Did 28 European countries wed for love, or for money? Was their marriage arranged by elders, was it passionate consummation, or was it a necessary step just to formalize convenience?
There’s no simple or easy answer. Yet decades after the politico-economic European Union first came together in matrimonial bliss under the Maastricht Treaty, member states are nagging and bickering like never before. Some leaders accuse each other of being “romantic”, “naïve” or “illiberal.”
Many are asking hard questions, wondering out loud whether they find fulfilment together or alone. A few consider divorce. Some fear the loss of security, or compare their marriage to others. Still others struggle to remember, rekindle and revive what it was that brought them together in the first place.
“Sometime it looks like each member state is focused on its own issues, finding nothing in common with others,” mused Maurice Levy, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Publicis Groupe. “But perhaps there is a way forward, good for everyone. So how do we rebuild the dream of Europe?”
Europe’s marriage offers “the best model for inclusive growth and the longest period of peace and prosperity,” said Ana Botin, Group Executive Chairman, Banco Santander. “But remember, even the best is never perfect, so we must work to make it better. Remember where we’re coming from.”
Yes, we should, agreed Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President, European Commission. The formation of the European Union in the last half of the 20th century is the greatest thing to happen, “especially when compared with the first half.” Member states now forget that, and simply point fingers, finding fault and affixing blame on the EC. “In our family, whenever anything goes wrong – a spilled glass of water, a flat tyre, a rainy day – we simply sigh and say, ‘Well, that’s Brussels for you!”
To remove moral hazard from society, the EU could become less paternalistic, stop confirming the image that it exists to make life difficult for member states. In turn, countries must also take responsibility for what happens at home. The truth is that people from the North are not just out to impose their model on the South, and people in the South are not too lazy to work. These lies undermine trust.
Turning inward, toward a false “nostalgia” for nationalism, may feel good at first. But sooner or later, freedoms may suffer from isolation and illiberalism. In contrast, it is healthy to talk openly and honestly and frequently about frustrations. The old frictions may not go away, but talking helps weigh the good – like cellular roaming, ease of travel, standard climate measures and trade negotiating power – against the bad, like regulations.
Long a homogenous union, the EU should also tackle the disruptive presence of a new party: immigrants. Some foreigners are attracted to the EU by jobs; others arrive seeking refuge from violence in their own countries. To survive, the EU must learn to adapt.
Rebuilding trust in this fragile union requires a mix of love and money, of culture and currency, of emotion and pragmatism, all bound by a shared history as Europe faces an uncertain future.