Brigid Laffan: In defence of the European Union

National leaders must now start to defend the Union that Europe has forged

The European Union is being severely tested and is the subject of conflict like never before in its history. The trajectory is no longer a one-way ticket to further integration and it now faces the danger of disintegration. We can no longer take for granted that the EU is sufficiently robust and resilient to safely navigate the turmoil that has been unleashed by a succession of crises, including the Brexit referendum.

The Union of its nature does not have at its disposal the deep institutional and affective ties that are historically associated with the nation state. In fact when it arouses passion at all, it is often from those who oppose it although it was very heartening to see the passion of the young people of the United Kingdom now faced with losing what they have taken for granted; Marine le Pen glibly referred to the EU as the European Soviet Union in June 2014 and Michael Gove felt free to compare economists who warned about the economic costs of Brexit to Nazi scientists.

The EU is an easy target – drab grey buildings in Brussels, complex and opaque decision-making processes, constant compromise and lengthy negotiations on difficult subjects. Novelty and complexity are embedded in its DNA because it is engaged in a historically unprecedented effort to foster deep ties among states and peoples on this small continent. The Union that we have is rarely defended caught as it is between the Eurosceptics who would bring the project down and those who dream of a centralised federal Europe.

Although traditional political parties and most European governments have supported their countries’ membership of the Union, they have done little to foster political communication about Europe beyond the banal and the hackneyed. They rarely explain how the Union works or justify the decisions they take jointly with the other member states. In the past, it suited them to keep the EU below the radar and avoid ownership for what they did in Brussels. A high price has been paid as it strengthened the radical right with their toxic mix of Euroscepticism and anti-immigration. Following the Brexit referendum, national leaders must take ownership of the EU again, something that has been missing for many years.


Instead of dismissing it or pretending that a different EU can be “abracadabred” into existence, they must start to defend the Union that Europe has forged. And Europe’s Union can be defended.

Although it defies easy classification, the Union has managed to bind 27 (minus UK) states into the most developed system of co-operation among democratic states that the world has ever witnessed. It has achieved this notwithstanding the diversity of history, geography, culture, language and levels of economic development that characterise Europe. The preamble to the Lisbon Treaty affirms the member states “attachment to the principles of liberty, democracy and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and of the rule of law”, a shared although not always respected set of common values.

The Union has been open to the membership of many poorer states including Ireland at the time and has contributed to their modernisation and prosperity. It has given all Europeans’ additional social and human rights protections in addition to European citizenship. It is no accident that young people in the UK voted overwhelmingly to Remain as their Europe is one of mobility both for jobs and education. The Union has managed to combine large, small and micro states not of course without strain. Unlike Europe’s state systems of the past, this Union is built on law and shared institutions and is entirely voluntary. There will be no European civil war to keep the UK in the Union. It is also the most democratic polity above the level of the state in the world. Because it combines member states and shared institutions, it will always be driven by both diplomacy and politics.

The Union must be defended from those who would dance on its grave long before it is dead; the Eurosceptics within the Union and those like Vladimir Putin who would see in the Union’s demise a further opportunity for adventurism. Defending the Union means that traditional parties should not seek to keep hot issues off the agenda but confront them head-on. Otherwise they feed the populists who are happy to portray contemporary politics as a battle between a “pure people” and a corrupt elite. And of course the “pure people” excludes the foreigner, the outsider. Nigel Farage’s portrayal of the Leave result as “a victory for real people, a victory for ordinary people, a victory for decent people” was undiluted populism at its sharpest. Casual racism has returned to the streets of Britain.

Following the referendum, the British elite, with the exception of the SNP, is consuming itself in rancour and destruction at a time when the UK government will need considerable capacity and nerve to manage its divorce proceedings with the EU. The remaining member states should not seek to punish the UK but the Union must be firm on what it will offer.

The UK cannot have all the advantages of club membership without paying the dues. Nor should the EU begin informal negotiations to enable the UK to test what might be on offer. The other member states must now move to protect Europe’s Union and to limit the turbulence that the referendum has caused. They must begin to forge the future with the UK on the outside. There will be some member states who will be tempted to call for “more Europe”, a new grand bargain among the remaining states. This would be folly. Politics across the continent is too volatile and fractured and could not bear the strain of major European initiatives.

Rather the focus should be on a series of mini-bargains designed to make the Union less vulnerable at this juncture. The first of those relates to the euro zone. It is time to face up to the need for debt reduction for Greece however that is done. It is also important to back-stop banking union to reduce the vulnerabilities remaining in the financial system. All other euro zone grand ideas should wait.

The second mini-bargain relates to refugees and migration. Europe has a special responsibility to those fleeing conflict and they must have priority. In the longer term Europe has to develop a migration policy that allows for managed migration. This implies a strengthening of Europe’s borders as porous external borders are not compatible with porous internal borders. Integration of migrants once in Europe is a priority and given that this is costly, the Union should develop financial instruments such as refugee bonds that would help the cities where most migrants are. It should be remembered that the reason migrants have been risking the lives in such great numbers to come to the Europe is that we have created such a prosperous, tolerant and decent society and we must continue to live up to that ideal.

The third mini-bargain relates to the need for a new inter-generational compact in Europe. Young people have borne the brunt of the Great Recession and are very unlikely to have the same protections and pensions as the baby boomers. Following the Brexit referendum, Europe’s young must mobilise to defend their futures.

At this historic juncture, Ireland should more than ever embrace Europe and present itself evermore as the young, open-minded, positive, English-speaking access point to Europe for third countries and companies. Now is not the time to catch the English disease. Brigid Laffan is Director of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies European University Institute.