Friday, 31 August 2007

Thinspiration

No, I don't want to talk about weight loss, size zeros, or encouraging anorexia, but the fact that inspiration has been pretty thin on the ground recently.

I didn't want to bore you with content-free reflections or the state of my daily life (which has, for reasons best known to my obsessive-compulsive side, centred around cooking recently: though perhaps this week's strawberry jam marathon, the outcome of an over-enthusiastic fruit purchase at 1 euro a kilo at the market, merits a mention).

However I am aware that I did start this blog for a reason and should at least attempt to keep it going regardless of my current mood. As such, I thought I'd include an essay I've just written for a journal on the Future of Europe to gauge reactions and convince myself to get into the blogging swing again after a long summer break. Hope it is of some interest to someone.

" Europe didn't heed the warnings. Three years after the Laeken summit underscored a pressing need to reconnect Europe with its citizens, the Union train went off the rails. By early 2005 survey after survey revealed a seething discontent with the process of European integration amongst ordinary people. The majority felt disconnected from European politics and ignored by Europe's policy-makers. Yet the Brussels establishment, assured of the pliability of the voting public, and united in their ambitions, proceeded blithely along the road to Constitutional ratification without thinking to consult citizens first.

Pride, as always, came before a fall. In this case, the karmic retribution inflicted on hubristic governments was as swift as it was savage. While many factors contributed to Dutch and French citizens voting 'No' in the constitutional referendums, chief amongst these was the fact that at no time in the recent history of the Union's development had anyone ever asked for their opinion. Seen in this light, rejection of the Constitution was symbolic of a deeper malaise at the heart of the European project: a democratic deficit and lack of conviction that threatened the very future of European integration.

The fall-out from the Constitutional debacle has been multifaceted. On the one hand, today's leaders are accused of uniting Europe without first uniting Europeans, who are increasingly dismissive of the purpose of the Union now that its original raison d'etre - keeping the peace and promoting economic co-operation across the continent - is no longer relevant. On the other, the difficulty of extracting national consensus on key issues has caused many to wonder whether Europe's capacity to absorb new members and pursue political integration has been exhausted. Instead of building a wider and deeper Union, they argue, an enlarged EU should whittle its role down to that of a trading bloc and abandon its political pretensions.

When Bulgaria and Romania acceded to the Union in January 2007 it had grown from an initial core of six members to encompass 27 states, each with its own culture, political colouring and strategic national interests. The requirement that all policies proceed from a basis of unanimity in the Council of Ministers has meant that, under the current Treaty arrangements, the Union is struggling to agree common priorities. Lack of consensus has meant that politics proceeds at the level of the lowest common denominator at a time when radical reforms are required to tackle challenges ranging from international terrorism to energy security and migration management. Surely, critics argue, this proves that public policy should be left to the preserve of individual Member States.

They could not be more wrong. Today's big challenges are supranational and require a level of political cooperation and consensus unprecedented in human history. Take climate change, energy insecurity, or health pandemics for instance, which know no borders and move quickly from one national jurisdiction to another. As Europe discovered in the aftermath of Chernobyl and the BSE crisis in the 1980's, the assortment of un-coordinated national measures, which were the only tools then available to Member States, were simply incapable of responding effectively or efficiently to the problem at hand. Only enhanced cooperation on environmental issues, they realised, would enable them to counter such threats in the future: as such, robust environmental legislation is now one of the cornerstones of European policy-making.

Until the events of 9/11, however, this logic was never adequately extended to other key areas of public policy. Prior to this the European Parliament had put forward a number of proposals to improve the level of police and judicial cooperation. These were largely sidelined until the spectre of international terrorism raised its ugly head, first in New York and then on home soil, through the bombing of the London Underground in July 2005. Suddenly, the demand for a robust, integrated security policy was the EU's number one priority. As a result, we have seen agreement - with high levels of public support - on legislation ranging from the European Arrest Warrant to information sharing.

However, we cannot afford to stop there. To tackle a sluggish economy and falling tax returns, national governments will have to rethink their desire to shut the gates of Fortress Europe on all-comers. Previous enlargements have provided the Union with a bigger internal market and a wider pool of skilled labour which is alleviating skills shortages and contributing to long-term growth. Indeed, Vladimir Spidla, the Employment Commissioner, recently released statistics showing that those countries which did not impose Transitional Measures for citizens of the New Member States are enjoying the maximum economic benefits of enlargement. We can expect similar results through managed migration from third countries - especially since the working population in the 27 EU Member States is set to fall from 303 million to 297 million by 2020, putting an intolerable strain on pensions and social services.

Likewise, with finite natural resources fast depleting, Europe will have to radically re-examine its patterns of energy supply and consumption. This year, for example, the UK will become a net importer of gas for the first time since its North Sea reserves opened over thirty years ago. A similar story is being repeated across the Union, from the Ruhr to the Rhone. Indeed the Commission estimates that the EU could be 90% dependent on Russian oil by 2020. Achieving greater autonomy in energy supply and developing a Common Energy Policy are therefore among Europe's most pressing concerns, especially since Russia's aggressive energy politics threatened to cut off supplies to the EU's Eastern Members last winter. However, lacking EU competency at present - which the Constitution would have afforded it - the CEP faces an uphill struggle against blocking forces in the Council, where the absence of qualified majority voting so often results in stalemate.

For how long, I wonder, will the impetus for further integration continue to be driven by developments in the outside world instead of idealism from within? If anything, the European Project arose from a distrust of the concept of borders. It exists because people understood that conflicts and confrontations born of nationalism brought Europe to its knees in the past. And because evidence continues to show that barriers - be it to trade, migrants or ideas - will only damage our interests in an era where the biggest threats, and the biggest opportunities, are global in nature. As Sarkozy noted recently, “Europe alone has accumulated, during the long process of building the community, the practical experience of a shared sovereignty that corresponds well to the demands of our times.” But we can only maintain that momentum if we win the battle of ideas, both at home and abroad.

President Barroso rightly said that "It is through practical achievements that we will reinforce our links with citizens and rally them to our cause." To that end, the Commission and Council have been keen to promote key initiatives to improve Europe's added value. One of the most damaging media allegations in the eyes of the public is that the EU is simply an expensive white elephant. Reversing that suspicion will be difficult, however, unless national governments give the EU Institutions the money and the legal capacity to push them through and a predominately eurosceptic national press is prepared to acknowledge that. That is why the time has come for politicians to seize the agenda and confront the Eurosceptics with brute facts. Citizens know that the benefits of globalisation like more choice, lower prices and greater mobility come alongside challenges like migration and organised crime as Europe opens its borders. It is time to respond to this new reality.

Which brings us to the question of future enlargements. The EU's borders now run from the Black Sea to the Atlantic and from North Cape to the Mediterranean. Europe, many argue, has now reached its 'natural boundaries'. Yet this ignores certain important political realities, not least that Europe's Neighbourhood Policy relies heavily on the promise of access to EU markets and institutions. Similarly, securing stability in Europe's immediate vicinity, in areas like the Balkans, is dependent on the prospect of EU Membership which has already transformed Romania and Bulgaria - previously a by-word for corruption and organised crime - into modern liberal states. In these areas the enormous soft power wielded by the EU is bringing peace and prosperity to its neighbours and guaranteeing stability and security within our Union. That is why leaving the door open is in Europe's best interests.

As Robert Schuman, one of the fathers of European Integration remarked, Europe should be open "to all those who share its values". Values have no borders. This is why Europe should not reject those who wish to draw closer to it, least of all Turkey whose economy is growing at more than five times the rate of France, and an expected 10% this financial year. Indeed, Turkey's desire to share Europe's values has been evident since it first applied for full Membership of the EEC in 1987. It abolished the death penalty in order to enter the Council of Europe and has modified its Constitution several times to meet the Copenhagen Criteria for Membership, including reform of the penal code, institutionalisation of women's rights, and improvement its human rights record - particularly with regard to minorities. Although the process is not yet complete Turkey is slowly transforming itself into a truly democratic society based on European rules, values and laws which the election of the pro-European Abdullah Gul as President should only accelerate.

We should recognise that Muslims, Jews and Christians have coexisted in this region for centuries, alongside those of many other beliefs and none. That diversity is what makes Europe unique. And it is that mixing of peoples which has inspired the history of our nations and forged those values which today we call 'European'. The contribution of the Umayyad Caliphate in Cordoba to developments in medicine, mathematics and astronomy, not to mention how their translations of ancient Greek texts were to influence European Enlightenment, is testament to this fact. Xenophobic attitudes that attempt to impose an anachronistic homogeneity on our continent have no place in today's discourse. The only thing we should demand of citizens in a liberal democratic society - regardless of where they are born - is that they abide by the laws of the land and respect values like tolerance, democracy and Human Rights which underpin our political system.

Unless Europe makes progress on political integration now and reasserts its belief in the humanistic values which have made us an inspiration to developing democracies across the world we risk losing our place as a global standard setter and putting ourselves at the mercy of rising economic giants like China and India. To that end, Europe's political class awaits with baited breath the outcome of the Intergovernmental Conference on Treaty Reform which is expected to conclude before the end of the year. For to function efficiently, effectively and democratically the Union needs to put the institutional building blocks in place to drive its development for the next 50 years. Any attempt to abandon it could seriously weaken and divide the Union. Just as any attempt to create a break-away Core of European States would circumvent the constitutional process for the Union as a whole, to the detriment of all.

2 comments:

Peter said...
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