EuropeProgress Magazine SeriesJuly 2nd, 2008
A fortnight ago, travelling back from a meeting with fellow European Ministers, I have to admit I felt uneasy. The Irish referendum had shaken the confidence of European leaders.
As usual, commentators and politicians were rushing to interpret the result in a way that vindicated their pre-existing positions. The debate was fracturing along familiar lines: two-speed Europe, an end to enlargement, a trading bloc not a political union.
I knew I didn't want to end up in any of those cul-de-sacs. I’ve always believed that Britain’s strength in the world needed engagement in Europe, not isolation. But yet I didn’t feel comfortable dismissing the negative result out of hand.
The next step for Ireland is for the Irish government. But it is undeniable that the Irish people have a message for us. Beyond the particular merits or demerits of the Lisbon Treaty, there is a bigger question: for all the enthusiasm of the political elites in Europe and for all the desire of neighbouring countries to join, why is Europe a seemingly unpopular cause?
We will not get Europe right if we offer a tin ear to the people. Today, roughly 50 per cent of Europe's 500 million citizens think their country's membership of the EU is a good thing. 20 years ago the figure was 75 per cent. Why is this?
There is an easy answer. It relates to uncertified accounts, MEPs’ expenses and the CAP. All need further reform. The euro-sceptics bang on about this. But that does not make it wrong to do so. So should we.
But such answers are too easy. We could fix these things, and others like them, and still not address the roots of the problem. The real answer, I think, runs like this:
* that the EU has an unclear mission
* that Europe’s decision making, of necessity in an international organisation based on sovereign nation states, is rooted in quiet compromises between diplomats not the public clash of ideas between politicians
* and that voters want the EU to address real policy issues that affect them directly, not institutional tinkering.
There is an irony in the Irish referendum result here. The rejection of Lisbon must in part have reflected exasperation with seven years of institutional debate. Yet the contents of the Lisbon Treaty promise to end the debate about institutional structure for the foreseeable future.
But we should take on the Euro-sceptics on their high ground. Not that the Irish and other votes are easy to dismiss, but that they are hard to dismiss, and raise the fundamental question: what is the purpose of the European Union now? It is not obvious to the people of Europe.
There was a time when the European mission was obvious to everyone, even to those who, like many in the Labour Party, opposed UK membership. For my parents' generation, haunted by the memory of economic depression, fascism and war, the purpose was clear and inspiring. It would put people together after a terrible decade in which their leaders had torn them apart.
A common market would replace military conflict with trade. Force would give way to politics, in a chamber of all the nations. Blood nationalism, which had blighted the first half of the 20th century, would yield to a sense of belonging in the second.
Europe was emerging out of the darkness. Union was a noble, even a utopian, idea.
It has been, by any reckoning, an extraordinary success. For all the scepticism about the procedures of the EU it is still noble and notable that our disputes are conducted through the medium of politics and collective law making rather than force of arms.
European enlargement has been an anchor for democracy in Eastern Europe.
Europe’s single market is incomplete but still second to none in size and scope.
The Eurozone’s currency, ten years old, clearly enjoys the confidence of global markets and has rapidly grown to become the world’s second largest reserve currency.
These are all huge, historic projects. Whenever it has been propelled by something on this scale, the EU has proved itself to be effective at reaching conclusions and a force for great good. It has also been able to confound expectations. The history of leagues of nations is not an auspicious one. The EU, with its unique legal character and ambition, stands out among such supranational projects. Of course the EU can be infuriating – sometimes petty, sometimes excessively bureaucratic, slow to respond on new issues, with entrenched interests that are difficult to shift. All political systems have these tendencies – the EU is no different. But this doesn’t diminish the value of the EU going forward on what it has achieved.
The trouble we have today is not that the EU has failed. It is the opposite. The problem is that it has succeeded. Citizens of democratic nations, trading against a backdrop of durable peace, can take Europe for granted. When the prospect of war seems more remote, people ask: what is the point now?
We need to start our answer to this vital question with another question. Not "what is best for Europe?" but with the question "what do people want from government and what part of that is Europe best placed to deliver?"
I think, in broad terms, people want three things from government.
They want, more and more these days, to feel a sense of control over their own lives.
They want to feel a sense of belonging to the society in which they live.
And they want to feel that they are protected against risks. We can all see very easily that the biggest risks are increasingly international. But we should also be honest that the areas where people want European action the most – environment, organised crime, foreign and defence policy, terrorism and migration – often furthest from our day to day priorities.
If you think about the kind of control over our lives we all most yearn for, we’d be talking about where we live, the choices we make about the schools our children attend, the kind of health service we receive. We need power close to us, the budgets in our own hands, the government accountable to us not even national, let alone supra-national, but local. The EU has long recognised the principle of subsidiarity, the idea that power should be located at the lowest level possible, power beginning with the people and being transferred upwards only when that is in the direct interests of the people. We won’t satisfy voters if we operate at the wrong level.
The second aspiration concerns belonging and identity. People do not live their lives in isolation. We all look to collective bodies for affiliation and allegiance. Some of these identifications are chosen; some are inherited and very few people have only a single identity.
The founding fathers of the EU hoped that allegiance to the idea of Europe might replace hitherto dangerous national identities. Even Winston Churchill mused about the idea of a United States of Europe. That hope has not been realised; nor is it likely to be. Nor, history has shown, does it need to be.
Instead, what we see is that people continue to identify with their neighbourhood, their town or city, in some countries their region, and in all countries their nation. The founding fathers have been proved wrong. But so have the Euro-phobes. National identity is alive and well within a 27-member European Union. Some feel that alongside local and national identity there is an important sense of feeling European. But it is not sufficient to offer purchase or purpose for the EU.
That leads us to the critical mission of the European Union. It used to be the case that national government was the bastion of order, the front line of the citizen’s defence against the risk of armed conflict and economic turmoil. Protection was the preserve of the nation-state, acting as a single body politic in negotiation, or in conflict, with others.
That is no longer true. Risks have gone global. There is no national solution to the credit crunch, to oil and gas insecurity, to climate change, to terrorism. These are all questions of protection and they are all international by their very nature.
Imagine if the EU did not exist today. We would, without question, be trying to invent it. Trade, climate change and terrorism don’t respect borders. So nations need to work together to forge shared rules and institutions that reflect common values.
So that is the reinvention of the EU we need. No longer seeking an exclusive sense of belonging and no longer getting into areas it ought not to control. Instead, offering protection on problems that cannot be solved without international co-operation.
There are three major global threats to which the EU needs to address itself.
The first threat is economic insecurity. Here there is a fundamental choice. Is the problem the result of open markets; or is the solution markets more open.
I am clear about our interest as a country and as progressives. Protection is not delivered by protectionism. It is in fact a false lure. Opening up our markets has brought us cheaper goods and more jobs. The influx of capital has helped to break our low-saving, low-investment cycle. Migration from within and beyond Europe has helped to address skills gaps. Competition has spurred innovation.
But the gains are not evenly spread. Not everyone wins. Some people experience change as loss. Their trade or profession no longer pays its way. The skill they have is available more cheaply elsewhere. Government has a responsibility here.
We protect people best by giving them the skills to move into new work and making sure the welfare state looks after them well during the transition. By regulating – on working conditions, union recognition and minimum wages – to ensure flexible labour markets are fair labour markets.
This is why we must complete the single market. It needs to be as easy for plumbers, accountants and architects to sell their services anywhere in Europe as it is for retailers to sell goods.
We must also work to dismantle barriers to trade beyond our borders. This means using the full weight of the world’s biggest single market behind efforts to secure a new global trade deal. And it means cutting back the tariffs and subsidies that impoverish farmers in poorer countries.
In 10 years time, we may look back on the current era of globalisation as another false dawn. Or we could see it as a platform: for a new global trade deal, that builds on a successful Doha deal, that gives consumers lower prices, and producers more access to markets. For the extension of Europe’s single market, southwards and eastwards. For the dramatic removal of regulatory barriers opening trade between NAFTA to the European Union.
The second threat goes to energy and the environment. The clear, existential threat facing Europe in the next century is climate change. The answer to this, and to the urgent problem of energy security, is to reduce demand by making our products, cars and homes more efficient and to move to low-carbon supply of energy from a diverse range of sources and countries. By driving this from the European level, we achieve big gains.
A significant portion of this energy will come from renewables and nuclear. But the bulk will still come from coal and gas. We need to develop carbon capture storage technology to make fossil fuels clean and we need to diversify away from dependence on Russian gas. To ensure a global deal on climate change, Europe has to help fund the transition to a low carbon economy in poorer countries.
Europe has set an aspiration to build 12 CCS demonstration projects. Now we need to ensure we find a durable funding mechanism.
Through car regulations we should wean ourselves off oil, initially by improving fuel efficiency and shifting to sustainable biofuels and plug-in hybrid cars, and ultimately fully electric powered vehicles. That is why the UK is pushing for EU regulations to cut emissions from new vehicles by nearly 40 per cent by 2020.
The EU Emissions Trading Scheme should become the basis for a global carbon market. It should link to emerging carbon markets in America and transfer billions to China, India and Africa to fund clean energy.
Europe should speak with one voice in negotiating with major producers such as Russia. We should have a European Energy policy - a liberalised energy market with much better interconnection between countries.
If we don’t take the right decisions now, in 10 years time we could face a crisis of energy insecurity: our gas and oil supplies facing interruptions; European nations scrambling to cut bilateral deals. Alternatively Europe could, through its regulations and carbon market, have pioneered technology in carbon capture and storage and electric cars, and be ready to declare a goal of oil independence.
The third big area is security. Here the threat no longer emanates from within Europe. It lies beyond our borders, in the ungoverned spaces which give rise to terrorism and organised crime. Or in the conflicts which fuel migration and threaten global peace and security.
Europe’s soft power has already transformed Central and Eastern Europe. The prospect of membership is driving political and economic reform in Turkey and the Western Balkans. The desire to join or to be associated with the biggest single market in the world is strong, and gives us huge influence. And it is all too easy to lose sight of the fact that the enlargement of the EU, both achieved and prospective, is what has driven the institutional reforms of the Lisbon Treaty.
But the countries of Europe need to be better at using their hard power. That is why I strongly welcome President Sarkozy's proposals to reintegrate France into NATO’s military structure and support for his call for the EU to play a greater role in crisis management.
Britain’s arguments with France often obscure how much we have in common. But what strikes me about the French priorities for their Presidency is how closely they tie with our own ambitions for the EU, as set out in the Global Europe policy statement last autumn, whether on energy and climate change, migration, near neighbourhood policy, and the next steps on European defence.
NATO is and will remain the cornerstone of European defence. Whether in Afghanistan or Kosovo, we need it to work as effectively as it can, which is why we want France to play a full role. But as the Balkans wars in the 1990s demonstrated, unless Europe can develop its own capabilities it will be consigned always to wait impotently until the US and NATO are ready and able to intervene.
This is not a threat to NATO. As the US Ambassador to NATO said: “the US needs, the UK needs, NATO needs, the democratic world needs a stronger, more capable European defence capacity. An ESDP with only soft power is not enough”.
This means a genuine role for the EU in conflict prevention and crisis management whether it is providing the civilian experts - the police trainers, judges, civil servants and aid workers - that are needed alongside the military; or deploying soldiers from national armies in roles where NATO is not engaged. An example is Bosnia where an EU force of 2,200 is helping to maintain a safe and secure environment, or the West Bank where the EU is supporting the local police.
So in 10 years time, we should be able to look back at normalising the Balkans. Turkey should be inside EU acting as a bridge to the Muslim world. We can be debating how much fuller access to the European single market can act as an anchor for stability and democracy in North Africa and the Middle East just as it has in Eastern Europe.
These three questions of protection - economic well-being, climate change and security - require international co-operation. They are momentous issues. And they all require a strong, effective European Union on which Britain is a fully committed member. Europe is too diverse for a federal vocation and too integrated for Europe a la carte. But Europe will go wider and in some areas deeper; which means Britain’s role should be seeking for the first time in Europe’s history to shape the debate about policies and institutions, not following it.
I am personally committed to ensuring that the United Kingdom plays its part in making Europe strong because I know that without a strong Europe, the British economy will be weaker, our people poorer and our lives and well-being at greater risk.
I think people understand that a more connected world requires reform to our institutions. I believe there is a latent understanding that the EU is a necessary institution for the problems we face. But because too often it has done too much of the wrong things we struggle to get a proper hearing. The debate too easily gets side-tracked into mythology.
The Conservative party, of course, trades on such myths.
The cool case for Europe, which is the one I’m making, is pragmatic. It is based on defining problems to which the EU is clearly part of the answer.
The Tories can't cope even with this. Hard-headed, pro-europeanism used to have a home in both parties. Indeed, it was the dominant strand within the Tory government that passed the Single European Act and Maastricht. Now it has been pushed to fringe. That is why I think that while I think there is a tactical advantage to the Tories on Europe, there is also a massive strategic weakness.
I think we can be calm.
If we can make a clear case for a comprehensible mission then the argument can be won. Then people will be open to the idea that, through Europe, we can set environmental standards on cars, TVs and light bulbs that will transform factories in China, Japan and America. They see the point if we show that air fares and telephone charges are dramatically lower because of EU agreements. They understand that completing the Doha round on trade will be good for us and that we are far better off negotiating as part of the European bloc.
These are all practical problems to which co-operation in Europe is the answer. The original purpose of the EU was historic, even poetic. Perhaps we have entered a more prosaic age, one in which Europe defines its core business and sticks to it.
My generation has no memory of the founding events of the EU, still less of the terrible years that were their inspiration.
I was born in 1965, twenty years after the end of the war. My connection with that time was inherited. My mother was born in Poland and my father in Belgium. My paternal grandparents lived in Warsaw's Jewish quarter before the first world war. I grew up keenly aware of the imperative of politics, always and for ever the least bad option.
But the defining international events of my own lifetime are different.
The defining events that have punctuated the lives of my generation are the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11.
They have meant that we live in a world, as many have said, defined by the interdependence of nations. We are entering an era in which multi-national institutions will become indispensable. At the start of this era we have to be candid - none of them are good enough yet.
That is true of the EU too. To that extent we should not over-claim for its capacity. But if we keep our minds trained on the right issues, the case for Europe can be made.
No, more than that, the case for Europe must be made.