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The European - April 8, 2013

Europe is more than the single market: It’s the promise of a new kind of political union. Unfortunately, the ruptures of globalization have rendered the successes of the EU invisible

The British referendum on EU membership, announced by David Cameron earlier this year, may or may not happen. But Cameron’s speech has had at least one lasting consequence already: the idea of a referendum is now firmly entrenched in the political debate in a majority of European countries – especially inside the Eurozone.

In Italy, the referendum is the centerpiece of the European policy of Beppe Grillo’s party, the “5-Star-Movement”. In many other countries the idea of a referendum had also gained scores of vocal advocates, from the brutal ultra-nationalists of “Golden Down” in Greece to Euro-skeptic academics who form the ranks of the newly announced “Alternative for Germany”.

The debate is mainly focused on the balance between the costs incurred and the benefits received by each country for being part of the monetary union or the Schengen area. In other words, the debate is mainly concentrated on economic aspects of membership, as if Europe was no different from the UN or the World Trade Organization: a political body to which each country may subscribe, participate in full or in part, or from which it might withdraw at will.

What is notably absent from the referendum debate is the idea of a new European entity (or “super-state”, as it is sometimes called by the press). Although the necessary “loss of sovereignty” from nation-states to European institutions is one of the frequent arguments of this debate, few have dared to advocate such an idea. When it was floated, reactions have generally been bewildered and frightful.

Europe is more than the single market

This is puzzling for two reasons: The idea of a deeply integrated (and thus state-like) Europe might be the best answer to the current economic and political crisis, and it is also at the heart of the original European idea. The EU was founded on the ambition to construct a real political union, not merely a continental market with balanced cash flows.

The situation is now such that even supporters of the European idea downplay the British demand for a referendum. They argue that it must be seen as a chance to vote on the advantages and disadvantages of European scientific cooperation and improved internal security, while opponents can boast aloud that the “no” vote will forever end the dream (to them, the nightmare) of a united continent between Brest and Warsaw.

The situation is further muddled by the fact that the economic institutions behind the euro currency aren’t necessarily supportive of an integrated Europe. Rather than being the harbinger of integration, the single currency is often seen as a guarantee for economic stability and international competitiveness. It almost seems as if Italians, Germans and (to a lesser extent) the Swiss had agreed to decades of integration and cooperation because it’s good for business – and not because they share much of their history, culture, and traditions.

This lack of political and cultural allegiance to Europe helps to explain the sudden demand for referenda. Contrast Europe with the traditional nation-state: When a country slides into crisis, its population will usually not desert it, since most people still feel an attachment and a sense of belonging and will try to change their country’s fortune before attempting to destroy or abandon it. By contrast, the European referendum frames the question as “Do you want to be in/out” instead of asking what might be needed to make Europe relevant to the future of its citizens. A politically daring and positive referendum debate would instead focus on common projects that can be conceived by all European citizens, on the basis of common values and ideas rooted in common history.

Lessons from history

The European postwar generation has not yet forgotten the pains of the integration process of the last decades, and it is aware of the price that has been paid to reach the status quo. They remember that a united Europe should not be taken for granted.

Indeed, taking a longer historical perspective can help to illuminate the need for further integration. It’s no surprise that many Euro-skeptics are comparatively young. The older generation has recognized the need for a new social model, for a new relationship between native Europeans and immigrants, and between Christian traditions and new religions and cultures that will co-exist on Europe’s soil in the future.

By contrast, today’s young generation, which has never experienced a world without globalization and without tangible borders, ascribes the European integration to the push of global markets and global economies and not to the hard work of Europe’s founding fathers. Many of us have grown up in a world of cheap flights and online chat rooms that connect us to almost anyone in the world instantaneously. We have also been born into a world in which the rights of the individual and basic political, religious and economic freedoms are respected. Thus it’s tempting to make the logical leap and misleadingly conclude that Europe and the freedoms of the Schengen area aren’t special.

When the Maastricht treaty did away with European borders, the expectation was that a European civic spirit would flourish. Contrary to popular opinion, this project has been rather successful, but its success has been overshadowed by globalization. Today, watching satellite television, it is tempting to think that transnational alliances and allegiances which are common in Europe are equally common in a lot of other places, too. The European message is being lost amidst global developments.

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