Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


Europe´s unhappy 50th birthday
Corriere della Sera - March 24th 2007

The European Union is 50 years old and has been celebrating its birthday this week in Berlin. That is what the citizenry of Europe have been told, at least those that read newspapers or watch TV news broadcasts. But how many of them care? Opinion polls report a general and comforting level of support in most member countries for the EU, for its existence and for what it has achieved. Yet are many people really enthusiastic about this birthday? Is the EU really relevant to most people?

                The answer is no. That does not mean it is in danger, nor that its past achievements are not noteworthy. But they are not rallying points. The one that is always cited, the preservation of peace on a war-torn continent, no longer means much to today’s generations except those in the Balkans. The EU’s role as a protector of democracy and civil liberties is valued in Central Europe, and in Spain, Portugal and Greece, but taken for granted elsewhere.

The single market is an abstract concept, important though it is to Europe’s economy. So are the EU’s competition laws, though they too have brought great benefit in fighting monopolies and state subsidies. The euro is a success, though many ordinary people blame it (unfairly) for inflation. The common agricultural policy is an embarrassment in these modern times, unless you are a farmer receiving the subsidies or are deluded by nonsensical claims that the farms policy does not hurt poor farmers in Africa.

Far too little of what the European Union talks about or does feels truly relevant to Europeans, or truly best done at the EU level rather than by national governments. The problem was epitomised for me by an article on March 21st in the Financial Times, by Pascal Lamy, a former European Commissioner and now director-general of the World Trade Organisation. Mr Lamy is a fine official and an enthusiast for Europe. He included a paragraph intended to stir readers into deep thought about what he called Europe’s “daunting list of challenges”. It is worth quoting.

“Does Europe need more or less fiscal competition? Does it want more or less nuclear energy? Does Europe need a minimum wage? Does Europe need a common defence? Should the European Parliament have more powers? Should Europe have a bigger common budget for research and development? Should all members move together or is there scope for variable geometry?”

I have shortened the list. We may disagree about the answers. But my worry concerns whether the questions are proper ones to ask. And do they inspire? Surely nuclear energy, minimum wages, and research and development, are not proper matters for examination at EU level. They belong to national governments and national parliaments. Fiscal competition (my answer: there should be as much as governments want) and common defence are important and legitimate questions for the EU to address. So are climate change and other cross-border environmental questions. But there are not many others. And topics such as the European Parliament’s powers and “variable geometry” matter only to the cognoscenti.

The things that really matter to Europe’s social, economic and political future remain questions for national governments to address. That is where the prosperity or relative decline of Europe will be determined: in whether governments are able to reform economies, to enable entrepreneurs to create jobs and wealth with new flexibility and innovation, without causing social instability or conflict.

We should celebrate the fact that governments can debate such reforms without fear of military conflict between neighbours, even if our children seem uninterested. But let us not spend energy and anxiety discussing the future of the European Union, about its constitution, about its decision-making methods and all that. The future of Europe does not lie in such questions. It lies in the hands of national governments, and whether they can persuade their peoples to adjust to the opportunities and threats of globalisation. Happy Birthday, EU. Now let’s focus on reality.


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