Alphen, Netherlands. 22 May. In January 1941 at a desperate moment in World War Two President Roosevelt sent a handwritten note to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in which he quoted Longfellow. “Sail on, oh Ship of State, Sail on, oh union strong and great, Humanity with all its fears, With all the hope of future years, Is hanging breathless on thy fate”. Roosevelt at the time was encouraging Britain to fight on alone against Nazi tyranny. As EU leaders today sit down in Latvia’s beautiful capital Riga they might muse on Longfellow’s poem. Indeed, although the centre-piece of today’s EU summit is the Eastern Partnership and the Union’s relationship with six well post-Soviet states at heart the discussion is really about three fundamental and interlocking strategic questions that will shape the future of Europe and the EU; the Russia Question, the British Question, and the Greek Question. Implicit in all three questions is the biggest question of all; can the EU find a new balance between power, security, legitimacy and freedom.
The Russia Question: Implicit in the EU’s struggle with Russia (for that is what it is) is a fundamental clash of ideas about international relations. It is a clash that places all three Baltic States – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – on the front-line of freedom. It is also a clash between free sovereign choice essential to any community of nations and the imposition of influence implicit in the renewed sphere of influence Russia seeks.
The British Question(s): There are in fact two questions implicit in the Brexit debate and they concern the EU’s relationship with power and people (it was ever thus). Answering the power question is fairly straightforward. If, for example, Germany and France want Britain to stay in the EU, then Berlin and Paris must finally afford London equal status within the Union. In other words, non-Eurozone states (especially the most powerful non-Eurozone state) must no longer be treated as second-class EU citizens. The people question is more complex. The Brexit debate reflects two very different political cultures; Continental statism and protectionism versus Anglo-Saxon localism and openness. Let me state for the record that I recognise the great work the EU does on my behalf. However, as a Lincoln democrat (note the small ‘d’) I believe firmly that power in a democracy should remain as close to the people as possible. Thus, I have long been concerned about the EU’s appalling and too oft glossed over democratic deficit and the growing distance between the EU institutions and me the people. Britain’s fight is thus every thinking European’s fight against the over-concentration of unaccountable power in a few Euro-elite hands.
The Greek Question: The Greek question raises perhaps the biggest question of all; just how responsible are Europeans as Europeans responsible for each other’s debts, burdens, crises, and indeed security? Therefore, the Greek question is at one and the same time distinct and connected to the Russia and British questions. In effect Athens is challenging Germany (in particular) to answer a question Berlin has long-been dodging; what price leadership? And, does German leadership of the Eurozone matter more to Berlin than a Grexit, which would mark a failure of German leadership? Given the creative accounting the EU has used to give the impression Athens has met its debt-repayment schedule it is an argument that Syriza may actually be winning.
If the EU is to find a new balance power, security, legitimacy and freedom implicit in Riga’s three big strategic questions many of the assumptions that have underpinned ‘Europe’ since at least the 1957 Treaty of Rome will need to be re-thought. Clearly, a new balance needs to be found between the ‘ever closer union’ mantra of Brussels and the growing demand for political localism evident across much of Europe. A new political balance would need to offer far more than the stale and much-abused idea of ‘subsidiarity’. Equally, localism poses another vital question; can Europeans influence their world in the absence of political union? It is a moot point given the EU itself has no strategic culture worthy of the name and yet has successfully contributed to the strategic neutering of states like Britain and France.
Then there is the big legitimacy question. Can the European citizen ever be free if power is removed from democratically-elected national and regional legislatures and invested (often without the express permission of the citizen) in a distant, power-acquisitive political bureaucracy such as the European Commission? Finally, both implicit and explicit in the challenge posed by Russia to the east and ISIS to the south is a further question. Can Europe resist aggression and subversion if it remains so split and disaggregated?
Therefore, today’s debate in Riga is really about the biggest question of all; whither Europe in the twenty-first century? Humanity with all its fears, is indeed, hanging breathless on thy fate.