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Optimism looms: Lessons from Europe

This would be a crucial year for Europe, but former Prime Minister of Italy Dr Enrico Letta remains optimistic if some of these lessons put forth by him are taken heed of.

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Europe lacks a toolbox to fix itself.

Dr Enrico Letta, dean of the Paris School of International Affairs at Sciences Po in Paris said: “If the issues are the ‘roof’, and the crises are the ‘storm’, they had to fix the roof during the storm without a toolbox because they did not have one ready beforehand.”

During his hour long lecture on ‘Regional Integration: What Lessons from Europe?’ at the National University of Singapore, he touched on issues close to the heart of the Europeans – the Euro Crisis, the huge influx of migration, and terrorism.

But what really struck Europe hard was Brexit, where Britain decided to get a divorce with the European Union (EU), he said.

The EU was on an expansion strategy when Brexit happened. The hype created and the message it sent was clear: EU was failing.

“The British are well known for (their) pragmatism,” joked the former Italian prime minister.

The event, which was organised by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Aug, attracted large crowds who were interested in this topic.

For the past 25 years, EU has been one of the most stable political institutions in the world but this is changing.

Dr Letta emphasised that 2019 would be a crucial year for European history, with a huge restructuring of EU leadership and post-Brexit looming in the distance. However, he remained optimistic about the situation if some of these lessons put forth by him are taken heed of.

1. Patience and Resilience A Virtue

Rome was never built in a day and in the same spirit, “EU should never rush its decisions without thinking of the compromises or potential consequences,” said Dr Letta.

Integration takes time thus resilience and patience are necessary.

The EU has shown exceptional resilience in the past and a good example could be its unique contribution to the stability in the Sahel region of Africa since 2011 by imparting that resilience. The region spans from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Red Sea in the east.

In terms of demonstrating that resilience, the EU has provided aid and security to the region by combatting issues relating to the displacement of communities and poverty. It has also supported education, governance, health, as well as taken on the responsibility to act as a godfather to this region.

2. A Step-by-Step Approach

Integration is never an easy task.

Instead, it is a step-by-step process with sequences, long term objectives and consequential intermediate steps.

Citing the example of EU as a single market, Dr Letta said: “The history of the success of a single market in Europe is exactly the demonstration of an incremental process with a clear final goal.”

The action plan towards a single market with free movement of goods, services and capital with no import tax was a gradual process that dates back to the birth of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952.

The four strategies include making the rules more effective, dealing with key market distortions, removing sectoral obstacles to market integration, and finally delivering a single market for the benefit of all citizens.

Each strategy had sub-action plans that were comprehensive, specific and well-defined. All the plans were framed for easy comprehension and efficient implementation.

“If the EU loses this link, they lose the meaning of the final goal. Thus, it is important to have this link and show it to the people,” said Dr Letta.

3. Avoid Being The Scapegoat

At the supranational level, the EU needs to avoid being the scapegoat of pertinent issues such as Brexit, migrant, euro, and terrorism-related issues.

In order to close the gap between the EU and its people Dr Letta suggested that a way to do so could be through the ‘Erasmus’, an EU student exchange programme that provides foreign exchange options and opportunities for young people to further integrate with one another and promote a culture of trust amongst themselves.

4. Importance of forming intergovernmental relationships

According to Dr Letta, it is “very difficult“ to achieve a horizontal level where the efforts of all institutions within the EU are able to achieve a common outcome.

A collaboration at all levels – between the various governments and the EU – is needed in order to connect and inspire its people in order to build a unified region.

David Baxter, Former European Commission, Joint Research Centre, United Kingdom | © European Biomass Conference & Exhibition, Stockholm, June 12-15 2017

For instance, the EU collaborates with a wide range of public and private institutions in European member states through its Joint Research Centre (JRC), a centre which provides and supports policies with scientific evidence and technical support through the policy process.

It then shares its knowledge with its member states who can leverage upon this and collaborate to progress their nations collectively.

5. Bureaucracy Kills Integration

Bureaucracy is an enemy of integration.

The negative history of EU’s unsuccessful decisions and attempts at solving crises is often linked to bureaucracy within the institution.

It embraces subsidiarity – the concept that decisions should be made at as local a level as is practicable – whilst centralising as many powers to its institutions as it can lay its hands on.

EU law is an example of the subsidiarity principle. National courts have autonomy to make decisions but EU law takes precedence over national law, which means that an EU citizen can appeal to the European Court of Justice if he feels he is shortchanged by the national court. There is a sense that this creates dual legitimacy.

On top of that, very EU member state gets to appoint a commissioner and as it expanded, it needed to create new departments which may not be as useful so as to match the number of member states.

This complex system of bloated bureaucracy has enormous impacts on its aim to localise and simplify the system in order to reach out to the people. It kills innovations and alienates certain key actors as a result of this complex process.

6. Strong leadership = Successful integration

Lastly, it is impossible to achieve successful integration without responsible leadership.

“It is very easy to say, but very hard to act,” commented Dr Letta.

An example of good leadership would be when the European leaders came together to acknowledge that they were collectively responsible for the Eurozone Crisis in 2009. Instead of allowing macroeconomic policies to be dictated by ideology and doctrine, they modified their policy stance in response to evidence. Instead of allowing their decisions to be dictated by the bank lobby, they stood by their no-bailout rule.

“European leaders and national level leaders need to take the responsibility to implement policies and decisions efficiently,” said Dr Letta.

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