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Europe: Idealism or Pragmatism?

December 11, 2014 8:28 PM
By Richard Corbett in Euroblog

by Richard Corbett MEP, Vice-Chair of the European Movement UK

We all know the original idealistic argument behind the creation of the European Union. Some 60 years ago, far-sighted statesman in post-war Europe shared an overwhelming desire to put generations of war behind them, and create a better way to resolve differences among peaceful, democratic neighbours.

Europe has come a long way since the 1950s. Ideals are important, but our world has changed, and political reality has a habit of bringing them back down to earth with a bump.

Today, the EU has become in many ways a pragmatic organisation. It's a cooperative framework where interdependent countries can discuss mutual problems, agree where we need a shared approach, and then thrash out what that approach should be.

The beating heart of modern European pragmatism is the single market that we have jointly created. The majority of decisions we take at European level are about defining the rules for that market so that it works as efficiently and fairly as possible. To nurture and strengthen the continent-wide single market, whose foundations were laid by our predecessors, we need to develop and improve rules to protect workers, consumers and the environment, to ensure fair competition, and to eliminate red tape.

So the EU today might appear to be less about inspirational idealism, and more about nitty-gritty pragmatism. And pragmatism is important. But when we focus exclusively on self-interested arguments, we risk forgetting the underlying motivation for what we do - and this is dangerous for three reasons.

First, when we need to make the case for Europe to an increasingly sceptical public, facts, figures, rebuttals and rational explanations will only take us so far. We need to bind day-to-day realities together with the broader narrative of why we need the EU at all and why it outshines the alternatives.

Second, so many myths and misconceptions are already embedded in our national discourse about Europe that trying to squash every single one individually is a fool's errand. We must not get bogged down in an endless cycle of claim and counter-claim, myth and rebuttal. The best way to fight the negativity of narrow-minded nationalism is to present an alternative, positive story which shows the myths up for the nonsense they are.

Third - and most important - we are simply mistaken if we think the idealism of the past has no application for us today. As the Nobel Peace Prize committee recognised in 2012, the motivation for creating a European Union remains as important today as it ever was. If we take pan-continental peace, democracy and the rule of law for granted, we not only do a disservice to those who fought to achieve it, we also risk losing it. Witness the long queue of new countries seeking closer ties with the EU as a way of cementing their democratic and cultural independence. Witness the social and political unrest in countries whose journey towards stable democracy is not yet complete. And witness the resurgence of reactionary nationalism and the far-right in many European countries, not least the UK. We descend into narrow self-interest at our peril.

Day to day, the European Union is a pragmatic, sometimes imperfect solution to a set of difficult problems. But it also represents a broader ideal, one which we must never stop talking about.