European Affairs

A Once and Future Vision of Europe? Wise Men’s Report Offered Pre-Crisis Agenda     Print Email
By Garret Martin

EU Faces Decline Unless it Makes Radical Reforms, High-Level Group Warns

“Bad timing” was the rueful general reaction this month when an ambitious forward-looking report, "Europe 2030", was presented to the President of the European Council of the EU for consideration by the European Council leaders in June. The product of a year’s consultations by a wise men’s group, led by Spain’s former prime minister Felipe Gonzalez, the 46-page document concluded that Europe has lost its political momentum and risks falling into a deepening decline unless its leadership can convince European voters to embrace a more sweeping, unifying strategy to marshal the full potential of the 27-nation bloc. By the time of its release, the new agenda was threatened with obsolescence – or perhaps increased urgency – by the economic torment wrenching at European unity. The outcome of this crisis may do so more than any well-reasoned action program to shape the EU’s future in the coming decades. But the goals of the report, if it is not completely overlooked in the current tumult, could usefully shape European actions and attitudes in making big decisions under the pressure of unfolding events.

 

The report’s publication comes at a time of palpable malaise for Europe, barely six months after the high enthusiasm that welcomed the entering into force of the Lisbon Treaty. Charles Grant, head of the Center for European Reform, says he has been struck on his recent travels by the growing disdain for Europe in Delhi, Beijing and Washington. “We’re seen as locked into permanent economic and demographic decline, and our pretensions to hard power are treated with contempt,” he laments.

But, even if the report stands little chance of getting much attention in this dramatic moment, the credentials of its authors and the sweeping scope of their stark conclusions make it much more than a period-piece of how leaders were thinking just after the Lisbon treaty’s adoption and the financial and economic trauma triggered by Greece’s fiscal crisis. Even during the report’s gestation in 2009, the authors were convinced that the EU needed more than institutional changes – that it needed a renewed, broader sense of purpose. Nothing less than an all-embracing strategic concept would enable the EU to deal with the challenges it is bound to face in the coming decades, the report concluded.  That view – engendering strength internally to have the power to shape outside events – has much in common with the new National Security Strategy for the U.S. rolled out by the Obama administration in May.  A dire difference for the EU, however, lies in the wise men’s view about the fragility of the special “European project”. The EU must sustain its momentum towards closer, stronger unity or it is liable to decline and fall -- like a bicycle that falls over when it stops moving forward.

In this conclusion and many of its recommendations, the “Gonzalez report” taps into the current fear of decline that is so visible in the EU today.  In its inventory of challenges evident even before the financial and economic turmoil, the report does not try to sugarcoat the significant challenges that the EU will face in the next two decades. It lists a series of pressing needs:

  • protecting the EU’s social model for political cohesion;
  • re-invigorating a lagging economy;
  • catching up with other powers in the skills and R&D race;
  • acting on energy dependency and climate change;
  • coping with an ageing population.  (The next 40 years could put Europe in an unsustainable situation where it would take four workers to support three retired people.)
  • security threats of various kinds;
  • and a citizenry divorced from the EU project.

Taken together, the report concludes, these challenges confront the EU with “a fundamental choice. 2010 could mark the beginning of a new phase for the EU and the next 50 years could be about Europe's role as an assertive global actor or, alternatively, the Union and its Member States could slide into marginalization, becoming an increasingly irrelevant western peninsula of the Asian continent.

While they raise the prospect of obsolescence, authors refuse to succumb to defeatism. They contend that the EU can make the necessary reforms to protect its prosperity and maintain its influence on the world stage. It can do so as long as Europeans make a serious commitment to work together behind strong leadership. The report offers a number of specific proposals that fit with this approach, including: enhanced cooperation over economic governance;

  • a common migration and energy policy to fight declining demography and growing dependency;
  • meeting the target R&D allocation of three percent of gross domestic product (as opposed to 1.8% currently invested);
  • greater flexibility and security for the workforce (a combination called “flexicurity”);
  • more sharing on law and order matters between member states;
  • a long-term blueprint offering a vision of EU defense;
  • better communication on policies which explains decisions and stakes to citizens.

By securing economic strength and internal cohesion, the EU would then be in a better position to be more effective on the world stage, as long as it stops muddling through: the EU needs a common European strategic concept that would combine diplomatic, military, trade and development policies, along with the external dimension of the common economic policies. “Only by merging all its available tools will the Union be able to act as a transformative power and contribute to reshaping the rules of global governance.”

Putting such an agenda into effect can seem almost like day-dreaming in the current context – unless, of course, the crisis serves to galvanize exceptional ambitions and collective determination. For the moment, some idea of the torturous workings of EU leadership can be gained from reviewing the story of the report itself.

The report was presented to President Van Rompuy on May 8, the sixtieth anniversary of the Schumann Declaration (the then-French foreign minister’s historic call for a supranational “Europe” that is considered the founding statement of what has now become the EU). 

Spurred by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, during his nation’s Presidency of the European Council in the second half of 2008, the twelve member group included nine highly respected representatives from across European civil society.

  • Lech Walesa, the leader of anti-communist movement "Solidarity" and former Polish president;
  • Mario Monti, a former Italian competition commissioner;
  • Richard Lambert, director general of the Confederation of British Industry and former editor of the Financial Times;
  • Lykke Friis, of the University of Copenhagen (until November 2009);
  • Nicole Notat, French former leader of the CFDT trade union;
  • Wolfgang Schuster, mayor of Stuttgart;
  • Rainer Münz, an Austrian economist;
  • Rem Koolhaas, an internationally renowned Dutch architect, and;
  • Kalypso Nicolaïdis, a Greek professor.

Their conclusions, after consultations that lasted until late 2009, afforded a bleak diagnosis. But it was accompanied by a profession of continued faith that Europe still can “be an agent of change on the world stage”—if it rises to the challenge of direly needed reforms. Of course, the report raises questions that only time can answer. Is it recommending the right cures for Europe’s woes? Can it make enough of an impression on political leaders that they would then actually implement the suggested proposals? That will be no easy feat, especially considering the extent to which European leaders are presently focused on the immediate threat posed by the Greek debt crisis to the eurozone. Nor will it be easy to help reconcile European citizens with the EU, one of the key stated aims of the report.

Can the report have any impact in reversing these trends toward decline? The question can only be answered in time, but there are immediate questions. Is it even offering the right cures for Europe’s woes? That is not clear. Part of the problem stems first from the manner in which the report came about. There is a clear contradiction between the emphasis on transparency and connecting with citizens, and the fact that the report was largely drafted in secret and through closed meetings. Experts testified in front of the group, but there were no sustained efforts to involve the wider public

Second, not all the proposals appear necessarily very realistic or feasible. As an article of the European Observer points out, “A myriad of other suggestions – such as making social rights "transportable" between member states, mutual recognition of professional qualifications, improving tertiary education, farm policy reform, boosting research investment, better managing of migration, dealing with the demographics of ageing – are hoary old EU problems that usually lead to bickering and procrastination by member states” .

Third, while the report will be discussed by the European Council in June, one can doubt the extent to which it will prompt European leaders to action. The combination of pressing immediate problems, and the dithering showed over the Greek crisis, hardly seems a good omen for the kind of bold leadership required to tackle the many long-term challenges in front of the EU. Finally, and maybe most crucial, is the fact that the report did not have the permission to tackle institutional matters. Given their mandate, the authors said that they wanted to lay out the right course of action as opposed to determine who should act.  That constitutes, however, a gaping omission. Part of the problem for the EU on the external stage, after all, stems from the confusion over the division of labor. Who exactly speaks for Europe, between the President of the European Council, the rotating Presidency, the Commission, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and the member states?

Even without offering any panacea, the report is a timely reminder of the need for urgency and the fact that the EU can not bury its head in the sand if it wants to tackle the real challenges ahead. Bold actions will be vital to prove to other major states that its aspirations to hard power are not quixotic.

Garret Martin has been an Assistant Professorial Lecturer at George Washington University, specializing in International History, and is editor at large at European Affairs.