Where are we heading?

In recent weeks I’ve been working on a new edition of¬† ‘The European Union: A Very Short Introduction’ (OUP, all good bookshops, etc…), since one of two things have happened since the 2007 edition came out.

The exercise has been a good one for me, asking me to step back from the more parochial concerns of my various research interests and consider the bigger picture of European integration.

Indeed, it has forced me to ask how I understand and frame the current situation, which looks decidedly poor. An economic and financial crisis that has run almost uninterrupted since the previous edition came out; the constitutionalisation project laid out at Laekendashed on the reefs of public opinion and elite non-engagement; a stalling of the EU’s role as a global leader in environmental protection and trade liberalisation; even a questioning of fundamental aspects of the EU, such as free movement. All of these can be taken as emblematic of the Union’s downfall and collapse. Certainly, to read of the constant disagreements about such key actions as supporting failing Eurozone economies and to witness civil unrest on the streets of more than one capital city makes it hard to be optimistic.

And yet, I have found myself being just that. The basic logic of integration, of working together to find common solutions to common problems, and of providing mutual support in a globalising world, still holds true.

This is not to say it’s pretty or cost-free, but rather that the underlying necessity remains and ultimately¬†I have confidence that this will work its way through. I recall that the Union has had a history littered with failures: the European Defence Community; the Empty-Chair crisis; British renegotiation of the treaty and then the budget; ERM’s collapse; the Constitutional Treaty (indeed, all treaties since Maastricht). This should suggest that there is a capacity to find solutions in the longer-term, even if it has made some rather blase about stumbling into a new crisis.

One could argue that ‘this time it’s different’, given the scale and scope of the problems and of the potential solutions and one would have to concede this to some extent: even what has been agreed so far, from the SixPack to the EFSF and ESM (opening its doors this week) to the Fiscal Compact – all will have far-reaching impacts on the lives of millions, both inside and outside the Eurozone. But this should not mean that no solution is possible. If we look around, we might find a number of more positive signs.

Firstly, we see an emerging debate about strengthen economic and fiscal union, which has the potential to resolve some of the fundamental challenges posed to the Eurozone. Secondly, we see that solidarity between member states does remain: Merkel’s visit to Athens was intended to support, not undermine, the Greek government (albeit with limited success). Thirdly, we see how David Cameron has evaded a definitive commitment to a British referendum, suggesting an understanding of the potentially very deep costs that could incur.

So as I have turned to the book’s conclusions, I have largely retained their positive tone, for I do genuinely feel both that solutions are possible and that those solutions will involve an European Union that continues to play a significant role in our lives.