The European Union was born from a sense of shared purpose — peace in Europe, freedom of travel and work, flourishing democracy, honoring the sanctity of human rights. Today, we see this founding sense of purpose crumbling.
Brexit is the most obvious indicator, and it cannot be discounted as a mere aberration. Trust in EU institutions has eroded across Europe. Right now the EU seems to be at a tipping point, with the exact same percentage of trust and distrust.
A 2017 survey by Chatham House, spanning 10 EU countries, revealed underlying fissures in the form of sharply contrasting views between 10,000 members of the general public and a sample of over 1,800 of Europe’s ‘elite’ — individuals in positions of influence from politics, the media, business and civil society.
“The elite are more likely to experience the benefits of EU integration and are more liberal and optimistic,” Chatham House reports. “Meanwhile, there is simmering discontent within the public, large sections of whom view the EU in negative terms, want to see it return some powers to member states, and feel anxious over the effects of immigration. Only 34% of the public feel they have benefited from the EU, compared with 71% of the elite.”
Populist victories at the ballot box offer further evidence that the post-Cold War consensus in favor of liberalism and globalization has given way to ideological division. The political uncertainty in Germany reveals the rising turmoil even within the EU’s most steadfast pro-European governments.
Is the European Union, launched with such great promise, destined to fragment into insignificance?
The question merits attention, and not just in Europe. If once again divided, Europe’s place on the world stage will be greatly diminished, with unpredictable consequences for the international order.
Although fragmentation of the EU’s spirit and structure is a clear and growing danger both at an inter-State and national level, EU elites have done little to close the widening schisms. Far-right movements resurfaced in Europe two full decades ago. Yet rather than see them as an imperative to renew (or rethink) the EU paradigm, EU elites and institutions have created rigid complexity that fuels frustration and antipathy to union, while doing little to shore up Europe’s fading sense of shared purpose.
A shared or common purpose is the “invisible leader,” as famed management pioneer Mary Parker Follett termed it, that guides both elites and those they hope to influence. Take a symphony orchestra playing without a conductor, guided solely by their main purpose: to make beautiful music, on their terms. While initial decisions about the shape and character of the music, as well as an orchestral “voice,” are taken by a few core players, all players are actively and continuously engaged in refining the piece. This same approach is needed to guide Europe, which has no desire to follow any one leader, towards a fundamental idea: to recover its greatness, all of Europe needs to share a “super-purpose.”
Restoring Europe’s shared purpose will be neither easy nor simple. The EU spans diverse cultures and perspectives, as well as myriad shades of self-interest. To foster cohesion, EU leaders must aim for what Aristotle’s philosophy called the golden mean — the desirable middle between the extremes of excess and deficiency. (An excess of courage, for example, may lead to recklessness, while its deficiency yields cowardice.) By explicitly leading Europe’s diverse mindsets toward the golden mean in public policy — that is, toward what is right and best in the highest sense — EU leaders can counter the current continent-wide drift toward narrow self-interest.
One of the greatest benefits of shared purpose is plasticity — the ability to collaboratively adapt and rapidly reconfigure in the face of new challenges. When the European Union was officially formed as such late in 1993, no one could foresee the events that have weakened the EU’s foundation, just as none can say today exactly what new challenges lay ahead.
This is why cultivating plasticity, not rigidity, is so vital to Europe’s future. Plasticity is how communities succeed, over time, in the real world, where conditions constantly change and our actions yield unintended as well as intended consequences.
Plasticity needs to be actively nurtured by EU leaders. A good place to start is by recognizing that even the most sophisticated and sound strategies and policies cannot prepare Europe to nimbly and cohesively respond to unexpected new challenges.