Alternative visions of Europe – the debate we must now have

By Norbert Rebow

This year brings a series of momentous events for the European Union. Scheduled first to arrive is Brexit which at the time of writing is still undetermined. Then, we will have a chance to cast our ballots in an election that will be conducted in a political reality unlike any other since direct elections to the European Parliament were introduced in 1979. These developments and others were described by my colleague Nicolai in the last edition of this newsletter. One area he covered was the rise of parties and movements on the right that reject the European Union in its current form but do not argue that their countries should leave the organisation, indeed they are building networks across the continent advocating for a different, more conservative, Union. Nicolai was concerned about what this would mean for the EU –  here I want to assuage some of those worries and argue that these developments provide an opportunity to strengthen the European project in the long run.

Let me clear, the point of this article is not to argue for the vision of Europe that draws on opposition to immigration and the Christian heritage these movements espouse. Rather, I will underline that this change on the anti-establishment right creates space for a debate that Europe badly needs. Discussions on democratic deficit in the EU have always focused on the distribution of power between the institutions of the Union, I contend that the most significant problem for democracy has been a lack of diversity in visions for the future of the European project. Until now we had a choice between the neoliberal consensus of the European People’s Party and the Socialists and Democrats on the one hand and the utter negation of the benefits of the EU coming from people like Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen. The emergence of movements that offer an alternative redirects the energy of those who are frustrated by the direction of politics in their countries and in Europe from a general opposition to a championing for a vision of Europe.

EU politics has seemed distant, confusing and unresponsive to many, translating into consistently low rates of turnout at European elections. The key, I think is not to ask why European politics appears boring but why national-level developments have the capacity to inspire real passions. Sure, the EU regulates plenty of areas that do not inspire the imagination. Similarly, however, national governments deal with questions that most of the population shows no interest in. The difference lies in the sense that the vision for the future of the country is contested at the ballot box in national elections. The important change the new movements bring is that they replicate this level of passion at the European level. The movements on the right make a claim to a European identity, one drawing on the continent’s heritage and seek to rally supporters. On the other hand, as we see in this issue with the example of Volt Europa, the tumultuous European politics of recent years has also inspired to action those who want to build a liberal Europe.

Early European federalists believed that they would achieve the aim of a united Europe by replicating some of the processes that led to the creation of European nation states in the nineteenth century – as European institutions take over responsibility for the economic wellbeing of citizens, like the central governments did before them, the people will switch their allegiance up to the European level as their nineteenth century counterparts did from the local to the national. All this was to be underpinned by European values mirroring how the previous process was driven by nationalism. At least so far, however, that shift of allegiance has not happened but I would claim that the emergence of alternative visions of Europe inserts the missing part of the puzzle from this modern mirror of nation building. Over the course of the nineteenth century, nationalism diversified and evolved. Starting off revolutionary and liberal as exhibited by the revolution in Germany in 1848, it came to be adopted as a principle in conservative circles, most notably in the case of Bismarck and the crafting of Imperial Germany. Indeed, it is this diversification of nationalism that made the creation of nation states possible.

My point here is not that we are now inevitably going to see a United States of Europe built along the lines of those right wing movements – stressing the continent’s Christian heritage and limiting immigration. Rather I would argue that we have reached a point where without a discussion on what Europe is and its values are, we cannot continue to integrate – EU citizens must feel that they shape the European project and not that they are simply being moulded into a predetermined model of what a European is. That debate is beginning – it will no doubt be contentious and at times may appear to strain cooperation. However, whatever concoction of liberal and conservative, socialist and populist ideas emerges to serve as the guiding principle for the future of the EU, it will leave us with a Union that is better equipped to face the economic and political shocks that, as the last decade has shown, have not left our continent. The nation states of Europe survived the hardships of the twentieth century because their populations at large believed they were represented by them, we need to find a similar solution for the EU to survive the twenty-first.