14 May 2014: A new narrative for European integration

The European project is in serious difficulty, both economically and politically. The EU did not cause the global recession – though its failure to regulate banks adequately did contribute – but the economic slow-down has caused more people to question the concept of integration. The failure to respond to the annexation of Crimea, part of the territory of a country on its doorstep, and the weak response to Russian destabilisation of eastern Ukraine, have seriously weakened the concept that the EU is a significant foreign policy player. These factors will probably lead to a substantial number of MEPs in the next Parliament from anti-European parties.

The EU is far from perfect. The Common Agricultural Policy is a waste of money which destroys landscapes and wildlife. Wrangling between institutions wastes time. New laws are proposed by an unelected body, the Commission. So the EU clearly needs reform. That is why I work for the Centre for European Reform (CER). We are critical when we think the EU is wrong, but pro-European. We are based in London, so are well aware of the tide of anti-Europeanism sweeping much of the media and influencing many politicians.

What is to be done? Europe needs a new narrative. This must be optimistic – not just stark warnings about how bad things will be if the EU breaks up (though things will be bad). The narrative must address 21st century issues.  It needn’t be a break with the past, because the old narrative is still relevant. But the story needs updating. European integration began in the 1950s with agreements on economics and on energy. The need to secure peace did not need to be mentioned, so soon after two world wars which began in Europe, but was clearly the underlying driver. The new narrative should incorporate all three strands: economics, energy and peace.

On economics, Europe needs to complete the single market, particularly in services. But, as Jacques Delors ruefully acknowledged when Commission President, it is hard to fall in love with the concept of a single market. So the narrative should focus on the jobs which would flow from increased trade. And on the financial benefits to individuals. The most effective pro-European campaigning body in the UK at present is the Confederation of British Industry, which has calculated that EU membership is worth £3,000 to each British household. It is not hard to fall in love with the concept of £3,000.

Two other economic themes should be prominent: innovation and efficiency. Anti-Europeans constantly attack ‘Brussels red tape’ as a block on innovation. There are some unnecessary EU rules, which should be removed. But overall EU rules drive innovation. The two most innovative member-states are Germany and Sweden, which respect EU rules more than most other countries.  On chemicals, vehicles and electric products, EU rules have led to greater innovation.

Energy efficiency is the issue which most clearly links economics and energy. Europe uses energy more efficiently than America does, but not nearly as efficiently as we could or should. The entire continent should follow the lead of Denmark on this, upgrading existing buildings and factories and extending district heating networks. Energy efficiency also reduces greenhouse gas emissions. The fight against climate change must be central to Europe’s new narrative. As IMF director Christine Lagard has pointed out, “climate change is by far the greatest economic threat of the 21st century”.  So we must use all clean energy sources: renewables, carbon capture and storage and nuclear power.

Climate change is also a threat to peace, as defence ministries increasingly recognise. The EU has a good track record on development assistance. This should be used to promote clean energy. But the peace element of the narrative can go much further than climate change. Wars in Europe are not unthinkable. Ukraine is in Europe, though not in the EU. Yugoslavia was the same. The fact that Northern Ireland and the Basque Country are in the EU helped end terrorism there. European integration has helped deliver peace and prosperity in much of the continent. Now we must finish the job.

English version of an article published by Swiss newspaper Le Temps, May 2014.

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