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Europe should let go of grand ideas

Europe is in crisis but fortunately there's no smell of gunpowder in the air, unlike 60 years ago. The European project has a sturdiness of its own developed over years of meticulous construction; it pours balm over the tensions and sensitivities that lie beneath. The current juncture is a critical one, not because the economy is in trouble, but because being together has lost its lustre. Though it might remain the perfectly rational option, that spark of excitement is gone.

The problem is both psychological and real. Psychological because Europe is in relative decline and its politics geared towards decline management and cushioning the blow. The mode is a defensive one.

For a mortal in the throes of a mid-life crisis, there are usually two recommendations – find better ways of tackling stress, forsake alcohol, take up yoga or, alternatively – concede that you are no longer young and see this as an opportunity to take stock and maybe change the way your life's going: broaden your interests, travel, go back to school, try a new sport. Watch your kids or grandchildren grow.

Up until now, Europe has always avoided the above options and keeps undergoing rejuvenation therapy, playing the eternal youngster on the block. This was the logic behind the Lisbon treaty and the climate agenda. And once it overhauls its system of macroeconomic governance towards closer fiscal co-ordination, it will have to tackle structural challenges like those of the continent's changing demographics.

Though it's never a bad idea to exercise, the Europe that I dream about is one at ease with itself. We should be under no illusions. Barring major disasters, Europe is going to have to make place at the table for China, India and other emerging powers. Sliding from a 25% share in the world population in 1900 to a projected 5% in 2050, it simply can't have the same scale of influence.

It would also help if we realised that there is an awful lot that we can learn from the outside world. Consensus is strong in Europe that growth will have to come from innovation and entrepreneurship. In terms of improving our "growth" infrastructures, especially universities, and making progress on the commercialisation of knowledge, there is a lot that countries like Singapore, Australia or the US can teach us.

This doesn't mean we should sit idle and look on as others leap into the limelight. It's more about preparing ourselves for a long march during which the strength and stamina of our political, economic and social model will come to the fore as others overstretch themselves and run aground. Europe has some of the best governance models when it comes to healthcare and social policy: these will become our strongest hand as others in the world begin to face growing expectations from their own peoples and electorates as well as evolving demographic trends.

Europe should go back to basics – grow the core. Domestically, this means first of all exploiting the single market to the hilt. When we look back, this is clearly one of the big European success stories. Nevertheless, it's shocking the number of obstacles and barriers erected that prevent it from reaching cruising altitude. Over half of Europe's entrepreneurs report they encounter difficulties in selling goods to other member states, not to say anything about services or capital flows. It's time to fight back.

The core agenda also means remaining faithful to our values and working on improving European political systems. In times of crisis, the state of democracy is usually the last thing people worry about. And yet, there's a lot that should be done to modernise the world of public accountability and responsibility in Europe. Out of many ways for Europe to exercise its influence, being an attractive model of governance is one of the most durable and effective. We should embrace it.

Finally, going back to basics is about turning our attention first to our neighbours and candidates for membership. The impressive progress made by countries like Turkey is an opportunity for the union to consolidate its sway with its neighbour. EU membership is still the biggest game in town in Ankara, although clearly not the only one. The EU will very soon run out of chapters to open in its accession talks with the Muslim power. The moment of truth is coming, and we have everything to regret if we miss it.

There is nothing wrong with living in an increasingly diverse world. While based in London for several years, I was reminded of the remark by Dean Acheson that Britain's loss of empire left it without a role. This remark, which continues to resonate in Britain, could now be applied to Europe, also. Just as Britain is doing pretty well without an empire, so too will Europe without a realm of grand ideas.

Paweł Świeboda is president of demosEUROPA – Centre for European Strategy. A graduate of the London School of Economics and the University of London, he served as the EU adviser to the president of Poland between 1996-2000. As director of the department of the European Union in the ministry of foreign affairs he was responsible for EU accession negotiations.For this collaborative series Comment is free and Presseurop have asked several writers to share their thoughts on Europe.

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