international analysis and commentary

After Brexit: repairing the broken European dream


I. Is the European Union in danger of ending up like the Soviet Union, shedding its parts and losing its people?

Asking ourselves whether the EU is going to implode in the post-Brexit era is anything but a purely academic question. Yet we believe that for the Europeans as whole, an implosion of the EU would entail far more disadvantages than benefits; it would deal a tough blow to the international liberal order that has primarily been based since 1945 on cooperation among Western democracies. Today — with the rise of powers such as China, the resurgence of Russia, the neo-authoritarian rule in Turkey — cooperation among like-minded, liberal-democratic countries is no longer sufficient on its own, but it is more necessary than ever. The EU’s implosion would gravely damage our ties with the United States. The deadlock over the TTIP highlights the gap that already exists between the two shores of the Atlantic. Indeed, in this climate it is not unthinkable for NATO to follow the same path, reflecting the growing divergence in the way in which various sub-groups of nations in Europe or parts of the American establishment will see the way forward. This scenario would represent an open and risky invitation for a brutal realignment in the balance of power and the return to great powers politics.

Struggling with the most serious internal crisis of the past few decades, the Europeans would find themselves equally exposed on the external security front. It is in the interests both Europe as a whole and the U.S. to forestall such scenarios. In order to do that, it is crucial that we emerge from the “muddling through” syndrome which has been a feature of European policy since 2008.

We all lived too long in the house of Europe thinking that its fundaments were sound until we realized that not only the walls but the fundament itself is showing cracks which now threaten the unity and even the existence of Europe as we all have known and enjoyed it for the last decades. The answer we normally get from Brussels if crises emerge is that we need “more Europe” instead of less: more centralization and more coherence instead of solo national efforts. This answer no longer works. We need to listen to our citizens who are voting and committing themselves to less and not more centralization. It is now time to redefine the vision of Europe for the future, fulfilling the promises which made Europe so attractive in the past but have lost their attractiveness and credibility as of today.

II. The European Community was set up in the last century with a strong security rationale: to prevent wars from recurring in Europe. But after the EDC community fell through in 1954 it went on to become a chiefly economic community. The idea of “functionalists” in Jean Monnet’s mould was that political union would be achieved through economic integration. The truth, however, is that the incomplete Economic and Monetary Union does not work well and political union has never gotten off the ground. Meanwhile, the security tasks that any citizen expects the state (or federal/confederal union) to perform were put on the back burner, suffering from insufficient funding and limited coordination. Thus, many Europeans have come to perceive the EU as a bad deal. The sentiment of losing control and identity is deepened by the impact of globalization.

This also explains why Europe has not succeeded in addressing the multiple crises that it has faced since 2008. The way financial crises in particular have been handled palpably eroded intergovernmental trust, and that lack of trust in turn prevented the EU from devising a united response to the migrant crisis. This failure to deliver then undermined the relationship between the proverbial man on the street and the European Union. It fuelled the rise of nationalistic and Euro-skeptic parties, which depicted the EU not as a factor for protection from the risks of globalization but rather as a microcosm of globalization itself — with all the negative impacts being attributed to the EU’s shortcomings.

For too long we did not listen and pay attention to the concerns and needs of our citizens. Europe did not fulfill its promises of growth and jobs. We opened our external boarders for humanitarian reasons but did not think about how much this would put our social fabric under stress.

III. The result is that in most European countries we are seeing an increase in the weight carried by parties which we generically brand “populist” but which are in fact (on both the left and right of the political spectrum) neo-nationalistic, neo-protectionist and anti-EU. For most of these parties, the chief enemy is the liberal international order based on open trade and the free movement of people. Indeed, it is no mere coincidence that they prefer Putin over Obama.

To save the EU, and with it the relationship among the Western democracies, the following action is required.

First, economic policies should offer more solidarity and concerted action to create jobs. Several technical tools can be activated or created; the key point is to lay the foundation of a new European “social compact.” We need properly functioning economic governance working in the interest of a gradual, real convergence between Europe’s economies. Today we are witnessing a growing divergence. We need to beef up the single market, and we need to become more competitive on the world stage. A dynamic and inclusive economy is the key condition that will allow us to meet the welfare requirements of a large majority of Europe’s citizens.

Second, we need to redefine the rationale underpinning the EU. Security must no longer be interpreted as the prevention of a conflict between France and Germany — in that crucial respect Europe has done a good job. Rather, we need to interpret security as protection for ordinary people from today’s risks, which range from economic insecurity and uncontrolled immigration to terrorism, as well as managing the continent’s eastern and southern fronts. To make progress, we will need at the same time both more Europe in connection with several crucial areas of our internal and external security, and less Europe in non-essential regulatory spheres. Europe with a rebalanced level of integration and with a different share-out of its areas of authority is vital for success in the future. Finding the right balance for a working future model of European integration will be difficult work, but rushing to one extreme or the other will be dangerous. It’s a practical task, not an ideological debate.

Third, we must manage the huge migration phenomenon that confronts us for decades to come, both with foreign policy action in the Mediterranean and in Africa, and on the internal front with asylum policies and integration. Both these spheres — external and internal security — are also going to carry equal importance in the struggle against Islamist terrorism. In fact, the new “global strategy” presented by Federica Mogherini the very day after the Brexit referendum points precisely in those two directions. The bizarre combination of centrifugal forces (which certainly is not confined to the UK) and a growing awareness of the need for joint action characterize the EU today. Mogherini’s document must now be used as an intellectual framework and as a springboard for an exercise in political innovation and consensus building centering on the overall security of European citizens.

In this context, true to our values of inclusive, multi-partisan approach and aware of the EU’s current fractured economic and social geography, the Aspen Institute has decided to establish a European Strategy Group, pooling the efforts of its seven institutes in Europe, all with national roots but each independent of their respective government. This new Aspen Initiative for Europe will allow us to address both the divisions and the untapped synergies between North and South, West and East, between the Eurozone and non-Eurozone member states. We will also focus on finding the right balance between the significant differences of the perceptions of risk between European nations, as the foundation of a more coherent, assertive, and influential Europe.

A project to rethink the social compact as a central pillar of the EU must create a strong new link between what we might term “democratic security” (accountable, responsive institutions), security from transnational risks and threats (rapid and often preventive response to crime, terrorism, uncontrolled migrant flows, hybrid warfare), and international security (the pursuit of the EU’s broad interests regionally and globally, as envisaged in the “Global Strategy”). Common defense in a more traditional sense is clearly a key ingredient of this mix, and one that needs to be pursued consistently with the commitments made in the context of NATO, so that Transatlantic ties can be cultivated and adapted to changing circumstances while nurturing the traditional sense of a Euro-Atlantic community of values. Implementing the partnership between NATO and the EU sanctioned at the Summit of the Alliance in Warsaw will be a crucial development requiring the commitment of the European allies to gradually increase their defense budgets.

If it is true that the United States and Europe need to tackle a common challenge — defending the international liberal order from the numerous threats that it faces today and at same time improving it — then rescuing the European Union is one of the crucial preconditions for success. This, however, requires new ideas in Europe and new ideas in the United States. If the beacon of political innovation is left in the hands of the populists, European integration will come to an end and the United States will experience a new period of isolation. The West’s much-forecast decline is in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Preventing that from happening is the critical task facing those on both sides of the Atlantic who wish to continue living in a world governed by an international liberal order.


Marta DassĂą is Chair of the Aspen Initiative for Europe and Editor-in-Chief of Aspenia, Aspen Institute Italia. Mircea Geoana is co-chair of the Aspen European Strategy Group and the president of Aspen Institute Romania. RĂĽdiger Lentz is co-chair of the Aspen European Strategy Group and the executive director of Aspen Institute Germany.