Doubtful forecasts for Europe have multiplied following the Brexit referendum, as divisions over migration and between East and West have come to the fore. But according to Oxford academic Kalypso Nicolaïdis, the EU is much more resilient than it gets credit for. We sat down to discuss the state of the Union today and the key challenges to safeguard the future of Europe in a time when the world needs it most.
Green European Journal: If we look at the state of the European Union today, we see signs of disintegration and widespread Euroscepticism. As someone that’s been a vocal supporter of the EU, how do you explain your commitment to the European project?
Kalypso Nicolaïdis: For the last 70 years, this diverse European continent has been organised around a union. The European Union tries, for better or worse, to coordinate the nation states within it and to deepen the bonds between its citizens and peoples. This is a project that I’m in complete support of and I have indeed spent most of my life taking part in, teaching, and writing about. But at the same time, I have been highly critical of the EU when it falls short of its own ideal. It’s our duty as intellectuals and as citizens to be sceptical and critical of the EU, as we would of any political construct. Call it ‘tough love.’
How do you explain signs of disintegration and what do they mean for the future of Europe?
There is a very challenging balance in the EU between what is necessary to be done collectively and the risk of overreach in terms of centralisation. To try and maintain that balance, all of the actors – whether Member States, national parliaments, the European Parliament, the Commission, the Court of Justice – have built a machine that is highly resilient, much more resilient than many people think. I do not predict European disintegration. The EU will carry on going for decades to come, at least in its core function as managing the single market.
But at the same time, it’s still a fragile ship and it has been made more fragile by actors in its constellation. On one hand, sovereignists, such as the Orbáns of this world, who want all the benefits of the EU, especially money, without accepting the basic tenets that underpin the whole system such as rule of law.
On the other hand, you have those who seek to transform the EU into a more coercive, centralising polity than that was ever foreseen. This trope has been there ever since Jean Monnet who believed in ‘Planners of all countries, unite!’ But since the Eurocrisis, and the greens have been the most vocal critics of this, there has been a tendency for the EU to become an entity which tells countries what to do. Sometimes for good reasons, because when you lend money you want your money back, but it has often been counterproductive and has alienated the citizens of the EU. In short the management of the Eurocrisis has greatly tainted the logic of polity-building with that of technocratically designed conditionality by merging the two into a single EU mission.
This binary framing of the European challenge is the greatest threat to the European project. It pits countries against countries and Eurosceptics against Europhiles, in a world where the very survival of the planet is at stake. Instead, the EU should turn to what I call sustainable integration, which would refocus its mission to be Europe’s guardian of the long term.
As an issue, migration connects local, national, European, and global horizons, as we have seen in the Mediterranean with cities stepping up to accept ships turned away by countries, with the EU watching from the side-lines. So how do you see migration affecting the future of Europe?
What do we learn from the recent fascinating episode with the Aquarius ship that had nowhere to land until being given safe harbour in Valencia? First, that there is no such thing as a European or a Spanish or even a Valencian attitude. Because in Valencia, though there were those welcoming the ship, there were also those who were not. Attitudes to the movement of people are very personal, whether from deeply held beliefs or current circumstances. If you are unemployed and your benefits have been cut, you may be asking why your city is spending money on those people. We shouldn’t point the finger at anybody. On the other hand, hospitality is a fundamental virtue both for individuals as for societies as a whole. Kant built his entire philosophy of cosmopolitan law on the fact that each state or nation must welcome the other from other nations as the counterbalance for its autonomy.
The EU will carry on going for decades to come, at least in its core function as managing the single market.
On this ground, we can try to build a more complex and differentiated way to manage the movement of people to and across borders in Europe, one that mirrors and balances individual and collective virtues with individual and collective circumstances. The EU can neither watch from the sidelines nor command a grand scheme. Most urgently, it needs to reform the Dublin system that puts all the onus on receiving countries such as Greece, Italy, Malta, or Spain, as refugees are supposed to stay in the country of first entry unless they are reallocated. The system is obviously broken. Germany’s journey from the grand welcome in spite of the rules in 2015 to its current political crisis over the fallout stands as a symbol of Europe’s disarray. The Commission and the European Parliament say that other countries should have an obligation to take their share. But do we really want to enforce a system of quotas?
Is there an alternative to quotas that doesn’t involve closing ports and borders?
There has to be an alternative to quotas. For one, why don’t we rely on cities like Valencia or Barcelona? If we relied on cities and on individuals within these cities, you would have a much bigger ‘welcome capacity’ than the governments in Europe currently pretend. Even here in Oxford, we are a sanctuary city, but of course we don’t get as many people as we could because the national government is the gatekeeper. This is especially tragic because of the many minors who are seeking to come to Britain. So we need to ask who the gatekeepers are and in whose name they decide who can and cannot enter.
The irony of it all is that Europe faces a ticking demographic time-bomb and will need millions of migrants to pay for pensions over the next decades. Better to take them in and integrate them progressively. And, to address the problem of brain drain, organise so-called circular migration, a legal status that allows migrants to leave and come back.
What about migration within the EU, which was crucial in the Brexit vote?
Isn’t it true that free movement of people (instead of ‘migration’) within the EU has been the best of things and the worst of things? The best of things as the translation of the EU ideal on to the level of the individual: that you are a citizen of Europe and you can move freely and find a job or study anywhere with the same rights as people from that country, while, and this is crucial, not having to become a national.
Yet for many people, in the United Kingdom as elsewhere, the movement of people has been a huge problem in a post-enlargement EU characterised by large differences in wealth between north-western and south-eastern Europe. In the UK especially, where growth relies on low-productivity jobs, rapid increases in the numbers of free-movers in places like Boston in Lincolnshire overwhelmed social services such as schools and hospitals. Even if this is a temporary effect, it makes a big different to people’s lives. As the Green movement has always argued, if we want to talk about the resilience of the EU then we have to think about the resilience of local communities too. The onus is on national governments to manage free movement by distributing its benefits and planning for more schools and hospitals. Britain didn’t do this. So you could say that the sense that EU migration was out of control was a British problem. And yet, isn’t it true that all governments respond too slowly? It is hard to build a hospital in six months when suddenly a town doubles its population.
We have an EU that is too enamoured with its own principles and is not flexible enough in applying them.
Whether it was Britain’s fault or whether that level of migration was just too fast and impossible, it would have been good for the EU to recognise that the UK had been over-optimistic about its capacity to integrate free-movers in 2004. As the pre-Brexit frustration was mounting, why not give the UK a three-year emergency brake, an allowance to compensate for its early openness? We have an EU that is too enamoured with its own principles and is not flexible enough in applying them. Principles are constructed and should not be ends in themselves. Free movement is the most wonderful principle until it starts being perceived as detrimental to people’s lives. If the EU is to be resilient, it needs to save free movement from its perfectionist demons.
We’re seeing some recognition of this in the EU institutions. The posted workers directive, which allowed for unfair competition between workers, has been revised. But what is the potential for anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic governments such as those in Vienna or Rome making a grand bargain on migration or the future of Europe, but one that goes in a worrying direction?
We need to balance centralisation and decentralisation and ensure self-determination for the peoples, sometimes even the regions, of Europe. I still believe that the EU can remain what I call a ‘demoicracy’, in short a union of peoples who govern together but not as one. The ideal EU does not cross the Rubicon from an alliance of states to a federal centralised state but sticks to an ambitious third way. Today Europe is greatly polarised between an EU that could swing to Macron, with even more centralisation, or to Merkel, asking for even greater intervention in other countries’ budgets, or to a Matteo Salvini-Orbán axis that will want repatriation of powers when really we need more coordination.
More generally, demoicracy calls for collectively helping each other build institutions and mindsets which take each other’s interests into account. In any case, maybe the biggest challenge is whether we can share a currency while resisting the sirens of hyper-centralisation…
Do you see practical steps to encourage countries to work together without being compelled to?
There are institutional fixes that can help take the interests of others more into account such as fiscal councils, more coordination among the national parliaments, a Eurozone parliament, or a more accountable European Council. But as I discuss with my co-authors in a recent book (The Greco-German Affair in the Euro-crisis: Mutual Recognition Lost?), this is ultimately about mindsets and the capacity of our societies to engage with each other’s fears and desires, beyond prejudice and ascription. This would have to start at school, teaching Europe in schools and getting kids to understand history from the standpoint of others, beyond their little country, be it France or Spain or Estonia or Greece or Sweden. That should be a bigger priority than compensating for the lack of a loyal European behaviour by creating more coercion from Brussels. I’m not saying it’s easy.
Some measures that the European Union already does in this vein, which could be Erasmus or funding civil society, are sometimes criticised as elitist or as propaganda. Isn’t there a risk of backlash against them?
Well first of all, politics is struggle, it’s antagonistic, and there’s always conflict. So a lot of what needs to happen in Europe cannot come from consensual officialdom. It has to be bottom up. I spoke recently at a green convention organised by the Heinrich Böll Foundation where hundreds of green militants from around Europe were certainly not waiting for EU funding to do their thing. I think that the future is in transnational militancy, militancy that starts local but then connects across borders.
The world needs Europe like never before but, if Europe is going to have the influence it hopes for, it needs to face its diverse past, especially its colonial past.
The problem is not so much official propaganda to deceive us but that we tend to deceive ourselves in our self-righteousness and are incapable of agreeing to disagree more gracefully. Others are not your enemy, at least not in Europe. If politics is about managing conflict productively, we must turn perceived antagonism into rivalry, emulation, competition but not enmity. This is why we need officialdom to support festivals, the arts, education, and above all translation. We sometimes say that the EU is a community of translation, and so we could think of EU support for programmes such as Erasmus as a grand enterprise to guard against mistranslation between our different societies. The problem is, what does the intervention look like? Does it sound like boring propaganda? The EU should do no harm when it intervenes and try not to turn people off. As you imply, support for civil society should be about empowerment, respect, and distance, not writing the script in their stead.
Between a newly assertive China, an aggressive Russia, and an increasingly unpredictable Donald Trump, is there space for a meaningful European voice on the global stage?
There is a space and there is certainly a need for it, but is there capacity to provide it? We have a world that is evolving towards empires and emperors who do not really care about real democratic legitimacy. Their legitimacy relies on wiping up support from majorities who see themselves as threatened by various more or less abstract ‘others’, like migrants, the West, the forces of globalisation. On our end, we cannot fall prey to this kind of politics.
The EU will stay attractive if it lives up to its ideal. Yes, the EU does try to make the world safer from climate change, from nuclear Armageddon, and from global injustice. But it is also often hypocritical in exporting carbon emissions, promoting exploitative modes of development, or mining the oceans to destruction (see the Indian Ocean today). How can we accept such double standards when it is only through example that we can compete with the new emperors?
That doesn’t mean we always need a one-voice Europe. We do if we want to try to force China to respect intellectual property. But at other times, the EU should exploit its diversity on the world stage.
The world needs Europe like never before but, if Europe is going to have the influence it hopes for, it needs to face its diverse past, especially its colonial past. Many countries around the world still see Europe through the lens of colonial legacies and resent its paternalistic tone, including regarding development. We need to engage with this past to become a truly postcolonial power, capable of transcending the flaws of past behaviour to deal with the rest of the world with greater respect.
Our greatest challenge is that the EU was never conceived as a geopolitical actor – it is about taming national power inside, not projecting power outside. Call it soft, clever, quiet power, but its true power is still, in spite of the Eurocrisis, its power of attraction. As we have seen with refugees, this is its Achilles heel too. The lesson of today’s migration crisis is that you do not manage your border at the border, but globally, everywhere where you can make a difference to the lives of other human beings less fortunate than you.