The Choice for Europe – Reform or Decline

by Shane Fitzgerald

The sense of urgency and crisis in Europe over the last few weeks has been palpable. Fears of a sovereign default by an EU member state have been quickly superceded by fears over the integrity of the Eurozone itself. As worrying as these developments have been, it is clear that to blame the current situation on proximate causes such as financial speculation or political prevarication is to ignore a much bigger and scarier picture. A high-level Reflection Group on the Future of the European Union published its report over the weekend. In days of high drama, it is understandable that it received little immediate attention, but what it has to say is important. It opens by warning that its:

findings are reassuring neither to the Union nor to our citizens: a global economic crisis; States coming to the rescue of banks; ageing populations threatening the competitiveness of our economies and the sustainability of our social models; downward pressure on costs and wages; the challenges of climate change and increasing energy dependence; and the Eastward shift in the global distribution of production and savings. And on top of this, the threats of terrorism, organised crime and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction hang over us.

This bigger picture was the focus of a talk today at the IIEA – by former Finnish President and Nobel Prize winner Martti Ahtisaari and the  Director of the European Council on Foreign Relations Mark Leonard – which addressed Europe’s changing role in world affairs.

Leonard described a world where more informal relations between powers are taking the place of much of the formal architecture of global governance in which the European powers, and the EU, have traditionally done so well. And he noted that this resurgence in realpolitik was much in evidence inside the EU’s borders as well as out.

A key point was that the difference between the surging powers of the developing world and the increasingly sclerotic ones of the West was not one of capacity but one of will. The EU’s tendency towards fragmentation of policy and power has been exacerbated by the crisis even as the BRIC countries are emerging leaner and meaner. His message to the EU chimes with that of the Reflection Group: Reform or Decline.

The EU’s response to the economic and financial crises of the last three years  has yet to play out. The proposals  now being  put forward on economic governance for the Eurozone will undoubtedly prove to be “political dynamite” not just in Ireland but in member states across the Union.

However, what is required if the EU is to avoid decline is not just (or arguably even) this particular reform, but a series of transformational measures on this scale. What must remain in serious doubt is whether or not it can muster the political will to do so.