Europe's new narrative must vanquish defeatism


Picture of Ana Palacio
Ana Palacio

Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Spain, former Senior Vice President and General Counsel of the World Bank

European society seems characterised by a reluctance about the future. For the first time since World War II, Europeans are faced with the likelihood that their children will have a lower standard of living than did they. With an ageing population and the rise elsewhere of emerging global economic powers a bleak picture of Europe’s future prospects is increasingly being painted. This sense of foreboding has led not just to nostalgia for an irrecoverable past but also to an attendant mood of malaise and resurgent nationalism.

Reactions to Europe’s seemingly bleak situation have played out in various ways; separatism in Scotland and Catalonia, the hard right’s rise in Hungary and an overall flatlining of public trust in the EU and its institutions. This year’s European Parliament elections highlighted another aspect of pessimism, a desire for systemic exit. It is a trend that undermines the notion of collective action, which is the heart of the European project.

Some may point to the European election results as evidence that the public is still engaged with the EU. They argue that the victories of the extreme right and left were protest votes, and rather than being protests against their own national incumbents as has previously been the case in European elections, this time they were protests against Brussels. They see this as a healthy development in the creation of a European political consciousness. But votes for parties like France’s Front National, Spain’s new Podemos and Greece’s Golden Dawn are not protest votes against particular policies but rather against Europe’s political system as a whole.

Europe must do a better job of highlighting its advantages, particularly those that will enable it to act and shape the future

The emergence of anti-system movements of this kind is insidious. They thrive on the back of discontent, focus on the failures of government and once elected obstruct and distract, making governance more difficult than ever, further reinforcing their message of dysfunction. Other than rejectionism these movements lack real platforms and real policies. This may be effective in terms of populist political campaigns, but not when it comes to improving the lives of citizens, either nationally or at the European level.

So what is to be done? An important first step is to change the tone of the conversation. We Europeans are overly inclined to speak about the challenges facing Europe. The aim is to spur action, but in doing so there is a tendency to forget Europe’s assets. Rather than prompting action, this has perversely resulted in people wanting to jump ship and leave the EU. Europe must do a better job of highlighting its advantages, particularly those that will enable it to act and shape the future.

Europeans are, for instance, innovators; four of the top five countries in the World Intellectual Property Organisation’s 2014 Global Innovation Index are EU member states with Switzerland the fifth. Despite all the “sky-is-falling” prognostications, Europe’s educational systems are still top notch, with EU members comprising 18 of the top 30 entries in the latest Pearson composite world education rankings. And, yes, although ours is an ageing population, we Europeans are also healthy. All of which is to say nothing of the EU economy, which is still the world’s single largest trading bloc and comprises over a quarter of global output. Europe still has a lot to work with.

Beyond a recognition that Europe has the assets needed to shape its future, there must also be compelling reasons for Europe to act together. In today’s world of emerging powers and mega-blocs, objective reasoning clearly points to the importance of critical mass and which for Europe this means the EU.

During the Cold War years it was security that provided a unifying purpose, and this impetus was at the core of the launching of the European project itself. Today, after a stuttering start in which Europeans were lulled into a belief of perpetual peace, unmoved by threats regardless of proximity, the latest EU actions vis-à-vis Ukraine raise new hopes for reconvergence. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s statements regarding shared European convictions and the need to maintain sanctions against Russia despite the short-term economic consequences underline this point. Unity of this sort could open the way to the broader reinvigoration of the common European values that have been under threat in Ukraine. Real and tangible stakes rather than inert rhetorical references to democracy, human rights and the rule of law, could be an engine for cohesiveness and offer the foundation for a compelling new European narrative.

Regardless of the message that Europe ultimately conveys, it is essential that it should lead to a change in atmospherics. Continuing to focus solely on the crises and challenges facing Europe can only reinforce the defeatism that has begun to pervade European consciousness. We must show that Europe is able to influence positively its own future, and the future of its citizens.

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