The ancient Vikings believed that Thor, the God of Thunder, rode around the sky on his chariot creating thunder and lightning. A few thousand kilometres south, the ancient Greeks thought lightning was the weapon of their Thunder God, Zeus, and built temples on the spots where lightning had struck in order to appease him.
Until the mid-18th century, when scientists proved that lightning was a natural phenomenon, people had been explaining it in terms they understood. The human mind naturally tends to place all new events, behaviour and phenomena within well-known and explicable frames that make us feel safe and secure.
Fast forward to 2021, where we are witnessing the seventh decade of unprecedented European integration and we have been drawing plans for the Future of Europe. While many people are trying to fit the Future of Europe debate into categories they understand – federalism, intergovernmentalism, or others - I would say it is time that we acknowledged that European integration is a unique phenomenon, the direction of which is being defined by the constantly changing interests of its constituent elements.
“It is time to be less ideological and more practical. If this means more integration in areas such as healthcare, migration, or fiscal policy, then we must not be afraid to do it, regardless of whether it requires Treaty changes”
After years of being in crisis management mode and in the midst of the largest global pandemic in living memory, we must figure out what kind of European integration we need to get through the challenges and become more resilient to future shocks. It is time to be less ideological and more practical. If this means more integration in areas such as healthcare, migration, or fiscal policy, then we must not be afraid to do it, regardless of whether it requires Treaty changes or whether it will push the EU closer to one theoretical framework or another.
When we talk about how to maintain and improve the EU we should not just think about its institutions or their balance of power. We must think about how to make European citizens’ lives better, responding more directly to citizens’ concerns and hopes.
With the COVID-19 pandemic putting our citizens’ lives and our prosperity at risk, we must grasp the significance of strong and effective healthcare systems. By procuring, stockpiling and distributing essential medical equipment across Europe, the EU can channel resources to where they are needed and support those communities most affected. Every European citizen can see the merit in delegating greater healthcare competences and responsibilities to the EU level.
This will allow us to achieve economies of scale and save time and resources by applying best practices. For more than a decade, the topic of increased coordination of economic and fiscal policies between EU Member States has been ‘chewing-gum’ for policymakers all over Europe. The EU’s hesitation over taking concrete steps forward on Economic and Monetary Union reform has to stop. The reason again is practical: Coordinated fiscal and monetary policies can act as a protective shield by preventing bankruptcies, keeping prices stable and saving jobs, while kick-starting the economy.
Following this line of thought, the completion of the Capital Markets Union is not just a federalist dream, but an effective tool to boost entrepreneurship, facilitate innovation, reduce institutional and customer costs as well as improving financial stability through risk diversification. Improving access to capital is a necessary but not sufficient condition for economic prosperity.
The EU can regain its international power and influence if its digital companies are at the forefront of the global economy, setting trends, not catching up on market share. The EU should therefore facilitate the exchange of data, ensure seamless digital connection between countries and plough strategic public funding into companies that embrace innovation, particularly start-ups and SMEs. The last decade has debunked the widespread myth that crises make Europe stronger.
“The Conference on the Future of Europe cannot take place soon enough. However, the proposals that will emerge from this large democratic exercise must be transformed into constructive reforms and developed into tools for effective regulation”
The Eurozone debt crisis, the migration crisis, Brexit, and the current COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated that unless we fundamentally change the EU’s crisis-preventing capabilities, every next crisis will hit us strongly. Our citizens expect the EU to be the problem solver of the next crisis. All of these examples of how the EU can improve our living standards - while preserving our uniqueness - require bold political actions. Luckily, we have, on the short-term horizon, a tool to take them in the most democratically legitimate way available. The Conference on the Future of Europe cannot take place soon enough.
However, the proposals that will emerge from this large democratic exercise must be transformed into constructive reforms and developed into tools for effective regulation. The reforms must be built on a broad consensus among the EU institutions and with the widest possible participation of citizens. The EU is not at a crossroads; it is at a roundabout with an infinite number of exits. An ancient Greek or Viking would choose which one to take based on ideological beliefs.
A smart 21st century politician, I hope, would be more practical, and would follow the compass of European citizens’ interests and expectations. The chances are considerably higher that the latter will lead society on the path to sustainable prosperity.