Fintan O’Toole: How Europe’s leaders can fix the union

Focus on equality rather than the creation of a super state

What does the leadership of the European Union need to do to save the union?

First, show some humility. In the immediate responses to Brexit, there is no acknowledgement that this is a divorce with faults on both sides. The view from Brussels seems to be that English voters inexplicably and with no provocation walked out on a warm and loving home. But while Brexit is indeed made in England, it has component parts of EU origin. The blunt reality is that the lies and distortions of the Leave campaign were credible to a majority of voters because there are truths behind them – arrogance, complacency, bad economics, a democratic deficit that everyone recognises but that still goes unaddressed.

Does being an Eurocrat mean never having to say you’re sorry? Without conceding to the wild exaggerations of the Brexiteers, the EU’s leaders should acknowledge their own failures and start talking about what they themselves need to do to restore to the union the public confidence that has been lost in many more member states than the UK.

Second, lay off Greece. Many of us have tried to warn that in treating a sovereign member state to exemplary punishment, creating a purgatory in which sinful improvidence must be expunged by suffering, the EU is not just harming the Greeks. It is turning itself from a community of equal nations into a fiscal penal colony with creditor guards and debtor prisoners. The damage to the image the EU as an entity founded on democracy, justice and what Richard Bruton yesterday referred to (with a straight face) as "compassion" has been immense.


An acknowledgement that Greece needs a comprehensive write-off of the debts it can never pay would go some distance to showing citizens that Brexit has been a sobering experience.

Third, change the project. The EU got its momentum from a belief that nation states were a thing of the past and would inevitably be transcended by a continental-scale superstate. Anyone who still believes this is in hiding from history. There are likely to be more, not fewer, nation states, even in western Europe: Scotland, Catalonia and England to name three. So stop pretending the project of "ever closer union" will see the withering away of nation states and shut up about grandiose follies such as an EU army.

But what then happens to the momentum the union needs if it is to hold together? “Ever closer union” has to be replaced by a much more tangible and vastly more urgent project: ever more equal union. It is inequality – mostly but not exclusively economic inequality – that is making the western world increasingly anarchic. If it is to survive, the EU must adopt as its defining reason for existence the achievement of ever greater equality both within and between its member states.

Fourth, go off somewhere quiet and secretive and start hatching a plan to escape the euro. It has been a disastrous project for all but a small group of northern member states, principally Germany, which have reaped the benefits of an artificially weak currency in which to sell their exports. Otherwise, its legacies are drastic – bubbles inflated by cheap credit; a catastrophic banking crisis; the accumulation of vast unaccountable power by the European Central Bank; the division of the EU into debtor and creditor members; and weak economic growth. And it is unfixable – the only way to make it work is to strengthen the powers of the ECB and the EU Commission, radical changes for which there is no public support.

Fifth, admit that austerity has been a disaster. It was always based on bad sums, a gross miscalculation of the effects of cuts in public spending and investment in a recession. Yet it remains an article of faith that the cure to Europe’s ills is still further reductions in the very public services that give government and politics legitimacy in the eyes of their citizens.

Finally, democratise, democratise, democratise. The formula for the EU in the last two decades has been: first build larger and larger structures and then try to figure out how to democratise them. The demands of the DiEM25 movement, Open Democracy and others have to be acted on urgently: live-streaming of the secretive EU council meetings, full disclosure and open discussion of trade negotiation documents, an elected constitutional assembly to figure out how citizens can assert control over the institutions that act in their name. There should be no more grand institutional developments until the EU has undergone a revolution in accountability.

These are now existential questions. There are those among the EU elites who are quietly delighted to be rid of the obstreperous Brits and who see their departure as opening up the fast lane to a superstate. Their impulse is not even to carry on regardless, it is to put the foot on the accelerator and hurtle towards destruction. They mistake a warning shot for a starting pistol.