Stand­ing Up for Europe

The Baltic Times - - COMMENTARY - Ge­orge Soros

To­day’s Euro­pean Union needs both sal­va­tion and rad­i­cal rein­ven­tion. Saving the EU must take prece­dence, be­cause Europe is in ex­is­ten­tial dan­ger. But, as French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron em­pha­sized dur­ing his elec­tion cam­paign, re­viv­ing the sup­port that the EU used to en­joy is no less es­sen­tial.

The ex­is­ten­tial dan­ger the EU faces is partly ex­ter­nal. The Union is sur­rounded by pow­ers that are hos­tile to what it stands for – Vladimir Putin’s Rus­sia, Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan’s Turkey, Abdel Fat­tah el-sisi’s Egypt, and the Amer­ica that Don­ald Trump would cre­ate if he could.

But the threat also comes from within. The EU is gov­erned by treaties that, fol­low­ing the fi­nan­cial cri­sis of 2008, be­came largely ir­rel­e­vant to con­di­tions pre­vail­ing in the eu­ro­zone. Even the sim­plest in­no­va­tions nec­es­sary to make the sin­gle cur­rency sus­tain­able could be in­tro­duced only by in­ter­gov­ern­men­tal ar­range­ments out­side the ex­ist­ing treaties. And, as the func­tion­ing of Euro­pean in­sti­tu­tions be­came in­creas­ingly com­pli­cated, the EU it­self grad­u­ally be­came dys­func­tional in some ways.

The Eu­ro­zone in par­tic­u­lar be­came the ex­act op­po­site of what was orig­i­nally in­tended. The EU was meant to be a vol­un­tary as­so­ci­a­tion of like-minded states that were will­ing to sur­ren­der part of their sovereignty for the com­mon good. Af­ter the 2008 fi­nan­cial cri­sis, the Eu­ro­zone was trans­formed into an ar­range­ment whereby cred­i­tor coun­tries dic­tated terms to debtor coun­tries that couldn’t meet their obli­ga­tions. By dic­tat­ing aus­ter­ity, the cred­i­tors made it prac­ti­cally im­pos­si­ble for the debtors to grow their way out of their li­a­bil­i­ties.

If the EU car­ries on with busi­ness as usual, there is lit­tle hope for im­prove­ment. That is why the Union needs to be rad­i­cally rein­vented. The top-down ap­proach that Jean Mon­net used to launch Euro­pean in­te­gra­tion in the 1950s car­ried the process a long way, be­fore los­ing mo­men­tum. Now Europe needs a col­lab­o­ra­tive ef­fort that com­bines the EU in­sti­tu­tions’ top-down ap­proach with the bottom-up ini­tia­tives needed to en­gage the elec­torate.

Con­sider Brexit, which is cer­tain to be im­mensely dam­ag­ing to both sides. Ne­go­ti­at­ing the sep­a­ra­tion with Bri­tain will di­vert the EU’S at­ten­tion from its own ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis, and the talks are bound to last longer than the two years al­lot­ted to them. Five years seems more likely – an eter­nity in pol­i­tics, es­pe­cially in revo­lu­tion­ary times like the present.

The EU should there­fore ap­proach the Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions in a con­struc­tive spirit, rec­og­niz­ing the un­pre­dictabil­ity of the fu­ture. Dur­ing the pro­longed “di­vorce” process, the Bri­tish pub­lic could de­cide that be­ing part of the EU is more at­trac­tive than leav­ing it. But this sce­nario pre­sup­poses that the EU trans­forms it­self into an or­ga­ni­za­tion that other coun­tries such as Bri­tain want to join, and that peo­ple on both sides of the English Chan­nel have a change of heart.

The chances that both con­di­tions will be met are slim, but not zero. It would re­quire Eu-wide recog­ni­tion that Brexit is a step to­ward Euro­pean dis­in­te­gra­tion – and thus a lose-lose propo­si­tion. By con­trast, mak­ing the EU at­trac­tive again would give peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly the younger gen­er­a­tions, hope for a bet­ter fu­ture.

Such a Europe would dif­fer from the cur­rent ar­range­ment in two key re­spects. First, it would clearly dis­tin­guish be­tween the EU and the Eu­ro­zone. Sec­ond, it would rec­og­nize that the Eu­ro­zone is gov­erned by out­dated treaties, and that its gov­er­nance can­not be al­tered be­cause treaty change is im­pos­si­ble.

The treaties as­sert that all mem­ber coun­tries are ex­pected to join the Euro if and when they qual­ify. This has cre­ated an ab­surd sit­u­a­tion where coun­tries like Swe­den, Poland, and the Czech Repub­lic have made it clear that they have no in­ten­tion of join­ing the Euro, yet they are still de­scribed and treated as “pre-ins.”

The ef­fect is not purely cos­metic. The EU has be­come an or­ga­ni­za­tion in which the Eu­ro­zone con­sti­tutes the in­ner core and the other mem­bers are rel­e­gated to an in­fe­rior po­si­tion. This must change. The Euro’s many un­re­solved prob­lems must not be al­lowed to de­stroy the EU.

The fail­ure to clar­ify the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the Euro and the EU re­flects a broader de­fect: the as­sump­tion that var­i­ous mem­ber states may be mov­ing at dif­fer­ent speeds, but are all headed to­ward the same des­ti­na­tion. In fact, a ris­ing pro­por­tion of mem­ber states have ex­plic­itly re­jected the claim of “ever closer union.”

Re­plac­ing a “multi-speed” Europe with a “multi-track” Europe that al­lows mem­ber states a wider va­ri­ety of demo­cratic choices would have a far-reach­ing ben­e­fi­cial ef­fect. As it stands, mem­ber states want to re­assert their sovereignty, rather than sur­ren­der­ing more of it. But if co­op­er­a­tion pro­duced pos­i­tive re­sults, at­ti­tudes might im­prove and ob­jec­tives pur­sued by coali­tions of the will­ing might at­tract uni­ver­sal par­tic­i­pa­tion.

Mean­ing­ful progress is in­dis­pens­able in three ar­eas: ter­ri­to­rial dis­in­te­gra­tion, ex­em­pli­fied by Brexit; the refugee cri­sis; and the lack of ad­e­quate eco­nomic growth. On all three is­sues, Europe starts from a very low base of co­op­er­a­tion.

That base is par­tic­u­larly low when it comes to the refugee cri­sis, and the trend is down­ward. Europe still lacks a com­pre­hen­sive mi­gra­tion pol­icy. Each coun­try pur­sues what it per­ceives to be its na­tional in­ter­est, of­ten work­ing against the in­ter­ests of other mem­ber states as a re­sult. Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel was right: the refugee cri­sis could de­stroy the EU. But we must not give up. If Europe could make mean­ing­ful progress on al­le­vi­at­ing the refugee cri­sis, the mo­men­tum would change to a pos­i­tive di­rec­tion.

I am a great be­liever in mo­men­tum. Even be­fore Macron’s elec­tion, be­gin­ning with the con­vinc­ing de­feat of the Dutch na­tion­al­ist Geert Wilders in the Nether­lands’ gen­eral elec­tions in March, one could see mo­men­tum de­vel­op­ing that could change the EU’S top-down po­lit­i­cal process for the bet­ter. And with Macron, the only proeu­ro­pean can­di­date, win­ning in France, I am much more con­fi­dent about the out­come of Ger­many’s elec­tion in Septem­ber. There, many com­bi­na­tions could lead to a pro-euro­pean coali­tion, es­pe­cially if sup­port for the anti-euro­pean and xeno­pho­bic Al­ter­na­tive für Deutsch­land con­tin­ues to col­lapse. This grow­ing proeu­rope mo­men­tum may then be strong enough to over­come the big­gest threat: a bank­ing and mi­gra­tion cri­sis in Italy.

I am also en­cour­aged by the spon­ta­neous, grass­roots ini­tia­tives – most sup­ported mainly by young peo­ple – that we see nowa­days. I have in mind the “Pulse of Europe” move­ment, which started in Frank­furt in Novem­ber and spread to some 120 cities across the con­ti­nent; the “Best for Bri­tain” move­ment in the UK; and the re­sis­tance to the rul­ing Law and Jus­tice Party in Poland, and to Prime Min­is­ter Vik­tor Or­bán’s Fidesz party in Hun­gary.

The re­sis­tance in Hun­gary must be as sur­pris­ing to Or­bán as it is to me. Or­bán has sought to frame his poli­cies as a per­sonal con­flict with me, mak­ing me the tar­get of his govern­ment’s un­re­lent­ing pro­pa­ganda cam­paign. He casts him­self as the de­fender of Hun­gar­ian sovereignty and me as a cur­rency spec­u­la­tor who uses his money to flood Europe with il­le­gal im­mi­grants as part of some vague but ne­far­i­ous plot.

But the truth is that I am the proud founder of Cen­tral Euro­pean Univer­sity, which, af­ter 26 years, has come to rank among the world’s top 50 univer­si­ties in many of the so­cial sci­ences. By en­dow­ing CEU, I have en­abled it to de­fend its aca­demic free­dom from out­side in­ter­fer­ence, whether by the Hun­gar­ian govern­ment or any­one else (in­clud­ing its founder).

I have learned two lessons from this ex­pe­ri­ence. First, it is not enough to rely on the rule of law to de­fend open so­ci­eties; you must also stand up for what you be­lieve. The CEU and my foun­da­tions’ grantees are do­ing so. Their fate is in the bal­ance. But I am con­fi­dent that their de­ter­mined de­fense of aca­demic free­dom and free­dom of as­so­ci­a­tion will even­tu­ally set in mo­tion Europe’s slow-mov­ing wheels of jus­tice.

Sec­ond, I have learned that democ­racy can’t be im­posed from the out­side; it needs to be achieved and de­fended by the peo­ple them­selves. I ad­mire the coura­geous way Hun­gar­i­ans have re­sisted the de­cep­tion and cor­rup­tion of the mafia state Or­bán has es­tab­lished, and I am en­cour­aged by the Euro­pean in­sti­tu­tions’ en­er­getic re­sponse to the chal­lenges em­a­nat­ing from Poland and Hun­gary. While the path ahead is per­ilous, I can clearly see in such strug­gles the prospect of the EU’S re­vival.

Ge­orge Soros, Chair­man of Soros Fund Man­age­ment and of the Open So­ci­ety Foun­da­tions, is the au­thor of The Tragedy of the Euro­pean Union: Dis­in­te­gra­tion or Re­vival?


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