Transformative ideas can lead the way to a better European Union. For them to be successfully implemented, however, we must stop seeing the EU as being in a state of constant crisis
Author: Ricardo Ángel Barrientos, Bachelor in Politics, Law and Economics
In the latest session of the LawAhead Hub, Quo Vadis European Union? Reflections on the spiritual and cultural dimensions of the European Union, Lojze Peterle and Jaime Mayor Oreja—both with astonishing track records in domestic and European politics—shared deep and meaningful insights on the values that the European Union has and needs for its future.
Quo Vadis European Union? is a good question to ask. Not because we are able to provide an answer, since no one really can. Rather, the question must be probed, the way the speakers did, in order to find faults and opportunities within the European Union. Attempts to socialize and explore the different aspects of the EU will, or at least should, play a role in shaping what it will become.
Both speakers highlighted the importance of reinvigorating the European Union. Lojze Peterle focused on enjoying the EU through inspiration and joy, highlighting the need to work together and respect human dignity. Jaime Mayor Oreja built upon these concepts, advocating for the need to rescue values that have been lost throughout expansion processes, and to form teams of devoted citizens fully committed to making the EU work as a European Union of purpose. Although I strongly agree with these ideas, I propose that we frame them not as a response to the many crises the European Union faces, but as gradual improvements that can slowly transform the EU for the better, thus making it a true European Union of purpose.
I propose that we frame them not as a response to the many crises the European Union faces, but as gradual improvements that can slowly transform the EU for the better.
A European Union of purpose and promise
Currently, the European Union is described as being in a state of crisis and chaos. This may be the case, but it’s important to consider the long-term picture. Apart from Brexit, the European Union has witnessed a continuous increase in its size and competences. The last few decades have seen, for the first time, real progress in increasing the European Union’s competency beyond economic aspects. Among the many benefits of European Union, the EU has achieved greater input legitimacy through a stronger and more representative European Parliament in relation to other institutions (although there is still a long way to go).
Ever since I began my studies in Spain in 2017, everything related to the European Union seems to have been in a constant state of crisis. We talk about the rise of populist parties and illiberal democracies, migration crises, an aging population, the imminent environmental threat, the lack of democracy in EU institutions, and Brexit. Deeper issues are also discussed: a crisis in values, seemingly impenetrable ideological and cultural divisions between EU citizens, the failure of the modern man… The word “crisis” is being used too loosely, fostering a harmful alarmist reaction among many.
As Matthew Karnitschnig very succinctly expresses: “If the past decade of perpetual crisis has taught us anything, it’s that whatever happens next, Europe’s demise is the least likely outcome.”
If we are in a state of crisis now, then when exactly were we not in crisis? If the modern man has failed, when has man succeeded? If we are witnessing a crisis in values, when were values at their peak? To summarize these not-so-rhetorical questions: can someone truly deny, beyond nostalgic feelings, that we are living in the best period of European history?
Few are betting that the benefits of European Union will include leading the way in artificial intelligence, or becoming the strongest economy in the world, yet by most measures Europeans are living better than ever before, and there is no reason to think this is about to change drastically. As Matthew Karnitschnig very succinctly expresses in a Politico Article, “If the past decade of perpetual crisis has taught us anything, it’s that whatever happens next, Europe’s demise is the least likely outcome.”
The European Project has existed for merely 70 years, and the European Union—in anything resembling its present form—is way younger. Of course, it will make mistakes, suffer downfalls and face resistance. Nation states underwent centuries of historical processes before they could achieve any widespread legitimacy and authority. Before talking about era-defining crises, consider that the European Union is simply going through a difficult period of formation and consolidation.
Not everything that’s wrong with the European Union has to be treated as a likely catalyst for its demise. Most of the problems and the decisions that the European Union will face are neither urgent nor individually decisive in determining its future. Europeans: keep building (or dismantling) your Union, one step at a time. After all, the European Union is the first of its kind, so developing the integration project through a painfully slow, but ultimately rewarding, trial-and-error process is the best you can hope for.
Ricardo Ángel Barrientos is a third-year student of the Bachelor in Politics, Law and Economics and part of the Honors Program at IE University. He is president of the Politics, Law and Economics Society and editor of the LawAhead Hub in Madrid. He has experience working with the social investment firm GAWA Capital, the risk management and risk assessment firm ASR S.A.S., and the fintech startup Quienmepresta.com.
Note: The views expressed by the author of this paper are completely personal and do not represent the position of any affiliated institution.