Introduction: a Platform for a 21st Century Europe

An introduction to the ten ideas over the European future. 

Vision is publishing a paper that outlines ten ideas that have the ambition to kickstart a debate that must necessarily be fresh, sincere, passionate, and intelligent. Our belief is that the only way to save Europe, as the most successful political project that the West has conceived, is to radically re-think its institutions while gradually but effectively move beyond the Union we know. In doing so, we claim that the enemies of Europe are not only those who seem to prefer the Armageddon of bringing back the continent to a past which has proven to be disastrous. Europe is also poisoned by the persisting organisational inertia and lack of ideas which risks transforming a great project into a bureaucratic representation of itself. A fresh new vision and an injection of pragmatism are needed to wake up a continent whose worse nightmare is to absently accept its own decline.

While we were concluding “The Framework for Europe in the 21st Century,” the countries where most of the authors of this paper live became vivid representations of the uncertainties that characterise Europe, as well as its countries and citizens, today. The Brexit psychodrama, the Italian populist government’s epic battle with the European Commission on a matter of a few percentage points of extra deficit point to the same simple matter of reality.

No State – neither the most politically powerful one (this may still be the case for the UK in terms of its global status, symbolic influence, and diplomatic might) nor one of the founders of the club (Italy) – can act in the 21 Century independently from the broader European political arena, unless is prepared to pay enormous self-induced social, political and financial costs. And yet, the Union as we know it seems largely dysfunctional and structurally incapable – for the way it was constructed – of solving its own gigantic problems (such as public debt, unemployment, migration, development of its less developed regions), let alone those of its instable neighbours. Achieving those goals is at the core of its mandate, but the Union still appears weak when challenged by global powers and over-bureaucratic when confronted with internal challenges. In its current setting, the European Union reminds largely of the dysfunctional institution of marriage in Italy, before divorce was made legal in 1974: in theory founded on the rhetoric of mutual respect and dedication, while in practice often based on reciprocal cheating (sometimes even of domestic violence) and disaffection, behind the façade of an eternal commitment from which it is impossible to escape.

Fundamental technological, economic, and even biological revolutions are reshaping the 21st Century European society. Whoever is truly “in love” with the European idea should call for a radical change of its very concept, so to survive its current stale and strive in the future for the benefit of all European citizens.

This paper put forwards 10 concrete ideas to trigger such quest within an open framework. It is not a recipe for change but an attempt to feed a much-needed debate. The goal is to collect further ideas, to generate interaction amongst different opinions, to encourage a problem-solving exercise so that a Vision for a 21st Century Europe can become a common ground for anyone interested in moving toward a shared goal.

The ten ideas are the following:

  1. Europe Beyond the Union: A Pragmatic Approach to Multiple Integrations
  2. Global Digital Platforms as the Raison-d’Etre Of 21st Century States
  3. European Demos and European Citizenship: A Bundle of Rights and Responsibilities
  4. From Text-book Reforms to Agile Experimentations
  5. Europe as a Laboratory of the Democracy of the Future
  6. Africa and the Middle East
  7. Moving the Euro (and the Banking Union) Beyond The Rhetoric of the “Too Big to Fail”
  8. A Distributed Model to Produce and Consume
  9. A Rebalance of Powers: More Cities and Less States
  10. A Re-Organized, More Efficient Commission

However, before jumping straight in, it seems important and useful to frame the problem.


The Nature of the European Crisis

Despite the rebound of the European economy from the doldrums of the Great Recession of 2007, for example, trust in European institutions has not been restored. We can no longer just believe that the European crisis is – as Clinton famously posed it – “about economics, stupid!”

The European political debate is to be refocused on the very concept of democracy, the sense of community, and the effective response to a widespread lack of sense of purpose. This lack of purpose is a challenge for many European citizens and their families, but also large part of European businesses and even the institutions governing social and economic interactions. Europe is facing a shift from a sense of being part of collective endeavours towards individual – or nationalistic – cynicisms, and a widespread disaffection and hostility towards the “technocratic elites” that find in the European project and European institutions their most recognizable representations.

In a study recently mentioned by The Economist and conducted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the ANTI-ELITE and the ANTI-EUROPE rhetoric are by far the most powerful factors explaining how vote preferences have changed in the last decade. Neither economic criticisms (being more or less concerned with inequalities), nor the debate on immigration (those who want to limit inbound migration and those in favour of a more open society) seem to be as powerful means to mobilise European voters as the resentment against the so-called “elites”.

It is, thus, imperative that we understand the reasons behind such shifts. How has Europe ended up coinciding with a (technocratic) elite? Why is the (vocal) public opinion so growingly hostile towards the very idea of a united Europe? Why years of debates amongst “progressive think tanks” around the concepts of “democratic deficits,” the “European demos,” and the “widening distance between institutions and (especially young) citizens,” have not prevented the EU from becoming more and more alienated to a growing share of its citizens?

We suggest the answer is to be found in a mix of wrong policies, unassigned accountability, too ambitious agendas backed by limited resources, exaggerate dependence on Member States on policy decisions in areas where greater responsibility should sit within the Union as a whole. The co-existence of all these factors is paradoxically mutually convenient both for national politicians, who have a scapegoat when their policies go awry, and for European officials who can act as impartial technocrats without the need to go through gruelling (re)election campaigns. The Union today is a convenient and ambiguous wedding of interests where parties specialize in pursuing their own self-interests. It is however a fragile Union, one lacking appropriate mechanisms for adjusting to crises and challenges which are increasingly relevant in contemporary societies.

This is the obscure disease affecting the dream of generations who grew up finding it natural to travel freely through Europe and perceiving such travel as a formative experience similarly to the German artists who found the “grand tour” of Southern Europe an essential part of their bildung. Recently, then, Europe lost its final bastion: Angela Merkel. She grew up on the other side of a wall, the destruction of which motivated the West during the time of her political development. As a chancellor, she ran a country being able to export more than China and, for a decade, stabilized a continent in decline. With her leaving the scene, there is no sense of leadership guiding Europe, besides decrepit parties with stale European notions: the ten ideas could not be timelier.

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