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How the EU can regain purpose again

European Deputies vote during the plenary session, at the European Parliament's Hemicycle 24 May 2007 in Strasbourg. - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

The EU has been so successful in its original aim that is now suffering from a dangerous lack of direction, says Simon Anholt. This can be simply addressed

Over the years I’ve encountered many parts of the ‘international system’: the United Nations and its family of organisations, the World Trade Organisation, Nato, all kinds of NGOs and think-tanks, charities and foundations, and regional blocs including the European Union, CARICOM in the Caribbean, MERCOSUR in Latin America, and ASEAN in East Asia.

These organisations represent humanity’s current efforts to guide and strengthen the international community and further the goals of shared progress, shared responsibility, equal opportunity, peace and prosperity for all.

For historical reasons there is still a significant structural and ideological bias in the international system towards what is loosely (and confusingly) called “the West” or sometimes “the North”, but as we gradually drift towards a more multipolar world, this bias appears to be diminishing. This process, at least in the immediate term, tends to create more confusion and the potential for more conflict rather than greater clarity and inclusiveness, but humanity is a complex organism and cannot readjust without turbulence.

The fundamental paradox of narrow interests versus collective interests will never go away as long as there are humans on the earth, and it will never stop producing turbulence: the question is how well and how wisely we manage that turbulence.

So, what of humanity’s various attempts so far to collectivise our efforts, and really make the world work? The EU stands as the first, and so far the only moment in history when a large number of sovereign states have found the maturity and wisdom to cede a tiny part of their precious sovereignty for the common good.

Of course the EU is far from perfect – it’s organised by human beings after all – but as a first shot at truly wide-scale cooperation and collaboration it’s a pretty good start. However, I should add here that I don’t see the EU as a step towards some kind of one-world government: that has always seemed to me like a very bad idea.

In my experience, government is effective in direct proportion to its closeness to the governed, so the idea of an authority in Brussels or New York or anywhere else wielding jurisdiction over people living on the other side of the planet sounds like a recipe for chaos and discontent at best, and tyranny at worst.

In my view, government should be even more local than it currently is in our world of nation states, not less so: when I observe an administration in, say, Mexico City, attempting to govern a nation of 120 million people, even via a federal system, it stretches the boundaries of what can properly be called government.

I’ve seen government work best and most efficiently, effectively and responsively in populations of less than two or three million. The EU is a union of states and cities and regions, not a superstate, and should remain so.

Today, the EU is challenged by a distinctly 21st century problem: it has a problem of identity. Many European citizens, according to the EU’s own research, feel distant from its institutions and feel no very strong loyalty to the concept: and without the support of its populations of course the EU cannot survive. The EU itself often puts this problem down to its own inability to communicate its benefits adequately to its own citizens but I don’t really buy this idea – and what’s more, I don’t like the idea of Brussels spending European taxpayers’ money on selling itself to them more effectively, were that even possible. That sounds suspiciously like propaganda.

No, the EU’s problem is not that it doesn’t brag enough about its successes: the problem is that it is no longer quite sure what it’s for, and that uncertainty is contagious. The EU is suffering from a loss of a core defining purpose because it has been so successful at fulfilling its original one: to spread and perpetuate peace and prosperity in Europe. And yet the irony is that in the age of grand challenges, finding a suitable replacement ‘mission’ should be easy: Europe is spoilt for choice.

It just doesn’t seem to realise that unless it identifies and crystallises and rallies around a clear purpose, it might well continue to be a useful bureaucratic machine but it will never touch people’s hearts.

The identity issue is a knotty one. For decades, the governments of EU member states have blamed Brussels every time they themselves mess up, and have taken the credit for everything good that the EU has delivered. You don’t need to look further than this for at least one of the explanations for Brexit: it’s not very surprising that after 40 years of this message from governments of all persuasions, when David Cameron announced that the EU was a fine institution and everybody in the UK should vote to stay part of it, so many people reacted with angry incredulity.

Incidentally, globalisation has a rather similar problem, which derives from a similar basic vulnerability: it’s just too easy for leaders to blame globalisation for everything that voters complain about, and to take credit for everything good that globalisation brings.
Of course globalisation is far from blameless, indeed it is directly and indirectly responsible for much of the trouble in the world today, but the principle is quite similar.

There could have been, theoretically at least, a version of Brexit which was actually good for the UK, for the EU and for the wider world: things would have been very different if Britain had left because of a sincere conviction that the EU was too parochial, too inward-looking – for its own purposes as well as for Britain’s – and that, in leaving, Britain could forge a stronger, more outward-looking, more flexible, more modern, more global coalition of states, cities, regions and other international actors.

The present British government and its foreign service repeat the slogan ‘Global Britain’ in all their public utterances around the world, implying that it’s all about moving beyond the EU rather than away from it, but it’s as hollow a piece of branding as you could wish for.

There’s no doubt that purely in terms of trade Britain would love to be a bigger global player, but being a member of the EU hardly prevents this. Being a truly principled, outward- and forward-looking, reforming global actor is, alas, about as far from the present intentions and vision of the UK government as you can imagine.

One of the clear front runners for the EU’s new mission is certainly migration, and it wouldn’t be difficult for the EU to take the moral lead on this fundamentally moral, and certainly epoch-making topic. Whenever we get distracted from the moral issue, we run the risk of making the wrong decisions on migration: at its best, the EU has been quite deft at handling the huge challenge of retaining a sense of moral principle alongside practical considerations and politics, without appearing to preach morality or impose values.

And a moral issue it certainly is. At heart, the decision whether to accept migrants of various kinds surely boils down to a simple question of comparing your discomfort with theirs: indeed, it’s a basic human obligation for us always to measure our own comfort against that of other people.

If we can reduce somebody else’s severe discomfort by undergoing some mild discomfort ourselves, then we have a clear duty to do so. At present, many of us in the ‘developed’ world are getting the equation seriously wrong: we are refusing to undergo even very mild and temporary discomfort in exchange not merely for the comfort but for the actual survival of many thousands of others.

Some of us aren’t even refusing to undergo actual discomfort: we’re refusing to contemplate a rather vague notion of possible social change (“I don’t like the idea that my local shops might become different”). We shouldn’t over-complicate this: it’s a moral failure, pure and simple, and we in Europe are put to shame by countries like Jordan and Turkey which take in hundreds if not thousands of times more refugees than we do in the West.

Fear of change is understandable but not excusable in the present circumstance. Today, we are clearly in a crisis situation, not unlike a world war (the trickle of migrants to Europe we’ve experienced in recent years is the merest aperitif for the hundreds of millions that climate change is about to unleash): and in such situations, we have no choice but to re-evaluate that equation of discomfort. Luckily, our sacrifice diminishes in proportion to the number of us that are making it: if 10 people suffer discomfort for the benefit of one refugee, their discomfort will be very mild indeed. In Europe at the moment, we outnumber the refugees and migrants by seven hundred to one: so, if everyone plays a part, our actual sacrifice will be negligible, but its effect will be profound.

Simon Anholt is an independent policy adviser; he has worked with the presidents and prime ministers of more than 50 countries.

This article is an excerpt from his book The Good Country Equation, published by Berrett-Koehler.

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