The European Union faces an existential crisis – and the remedy is not fragmentation, but more political engagement, debate and democracy, according to a high-level panel discussion on Brexit and the future for Europe at the London School of Economics at the end of October.
As an LSE graduate, I admit to be being partial, but the discussion between Professor Lord Giddens, Axelle Lemaire, French minister of state for digital and innovation, Professor Margaret Macmillan and Dr Robert Falkner from LSE was both thoughtful and provocative.
Dr Falkner began by making a simple but telling point about a previous LSE director, Professor Ralf Dahrendorf. I know from experience that he was a rare breed: a German politician and former government minister, European Commissioner, a celebrated professor and writer, a member of the UK House of Lords, and in every sense a European citizen.
Professor MacMillan, a Canadian and Warden of St Antony's College and Professor of International History at the University of Oxford, suggested to the audience that Britain and the EU were at a crossroads and expressed her concern that the EU referendum had ushered in a new climate of debate around Europe with an unpleasant change in the language of debate, especially towards immigrants.
On European identity, she said there was always in a tension between the particular and the universal, Europe (and Britain was definitely part of it) was a history of struggles and she wondered if the ‘English’ channel was a barrier or a waterway?
Globalisation of work, politics and culture meant there had to be global regulation. The debate over sovereignty during the EU referendum was ‘a will-o-the-wisp’ because it was too complicated to define in the modern world of the interdependence of so many things, from the personal, like digital connectivity between people, to international institutions.
She wondered if it was better to be together or alone and that we (the UK and Europe) seemed to be dismantling a ‘project’ that was created after WW2 for the specific purpose of preserving and maintaining peace across Europe.
As an aside, during the Prospect trip to meet EU trade unionists and politicians in Brussels in February, it was very clear that a major concern was this fear of forgetting or abandoning the original reasons for a European community.
Professor Giddens told the audience that Europe was beset by problems: the EU, migrants and refugees, Russia and a new East versus West stand-off, Isis and now Brexit. He argued that Europe faced a “significant transitional point.”
He told the audience that it seemed like the UK voted to leave the EU without a coherent plan. Only 10-12 years ago, Sir Malcolm Rifkind had predicted that the EU would outlast the USA, but today the EU looked “beached by history.”
Populism and fragmentation were now the talk across Europe, but despite this he argued that the EU remained relevant. Interdependence, fuelled by global digitalisation, continued to grow. For all its weaknesses, the EU remained relevant and robust because it knows how to deal with such interdependencies, he said.
Although populist movements across Europe represented real issues and resentment among citizens, he contended that they were ‘not a structural possibility.’ He said: “Populists can't deal with power unless they turn authoritarian. In other words, populists are popular until elected.”
The EU was intact and the single market had brought real benefits and reductions in bureaucracy across Europe, much more than people thought would be the case. He predicted an economic crisis in “roughly ten months.”
A French perspective
French minister, Axelle Lemaire, who also represents French citizens overseas including those in the UK, brought a novel perspective to the UK’s EU referendum. She argued that the questions framed during the referendum “were not right” and therefore neither were the answers. Although the UK media was obsessed by Brexit, the rest of Europe was not.
She added that digitalisation of work and globalisation meant that Europe had to look forward, not backwards – towards new ways of working with new values, as new technologies and developments in Artificial Intelligence become the new standard.
She asked why there appeared to be a gap between questions raised by Brexit and the ‘real’ world. All the panellists touched on this idea of a gap between institutions, political and business elites and the ‘feelings’ of the wider populations of Europe.
In the automotive industry and others – even the manufacture of Bic pens – the real question was about skills in a digital environment. Lemaitre had visited a Bic factory where the ground floor was full of robots but had no people on the factory floor at all. They were all on the first floor working as engineers. “We need new forms of mediation in the digital society. It is more about training and skills for the future. The referendum was not so democratic, it should have been more consultative. The government is only now consulting its industrial sectors.”
She argued that there was a lack of a political answers to the crisis in Europe and said we need more debate to help answer the questions raised by Brexit.
She asked why we needed the four freedoms: goods, capital, services, and people? She said the founders of the European project thought that there was less likelihood of conflict in Europe after the Second World War if people across Europe were encouraged to meet, travel, and work together. She called for an ‘Open Brexit.’
A lively question and answer session focused on the democratic merits of the referendum, and the trend during the referendum debates to decry the views of any expert.
Professor MacMillan said: "If you're tired of experts, next time you need surgery, ask your neighbour to do it. What do we do when people only go on websites or only read things that reinforce their point of view?”