Europe needs a new narrative | Vanni Xuereb

The European Union seems to be facing its worst-ever existentialist threat. MEUSAC chief Vanni Xuereb argues that to regain its relevance, the Union must come up with a new vision

MEUSAC chief Vanni Xuereb
MEUSAC chief Vanni Xuereb

It must be an interesting time to work within the various institutions that make up the European Union. Interesting, but also daunting and uncertain. 

As shockwaves from Brexit continue to be felt, the EU now faces the possibility of political gains made by euro-sceptic parties in various member states. It is a phenomenon that Malta has so far been spared: for a country that was so viscerally divided on Europe until recently, we are now perhaps the most overtly pro-EU country in the entire bloc.

But this will be small consolation for the rest of the EU. In France, the forthcoming Presidential election could easily be won by a Far Right, Eurosceptic candidate. In Germany, Chancellor Merkel faces a gruelling backlash over her unpopular immigration policies. Even the Netherlands – one of the most historically Europhile of the 28 member states – seems to have lost some of its enthusiasm for the so-called ‘European project’.

What went wrong? And more to the point: what can be done to reverse this apparent tide of fortunes?  

“It is definitely an interesting time for the EU,” Dr Vanni Xuereb, head of the Malta/EU Steering Action Committee (MEUSAC) admits when I raise the above concerns in his Valletta office. “It is challenging, in terms of shaping the immediate future of the EU. Is this a crisis that could lead to the breakup of the Union? Or is it time to take stock of the situation and move forward? A lot depends on what will happen in the next few months. There are a number of pivotal elections that could impact the future direction of the Union as a whole. Among the possibilities is the emergence of a widespread Eurosceptic coalition, with wide-ranging possible consequences...”

But even before one takes those elections into consideration, Xuereb argues that there are a number of fundamental questions Europe needs to ask itself. 

“I think that people no longer connect with the old narrative of Europe. The EU was originally conceived in the 1950s, by Robert Schuman (among others). The original Schuman declaration involved a plan to place production of coal and steel under a common authority. On paper it was an economic agreement, but from the outset there was more to the idea than just trade or production. Schuman’s vision was also to make it ‘materially impossible’ for European countries to go to war with each other. So what started off as a community built on coal and steel, consolidated into a grand project for peace...”

This does admittedly sound like a very noble and commendable long-term objective... but Dr Xuereb admits that it may no longer be enough to enthuse the Union’s 500 million citizens.

“One of the realities we must contend with is that people of our generation don’t remember the war. It is not enough to remind this generation that the EU serves to make sure we never go through that experience again. We need another narrative: something to make people enthusiastic about the European project again. Somehow, we lost the plot somewhere along the way...”

Is it possible to pinpoint exactly where we began to lose sight of that objective? 

“It is hard to narrow it down to any one event or development. Possibly, the EU enlarged too rapidly. Initially, there was the argument of ‘deepening’ versus ‘enlarging’: should there have been a ‘deepening’ of the EU before the enlargement of 2004? Or at least, before Romania and Bulgaria joined? Then there’s the whole issue of what kind of ‘Union’ the EU should actually be. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has often said that there are 28 member states with 28 different visions of what the EU should be. He is right. That is how it is at present...”

Isn’t this also in part inevitable? Today, we talk about a ‘European identity’... but historically speaking, this is a very new concept. For millennia, Europe never looked at itself as a single entity before. Unless one counts the archaic vision of ‘Romanitas’ from the Roman Empire, it has always been an assortment of very different communities and cultures, often coexisting in a non-peaceful way.

Could it simply be that the EU cannot work because its peoples and cultures are too diverse? 

“Identity is a core part of the issue. What constitutes European identity, anyway? I think we can speak more of European ‘identities’. This is one of the fundamental differences between Europe and, for instance, the United States. To give an example: someone from Kansas would no doubt say ‘I am American’ first. In Europe, however, it is the other way round. In fact, in some European countries people might not even identify with their own nationality first.

“In Spain, for example, someone from Barcelona might easily say ‘I am Catalan’ before ‘I am Spanish’. In Belgium, there are significant regional differences: Wallonia, Flanders the German-speaking part... Even culturally, we cannot really talk of a common European identity. Each country and each region has a very different history and cultural mindset. It would be accurate to talk about European ‘cultures’, rather than culture. But then again, the idea behind the EU was all along the famous ‘unity in diversity’. It was never a question of trying to harmonise, to make us all the same. It is the differences between us, in fact, that contribute to the richness of Europe’s diversity. So the real question is, how to gel these different cultures together and make it all work?”

On a conceptual level, perhaps. But the problems gripping the EU at the moment are not just of an existential, philosophical variety. There are forces actively trying to pull the Union apart. And the EU’s response is not always conducive to unity.

Brexit is perhaps the best example. We are now talking about whether the UK’s withdrawal from the EU should take the form of a ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit. Among those favouring the ‘hard’ version is Malta’s prime minister, who has repeatedly made the case that Britain’s deal must be inferior to membership... or other countries might choose to leave.

Doesn’t this suggest that the only reason to want to remain an EU member state, is simply fear of being ‘punished’ for leaving?

“The argument by those who say they want to punish Britain is precisely so that Brexit won’t serve as an example for other countries. But that is not the main argument. I think the message of the EU27 to Britain is more a case of: ‘listen, you can’t stay in the single market and accept only one or two of the four fundamental freedoms. You can’t pick and choose: if you want free movement of goods, you also have to accept free movement of capitals, of services and of persons.’

“Now, it is clearly emerging that the UK government has accepted the view that Britain voted to leave mostly because of the freedom of movement of persons. The main issue, it would seem, was control of national borders. Britain basically is making the calculation that, ‘if we want to give up freedom of movement of people, we must also give up free movement of goods. And we are ready to do it.’ For this reason, [British PM] Theresa May has made it clear that the UK will not try and stay in the single market. So in a way, the solidity of the EU27 seems to have worked: the message got through...”

But that doesn’t change the message. It is still a case of: remain a member, or you will be punished...

“It’s not the EU that wants to punish Britain; in a way, it is the British who are going to be ‘punishing’ themselves... if you want to put it that way. They are giving up the free movement of goods, in order to keep control over who enters the UK. What remains to be seen is what sort of agreement will be reached...”

This indeed seems to be the crux of the matter: the concern is now whether the agreement Dr Xuereb refers to might be unnecessarily hard on Britain... in which case, the country may be pushed into taking extreme decisions which sit uncomfortably with the rest of Europe. May is pursuing a trade deal with Trump’s US as we speak... there have even been hints that Britain might become a tax haven which may lure investment away from Europe, etc.

The question therefore becomes: is it really in the EU’s interest to push Britain too far?

“Those are the kind of threats – for want of a better word – that the UK is making at the moment. ‘If you don’t give us a deal that is good for us, we might do it our own way... and that would be detrimental to you.’ That’s the message...”

Isn’t that fair play, though? Surely a country is entitled to defend its own interests...

“Yes, it’s a perfectly normal part of negotiations. Perhaps ‘threat’ was the wrong word. Even May’s visit to the US, and the idea of those two countries combining to form some kind of ‘global leadership’... it is to be expected. But we also have to be realistic and pragmatic. For the UK, trade with the US represents only one third of trade between the UK and the rest of Europe. So I think it’s much more important for the UK to strike a good deal with the EU, than with America. In any case, with Donald Trump being so protectionist and so insistent on his ‘America First’ policy, I don’t think he will be too keen on flooding the USA with British goods, services or even people. Britain has to tread carefully there...”

All along, however, there are indications that Brexit is indicative of a wider problem. This is not the first time popular democracy has clashed with the direction taken by the EU. Other examples include the rejection of the Lisbon and Nice Treaties by individual member states. Doesn’t this suggest that the EU is intent on forging ahead in spite of warning shots from European electorates?

“I agree. Every time we get a result that is perceived not to be in the EU’s interest, we say ‘this is a wake-up call’. My fear, however, is that we wake up for five minutes, then immediately go back to sleep. How many times do we have to get this sort of signal or message before doing something about it? And what can we do? Prime Minister Muscat likes to say: we have to address bread and butter issues... issues that concern citizens. Agreed. But Europe is also about a vision: we have to come up with a new narrative that keeps us working together in this union.

“It has to be about addressing citizens’ concerns, yes; but it also has to give people something to aspire to... something to dream about again. The original vision of the founding fathers – visionaries of the Union... Schuman, Adenauer, De Gasperi... even Churchill... they all looked beyond the necessity of ‘winning the next election’. Sometimes I get the impression that European politicians adapt their policies only to what attracts more votes. If Le Pen is doing well in the [French] opinion polls... what will Fillon do? He will most likely adopt some of her rhetoric to try and stop losing votes to the extreme right. That seems to be happening in many European countries. So while we do have to address popular concerns, we have to be careful not to simply accommodate those concerns...”

He admits it’s not an easy tightrope to walk.

“I understand that politicians need to be pragmatic, and listen to the people. But they also have to provide leadership. When, in Malta, we had the issues of divorce and civil unions... and the agreement was brought forward that ‘Malta was not ready’... the response was that unless you legislate, this change would never come. Legislation brings about the change in mentality. So at times, politicians also have to show the way. They have to be leaders, not followers...”

Meanwhile there seem to be other contradictions. The EU itself is ultimately the product of globalisation... the movement is away from the nation state model, and towards a more globalised economy based on the free flow of goods, services, etc. Yet when we talk about migration, the EU’s enthusiasm for ‘globalisation’ suddenly seems to dissipate. Is it a case that Europe can have its cake and eat it? We want to be ‘globalised’ in economic terms... but staunchly nationalistic when it comes to migration, citizenship, etc?

“I see how it might seem like a contradiction. If one of the EU’s fundamental values is solidarity... what is the limit of that solidarity? Are we talking only about solidarity between people born in different EU states... or with the entire human race? There are, to me, also very fundamental values such as the basic dignity of every human person. One of the most pressing issues the EU faces is that it has so far failed to come up with a comprehensive EU policy on migration. And this is important for the EU’s credibility. It is also something that Malta is, rightly, pushing for. But it hasn’t happened. So far there has been a lot of talk: every time people drown in large numbers, there are summits... meetings... reports... but again, it’s another ‘wake-up call’. Perhaps we stay awake for five days instead of five minutes... but we still go back to sleep afterwards.” 

Why does he think it has proved so difficult to formulate a common EU policy? Is it a reflection of systemic flaws in the composition of the EU itself?

“On this issue, the problem is mainly with the individual member states. Every time a decision is taken, it is the member states that raise objections. The Prime Minister said this in his address to the European Parliament last week: the EP and the European Commission are two institutions that are pushing forward a common policy. The stumbling block is that individual countries then fail to implement what was decided and agreed upon. Then, of course, you have the contrast between how migration is experienced in different parts of Europe. You have differences in cultural perceptions, in approaches... again, coupled with electoral concerns. Look, for instance, at how migration is likely to affect the forthcoming elections in Germany. This may have a direct bearing on how Europe confronts the entire issue...”

But Xuereb maintains that while it is important to confront such issues as they arise, something more fundamental is missing from the equation.

“I think we are being short-sighted when we keep on allowing our response to the crisis to take place fundamentally on a national level only. I think it should be a concerted European response. But that depends on the political will of the member states... and so far, that simply does not exist.”

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