The Great European Insurance Policy

Written by Nicholas Barrett on . Posted in Current features, Features

Robert Schuman

Robert Schuman

On the 9th of May 1950, the then French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman laid out his post-war vision of a supranational community of European countries. His vision would become known as the European Union and his speech as the Schuman Declaration. 65 years on, Europe is no longer defined by the trauma of the Second World War but the political unity which Schuman envisioned remains in the midst of what is arguably its greatest existential crisis so far. Those working to preserve the Union have to know what exactly it is that they are fighting for. To help them Giuliano Amato, Élisabeth Guigou and Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga will soon present ‘a new Schuman Declaration, what they call “a new narrative for Europe” at the 2015 State of the Union Conference. But what should this new declaration do?

“Europe has been through a very traumatic six years of what really was an existential crisis,” says Brigid Laffan, Director and Professor at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies. Since the Eurozone crisis, European resolve has been tested like never before. The EU, says Laffan “is like a patient who’s coming through a bad accident. There are lots of problems but the patient has actually survived and has appeared to be much more resilient than one would have anticipated.”

When Robert Schuman wrote his declaration, he envisioned a “the pooling of coal and steel production” between France and Germany with the ambition of making another war between the two countries “not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible.” Mission accomplished. When Laffan delivered her keynotes address at the 2014 State of the Union, she was keen to stress that the Europe that had erupted into flames exactly 100 years earlier, simply didn’t have the institutions capable of expressing the shared interests of Europeans. Now she thinks a new Schuman Declaration should set out to express “a narrative about why integration and close cooperation is as important in the 21st century as it was in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.” It all sounds like a choice between the EU and chaos, which would be quite seductive if the last six years hadn’t felt quite so volatile.

Brigid Laffan

Brigid Laffan

A relative calm after the storm appeared to have developed after the bailouts of 2011 and 2012. The rioting in Athens went from being a daily event to a weekly event before more or less dying out. Gradually, the newspapers and television talk shows become less apocalyptic in their descriptions of the European outlook. Catastrophic youth unemployment characterised an appalling economic hangover, but politically the Union had survived. Then, David Cameron promised an “in-out referendum” on Britain’s membership. A year and a half later and the elections for the European Parliament produced a tidal wave of victories for populist anti-EU parties. As the Eurozone economy continued to stagnate in the shadow of Obama’s recovery, any previously held pretence of a political consensus collapsed when Alexis Tsipras stormed to power in Greece on a radical platform of ending austerity on the continent. If the European Union is trying to sell itself as a geopolitical insurance policy, isn’t it going to struggle on its current record?

“It is an insurance policy” retorts Laffan, “you don’t get mass migration from Europe to the rest of the world. It still has a magnetic attraction to people from very diverse cultures.”

Laffan describes the original Schuman Declaration as “the transformative declaration that set the western half of the continent on a route towards ever-closer union and integration.” She does, however, concede that “we’re now in a very different time.”

Robert Schuman’s ambition emerged from what some have described as “the midnight of the century,” a period that saw the rise of fascism, communism, industrial warfare, industrial genocide and the nuclear tension that defined the cold war. It was the same unprecedented climate which inspired the nightmares of Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and countless other political thinkers to imagine that almost anything could happen next. Europe escaped this dark time, but only after having totally transformed its identity. If it manages to escape today’s current malaise, it may have to do so again. In the meantime, Laffan admits that “muddling on might be the best it can do,” before pausing and adding “but there are better and worse ways of muddling.”