Angela Merkel's quasi-state visit to the UK was a long awaited affair. Her speech to the joint houses of parliament offered something for everyone. For the committed Europhiles, she re-asserted her commitment to a strong and united Europe. For the sceptics and champions of British exceptionalism she offered her support for British opt-outs, increased focus on the principle of subsidiarity and the promise of a more flexible interpretation of EU directives by different countries. Yet, she did not choose to present her position is such positive terms - in terms that would have started to show that there may be common ground between Europhiles and Eurosceptics; common ground that could be used as a base on which to build compromise and a pragmatic common position. Instead, she said that her speech was going to disappoint both sides because she would not offer all that either side wanted. Maybe it's her strict Protestant upbringing; or maybe it's her seeming affections for the language of discipline and austerity that led her to frame her position in the negative rather than the positive. Or maybe she is keen to avoid raising expectations to unattainable levels. However, in adopting this tone she may have missed an opportunity to start creating an atmosphere that, with good will and some pragmatism, there is an opportunity to start bringing all sides of the debate together rather than continuing, and maybe encouraging, the ongoing civil war between the ins and the outs. She could have positioned herself as the ally of all sides rather than as the school ma'am-ish disciplinarian for all.
What is Merkel's Vision of Europe?
Many are trying to piece together what the German vision of Europe might be. Is it a vision that has the ability to bring together the varied patchwork of cultures, behaviours and expectations that is Europe? Or is it a vision that is seeks to impose a uniquely Germanic model and will therefore fail? There is little doubt that Germany needs to take a leadership position in this debate. Yet, so far we can only glean hints of what Germany's position might be evolving towards.
As support for the EU as currently constructed continues to fall in every single European country, including Germany, today's leaders have a historic opportunity to re-think the shape, nature and purpose of the Union. More of the same will clearly not work. Neither will resorting to the tired and now discredited phrase of 'ever closer union.' Somehow there is a need to find a way to make real the ambition laid out in the Lisbon Treaty of 'Unity in Diversity' - a phrase that has, to date, remained no more than empty rhetoric as the European Commission's continued drive to suppress diversity with a one-size-fits all type of Union has created disunity and increasing dissatisfaction among citizens.
Moving away from Elephantiasis
The EU as currently envisioned is a 20th century construction. It puts the benefits of size above all else. The theory that together we are stronger has led to the birth and development of an elephant - and one that is becoming increasingly obese, bloated and unmanageable. True, elephants have strength and resilience. But this particular elephant has neither. Top-down, centrally managed organizations with inflexible structures and rules are failing everywhere - and the EU will be no exception if it continues down this path. Instead, the new organizational model that is appropriate for the fast-moving, unpredictable, 21st century world is that of the loose network united by an inspiring common purpose. People today make their best contribution by being part of a loose network where collaboration is voluntary rather than imposed; where everyone can find his or her own way to make positive contributions to the whole; and where people self-direct to come together through alliances and collaborations that are continually shifting and changing to adapt to the ever-changing world around them. In this model, the role of the central bureaucracy is not to impose rules and inflexible structures. Rather it is to create the infrastructure and circumstances that facilitate self-directed co-operation and to envision and transmit a common purpose that is both relevant and inspiring. Today's European Union is as far from that contemporary structure as anyone can imagine.
Elephants cannot dance
In 1990, Harvard Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter published a book titled When Giants Learn to Dance. This theme has enormous appeal and has been since developed by others who have moved from giants to elephants to all sorts of other metaphors in trying to persuade us that you can have it all. Like snake oil salesmen they promise corporations that they can be big and powerful as well as agile and adaptive. We have learned that this is not true. In nature, elephants do not try to behave like cheetahs - and neither do they delude themselves that they could. My reaction to this metaphor was always to ask the question - if dancing is what you want to do, why choose an elephant (or a giant) to try to do it?
Success in the 21st century depends on being able to dance effectively to an ever changing, unpredictable tune. That requires the fast moving, graceful flexibility and quick adaptability of an inventive dancing troupe. A troupe that is capable of rapidly re-configuring itself as the tunes continue to change. The question our European leaders face is whether they have it in them to transform the bloated elephant of a 20th century European Union that their predecessors have created into the flexible, adaptable networked entity that will be required for success in the 21st century. As Mrs Merkel said in London, that will take a lot of hard work.