A Europe in control of its own destiny

Opinion editorial by Foreign Minister Koenders regarding the future of the European Union and the referendum in the United Kingdom. Published in Le Monde (23 June 2016).

A spectre is haunting Europe. The spectre of corruption, elitism and powerlessness that, in the eyes of many, looms over the open and democratic societies that we long thought could be taken for granted. The loss of that illusion and a sense of unease at an uncertain new world is one of the spurs behind the UK’s referendum. And that feeling is not unique to the British. It is shared across Europe and the US.

Governments seem powerless. Globalisation and European integration allow labour and capital to flow more freely, no longer constrained by national borders. Businesses long ago discovered the blessings of fading national borders. Ordinary people are now also taking advantage of them to seek greater prosperity, as is evident from the enormous influx of people into Europe. As the diplomat Robert Cooper once put it, ‘When you’re far away you dream of Europe, when you’re nearby you try to come to Europe. To hate Europe, you have to be part of it.’

The challenges are huge. For too long we have taken our way of life – based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law – as a given. We may see these values as inalienable, but they are evidently not inviolable. Certainly not for emerging countries whose populations clamour for smartphones and broadband internet, and whose governments don’t worry too much about human rights, climate change or disarmament.

We have become complacent in a world beset by confusion. It should tell you enough when people who fire off dire warnings of an ‘EUSSR’ can be seen cosying up to President Putin. Previous generations need no reminding of the dangers of complacency. As their numbers dwindle, however, our collective memory fades.

In these circumstances the ultimate question – as it has been put to the British electorate – does not revolve around migration, the economy, terrorism or security. It is about far more than the economic ties between the UK and the continent. It is about revitalising and democratising the EU. Other member states are also witnessing heated debates about their relationship with Europe. It all comes down to what kind of country we want to live in, what legacy we want to leave our children and how to secure it.

Whatever the outcome of the UK referendum, one thing is clear: the EU is an important but as yet imperfect way to control the forces that are threatening the world order or even turning it upside down.

But no country acting alone can achieve its objectives. Without Europe, both smaller nations like the Netherlands and larger ones like [Germany/France/ the UK] lack the capacity to control their destinies. Even the US can’t manage without partners. A former British foreign secretary once said ‘a man in the desert is sovereign, he is also helpless’. Sovereignty as it existed in previous eras will not help us deal with the geopolitical challenges posed by Russia or regulate the influx of migrants.

People rightly ask whether Europe is really in control. The honest answer is: not as much as it could or should be. I agree with many of the criticisms that people level at the EU. But I disagree with those who see those criticisms as a reason to demolish the entire European edifice.

True sovereignty is enjoyed by those who sit at the table where the decisions that affect them are made. If you get up and leave the room, you lose control. You give up sovereignty for the sake of a past that never existed, for a future that will never come.

Without Europe, countries like the Netherlands and the United Kingdom would not be ‘more themselves’, in the sense that they would be better able to ward off threats from Russia, the Middle East and North Africa. Today’s world is different. And in this different, turbulent world, European cooperation gives us more clout.

The fierce debate pitting federalists against nationalist populists ignores that reality. The federalists are fleeing to the future, forgetting that government must be as close to the people as possible. A federal Europe would be an empty shell – a powerful European Union demands powerful member states. A country that lacks confidence in its own strength cannot fill that void by falling back on Brussels. There are limits to cooperation: it must focus on the main European issues.

The nationalist populists have just as little confidence in what national governments can achieve. They flee to the past. Proponents of a stripped-down membership, or even an exit, talk as if this would put their nation state back in the driving seat. That is nonsense. It would consign them to the back seat. It might even leave them in the boot, seeing nothing but feeling every bump in the road. They would have no say over the agreements the EU made with others, and be forced to accept European legislation without having any input. Whether we are dealing with the consequences of climate change, migration or the threat of terrorism, when it comes to the big issues European cooperation increases our muscle.

Nationalist populists are not only fleeing onto the back seat, they are also doing something far worse. They are throwing Europe’s moral satnav out of the car window. They have no place for minorities. For them, international treaties are at best a set of recommendations. They display the worst traits of what insecurity and a lack of confidence can bring.

The European Union faces perhaps the greatest challenges of its entire existence. But if the past decade has shown us anything, it is the ability of Europeans to deal with unexpected challenges. Europeans have shown that sharing sovereignty makes you stronger, not weaker, and gives you more control, not less.

For the British people, there is a lot at stake. The British people not only care passionately, they are above all smart. And the smartest thing you can do is to continue to be part of the biggest single market in the world, knowing that you belong to a controlled Europe and – like other member states – work with Europe to make your country stronger, to grant your children a brighter future.