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Europe: it’s not all bad

By John McCormick

Few times have been worse than the present to say anything good about the European Union (EU). It has faced many crises over the years, but none have been as serious as the current problems in the eurozone. Since news first broke of the difficulties in Greece in late 2009, pundits and political leaders have been falling over themselves in their efforts to ratchet up the language of doom and gloom. Under the circumstance, euro-optimists might be well-advised to lay low, and certainly they seem hard to find at the moment.

And yet this is the very time to remind ourselves of the achievements of the EU, because if we are to make sensible choices about where we go from here, we will need to have a clear idea of both its successes and its failures. Whatever happens to the euro, the EU is obviously on the brink of some major changes, generated not just by its immediate problems but also by some broader political and philosophical questions about the meaning and purposes of the European project.

Critics have focused on numerous themes in their recent attacks on the EU, among which is the recurring question of just what it means to be European. The EU is regularly accused of lacking clear purpose, and conventional wisdom suggests that Europeans have too little in common to weather the crises. After decades of convergence, we are now often told that Europeans are moving apart, with a growing backlash against European integration and – more specifically – a right-wing reaction against immigration, and talk of the failure of multiculturalism.

In truth, however, Europeans have a great deal in common , but they are often the last to realize this because they are repeatedly told about their differences, and the EU is repeatedly castigated for its lack of leadership and its failure to make a mark as an actor in the international system. The result is that many can no longer see the wood for the trees. It is only when we compare the European experience with that of other parts of the world that the patterns begin to emerge.

One of the clearest examples of Europeanism (if we understand this term as meaning the distinctive set of values and preferences that drive choices and preferences in Europe) is its secularism. Where support for organized religion is growing in almost every other part of the world, in Europe it is declining, and this is impacting the way Europeans think about politics, science, social relations, and moral questions.

Another example is offered by the redefinition of the role of states. It was in Europe that the Westphalian state system was born, and yet Europeans since the end of the Second World War have been reviewing their association with states: more are thinking of themselves as Europeans, while identity with nations has been growing. Meanwhile, Europeans have been rejecting traditional notions of patriotism, which – thanks to its long association with nationalism – has a bad reputation in Europe.

On the international front, the Europeanist model is notable for its support of civilian over military means for dealing with threats to security, its support for multilateralism over unilateralism, and its preference for the use of soft power (incentives and encouragement) over hard power (threats and punishment). Europeans long ago tired of war and conflict, and while they are still prepared to engage militarily where necessary, they would rather use diplomacy.

The examples go on: support for welfarism, the cosmopolitan association with universal ideas and the belief that local and global concerns cannot be separated, communitarian ideas about achieving a balance between individual and community interests, a belief in the merits of sustainable development, a belief in working to live rather than living to work, and association with a host of more specific beliefs, such as opposition to capital punishment and support for action on climate change.

Much of the current pessimism about the direction and future of European integration is generated by a belief that Europeans do not have enough in common to sustain the efforts of the EU. The result is that critics focus on the structural weaknesses of EU institutions and policies, of which – to be sure – there are many. But if we look beyond those weaknesses, we quickly find that Europeans (thanks in large part to the encouragement of integration under the auspices of the EU) have enough in common – and enough that distinguishes them from others, such as Russians or Americans – to sustain the European project over the long-term, whatever its short-term problems.

John McCormick is Jean Monnet Professor of European Union Politics at the Indianapolis campus of Indiana University in the United States. A dual British and American citizen, he has long been interested in pinning down the meaning and identity of the EU, and finds it particularly instructive to compare and contrast the European and American experiences. His most recent book, Europeanism, was published by OUP in 2010. He has also written Europeanism and The European Superpower (2007) as well as several textbooks on EU and comparative politics.

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