Return of the Tankies: Russian troops on their way to help separatist South Ossetians in their fight against Georgia in 2008
A new realism may be the one positive thing to come out of Europe's decline over recent years. The decline is apparent from a string of setbacks, including Russia's cynical use of military force to change borders in Georgia, the shambles of the Copenhagen climate change summit and Europe's flirtation with the abyss in the biggest banking and sovereign debt crises in living memory. The "rise of the rest" has made Europe look parochial and backward-looking, as well as much poorer. The European Union's collective failure to shape events has laid bare its real loss of influence and the emptiness of its exaggerated claims to world leadership.
Yes, things are serious. But a desire for a fundamental change can emerge from the dismal spectacle of Europe's decline. With enlightened political leadership, a "reset" within Europe could eventually lead to a more settled and better framework for relations among its ever fractious states — but only if reason prevails.
First, we need to diagnose the illness. People in every part of the continent have shown they are fearful for their future and doubt the EU's ability to protect their vital interests. Now that the EU has grown to be the over-arching authority that claims to speak for its members on key issues, it is duty bound to come up with effective responses to a host of dangers the world faces. But its responses are usually slow and confused because they require consensus among its diverse states, whose perceived interests are often at odds with one another. This looks like a chronic design flaw as a body for collective decision-making in fast-changing times.
But surely, the argument goes, we cannot do without the EU, or Europe would return to a Hobbesian state of raw rivalry and conflict. It is a case that cannot be brushed off. The dilemma is that the experiment in building an elaborate set of institutions in the name of a united Europe has brought invaluable benefits, above all the ingrained habit of co-operation between countries. On the other hand, it has led remorselessly to an ever more remote and top-heavy layer of government. The terms of the Lisbon Treaty have again multiplied the EU's powers, agencies and titles, but they are palpably failing to produce the efficiency and closeness to the people that were promised.
A popular clamour for better results, backed by reform-minded governments, could invigorate the EU's political culture, make it more accountable and rein in unrealistic federalist ambitions. But formidable obstacles stand in the way. The first is the defensive mindset of entrenched power. The EU, unlike national governments, is not subject to regular elections that can "throw the rascals out". Its self-justification is to uphold European ideals, which sound unassailable but often serve as a cover for the national agendas of certain states — generally those of two founding members, France and Germany. The system inherently lacks accountability, and the European Parliament cannot adequately provide that in view of its own unconvincing mandate at election times. The worst thing EU leaders could do now would be to repeat the past mistake of deriding and ignoring critical voices, and impose more wide-ranging common rules on the diverse member states without popular consent. That would stir up internal divisions, turn voters further against the EU's ruling elites, and sooner or later break it apart.
But the EU is the framework we have, and an era of freelance policy-making by Europe's mosaic of states would be extremely dangerous for all. So Britain must shake off its lethargy and set aside bruising memories of past clashes with European near-neighbours to help, in effect to rescue, Europe. Surprisingly, the UK now looks uniquely well placed for that role, despite its (largely undeserved) reputation as a spoiler in Europe. The climate on mainland Europe is more welcoming than for a long time.
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