find it a natural historical path), the EU should continue developing common projects particularly in the economic and environmental areas but also now more than ever in the field of defence. The EU needs more defence cooperation if not a European army so it can work in conjunction with NATO and the US (or the UK post-Brexit if there is one) while assuming the cost of being free as nations and as member states in today’s world. It is also clear that the Trump era has demonstrated that Europe can no longer rely on the self-interest of its key ally and mentor even if sanity restoration may take place in two years.                

If you are a national of a EU member state, go out and vote on May 26. Go out and vote en masse in this usually low participation election as the times are truly challenging and the cheap populists should not prevail let your freedoms be curtailed if not one day gone. It makes for a good family outing preceded or followed by a nice lunch and a walk in your neighbourhood while you will have done your bit to support an institution that has given you and yours peace and prosperity for decades. Do not take things for granted and more importantly do not regret them one day. And if you are “young” do not repeat the carelessness or laziness seen in June 2016 in Britain as of all people it is about your future.

To conclude and borrow from a great American President and a recently aspiring one as the EU is also about “values”, simply let “the better angels of your nature” prevail on May 26.                

Warmest regards,