A (Uniquely Unqualified American) Reflection of the EU&ME Summit

fullsizerenderThe EU&ME Summit (part of the Europe Calling! initiative) held on 9 December 2016 to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the Maastricht Treaty was the event of the season. As an American that somehow wandered into this event, I was quite amused by Maastricht’s Mayor, Annemarie Penn-te Strake, and her welcoming speech that – among other delights – quoted former US President George Bush, who stated that the birth of the EU was something that was great for the entire world. As a happy migrant living in the Netherlands and working in the EU, I wholeheartedly concur with our former President and I feel extremely privileged – not just for having attended the summit, but more generally – to be living and working in Maastricht, the birthplace of the EU.

My complements and affinity aside, however, the summit also confirmed the sobering reality that the EU is not without its problems and large portions of the event was allocated to the discussion of how we can collectively meet these challenges moving forward. In short, the difficulty that lies ahead partially has to do with the paradoxical nature of both our problems and our solutions. For example, former Danish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, stressed the importance of patience and being more accommodating of one another (i.e. calling on us to give the Brexiters the possibility to rethink their decision); but at the same time, former Greek Minister of Finance, George Papaconstantinou, also noted that we need to be more steadfast in preserving our values and principles. So on one hand, we must be open-minded and make compromises, but at the same time, we must never sacrifice our core values.

Another paradoxical dilemma of sorts had to do with the fact that many spoke of how Europe ought to be for everyone; for example, the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, urged that the EU ought to be for and by its citizens and former Irish Foreign Affairs Minister, Gerard Collins, added that European institutions need to keep in touch with its people and how we can benefit from a more grassroots, bottom up system of governance. At the same time, however, many also questioned the prudence of the average voters in the context of the Brexit and the Italian referendum (just for good measure, the looming Trump presidency was also invoked in this context numerous times). Professor Bruno de Witte of Maastricht University was one of the members that raised this particular concern, noting that we cannot blindly trust the outcome of referendums and for people to vote in ways that will actually benefit them. Professor de Witte went as far as to suggest that we ought to get rid of referendums entirely, opting instead for a representative democracy. So while we want a more inclusive EU and galvanize grassroots participation of its citizens, we must also be careful not to hand over too much power directly to the people.

On a related topic, while we revere and attempt to safeguard our liberty and freedom at all times, these values must be carefully balanced with the need for enhanced security and the curving of dangerous radicalism. Focusing on the latter issue, former President of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy, and former Prime Minister of Hungary, Gordon Bajna, both noted that there is an increasing need for enhanced security and protection within the EU, especially in the wake of the Trump victory. This point was also emphasized by the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker who commented that the EU must take a more active role in ensuring its own security and how it must invest more in its common defense. However, the conversation did not directly address how increased security measures and tighter border controls could infringe or at least restrict some of our liberties and freedoms. Apparently, this paradox remains to be a difficult balancing act, where the scales have yet to be properly calibrated, even for some of our most decorated and esteemed politicians.

In some cases, however, these apparent paradoxes turned out to be false dichotomies: For example, almost half of the audience members – through the Meetoo app survey – voted that they wanted the EU to focus more on “output legitimacy” rather than on “institutional reforms.” However, as Professor de Witte noted ever so astutely, output legitimacy is often constrained – practically speaking – in the absence of institutional reform. Meaning that if we want the EU to actually resolve problems and offer something more tangible to its people, some level of institutional reform becomes critical, if not necessary. This is to suggest that in some cases, it does not make sense to artificially distinguish between issues like output legitimacy on one hand and institutional reform on the other, as the two go hand in hand.

This particular point about artificial differentiation can be neatly juxtaposed to a statement that was made previously by President Juncker, who noted that Europe should focus on the big issues and resist the urge to regulate everything. While I wholeheartedly agree with the essence of this statement, yet again, the paradoxical nature of our problems and our potential solutions resurface. This is because in some cases, in order to make meaningful, sustainable changes (i.e. tackling the so-called big issues), institutions also need to focus on the little things as well as they are inextricably linked in various cases. On this point, University College Maastricht (“UCM”) Professor, Mathieu Segers noted that in order to tackle big issues such as EU’s social cohesion problem, we need to fight poverty. Here again, not only are these two big challenges intertwined, but focusing only on the big issues and over looking the small or seemingly insignificant factors could be the difference between achieving social cohesion and risking further polarisation. So while the EU should, indeed, resist the urge to regulate everything, it must carefully consider what issues it can actually stop regulating, without rendering dire repercussions, bearing in mind the delicate interconnectedness of it all.

As noted at the onset, our path forward is somewhat paradoxical, if not quixotic: As former President van Rompuy noted, we currently lack the necessary tools to face the next crisis, we have – for far too long – been in a survival mode, and we need to restore public and social cohesion moving forward. His comment goes to show that the problems that we face often have multiple factors and that we cannot overly simplify neither our problems nor our solutions. In other words, we must embrace the complexity of it all, because the world that we live in is far more complex than we can imagine. Moreover, we must meet these problems head on now and stop sweeping various problems under the rug for future deliberation, as Lord Maude of Horsham noted, because failing to adequately deal with our problems now will only compound and exacerbate these problems, which will inevitably come back to haunt us later.

To reiterate, there are no simple solutions to many – if not all – of the complex problems that we collectively face today. Charlatans and demagogues will continue to offer half-truths and simple “solutions,” but they will never lead us anywhere, except backwards. This summit evidenced that change is indeed possible, but also revealed that there are no substitutes for hard work, sacrifice, and at times, patience. As former Minister Papaconstantinou noted, our progress is not necessarily linear and it always requires corrective steps.

While the EU may be experiencing a tumultuous period and in desperate need for a few corrective steps at the moment, this summit evidenced that a group of dedicated states(wo)men and a galvanized constituency willing to roll up their sleeves to fight for the EU – such as those in attendance at the summit – can put the EU back on track. Although former President van Rompuy noted that optimism is our moral duty, what we need is careful optimism and intelligent idealism, to quote former Foreign Minister of Belgian, Mark Eyskens. To conclude, although Governor of Limburg, Theo Bovens, observed that in the eyes of many, Europe has recently lost its shine, this summit was something that reassured us of what former President Bush saw 25 years ago that the EU is indeed a beacon of hope that is good for the entire world.

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