As Europe faces a New Year the structures of the European Union will continue to confront multiple challenges. Among them are the strain on European unity caused by the continued flow of immigrants and refugees, the continued difficulties of holding the Eurozone together, anaemic economic growth and persistent high unemployment with their consequent human and political costs, the continued rise of Euroscepticism, the erosion of liberal, democratic principles in a number of EU member states, continued tensions with Russia, and, no doubt, many other simmering or as yet unimagined issues.
In such a crisis-ridden environment it is tempting for some in Europe to see the upcoming British referendum on continued membership of the EU as an unnecessary irritation. An unneeded distraction driven by nothing more than British petulance and which takes valuable time and institutional resources away from tackling other, bigger challenges. That would be a mistake. Some of us who are involved in British politics have also tended to be annoyed at the prospect of the EU referendum. We see it as driven by the internal politics of the Conservative Party rather than by the national interest. However, now that the referendum is inevitable, a broader perspective might be more appropriate.
That Britain's national interest is better served by being within rather than outside the EU seems to many of us incontestable. Whether that will turn out to be the opinion of the majority of British voters remains to be seen. However, I am here concerned with the meaning of the British referendum for Europe itself and for the future of the EU. I will start by making a bold claim: the outcome of the British negotiation and, subsequently, the outcome of the referendum will define the future shape and direction of the EU and will determine the success or relative failure of the European project.
Let me explain.
There are broadly two visions for the future of the European Union. The first is a vision of the Union as a model built for the challenges of the 20th century. A Europe at war with itself and challenged by a globalising world spawned a model of community that transmogrified into a search for ever greater union. From economic community the model has moved rapidly to the search for political union; a centrally led organisation seeking to act as one political and economic entity with the individual member states in a role that is largely subordinate to the needs and wishes of the majority. A Europe where 28 or, eventually, more nation states all move together in lock step irrespective of the wide cultural and economic differences that exist, and will continue to exist, between them.
The second vision is a Europe of nation states where the role of EU institutions is to oil the wheels of collaboration between different nations. Rather than a federal Europe, such a model envisions a confederation of individual sovereign states. A common framework would allow variable collaborations between different nations on matters of common interest. Groups of countries would be enabled to form alliances and collaborations as and when they see fit. As these collaborations are shown to work (or not), they will serve as a beacon and others may wish to join when the time is right for them. If any particular type of collaboration doesn't work for some, it can be modified or some can retreat as and when they wish. This is a Europe that operates more to an à la carte menu rather than a prix fixe, set menu. The role of Brussels would be to help craft the menu and provide the know-how and infrastructure to make such alliances work.
The first vision is based on the 20th century, centrally managed bureaucratic organisational model as used, for instance, by multinational corporations. Politically it is more in line with French dirigisme than with, say, the Swiss political model. I suggest that this model is too unwieldy, too resistant to change and largely unmanageable. It also goes against contemporary cultural mores. It will fail in the 21st century - a time that calls for flexibility, opportunities for experimentation in an uncertain world, and the ability to change and respond quickly to rapidly changing circumstances.
Many multinational corporations, entities that are much smaller and much easier to manage than the EU, have realised that this centrally planned bureaucratic model no longer works. Hence the rise of the organisation as self-organising network - flexible, organic and able to respond better to new challenges that nobody ever predicted. Applied to Europe, this would create a EU that will grow organically and in unpredictable ways. It might represent a nightmare for the bureaucrat who believes in a managerial politics where everything is, supposedly, under control and is best managed from a centre that is busy crafting a European utopia that applies to every single one of its 500 million citizens. However, I suggest that, by creating flexibility and responsiveness, allowing experimentation and dispersing power rather than concentrating it, the network model will create an EU that is stronger and much more resilient - culturally, politically and economically.
The two models presented here represent extremes and reality will end up somewhere in the middle. However, at some stage Europe will need to make an explicit choice as to which broad direction of travel it will choose. The British referendum is the first major event that tests this choice. The British government is pushing for the start of a journey towards a Europe that is flexible rather than dirigiste. A Europe that allows different countries to be part of a community of flexible collaborations that balance national cultures, national economies and national interests with the benefits of collective action. The negotiation process will test whether Europe is able to embark on a process of institutional reform or whether it is unable to reform and adapt to the 21st century even as it expects and imposes the most aggressive reform within its own member states.
Britain will survive within or outside the EU. Similarly, though undesirable, whether Britain stays or leaves will not, in and of itself, determine the success or failure of the European project. However, the bigger picture is that an EU that is unable to accommodate the UK is an EU that has chosen a rigidly fixed, top-down bureaucratic model that is unable to evolve rather than the flexible, networked, responsive organisational model. It indicates a EU that is more obsessed with the ghosts of its past than with what it will take to meet the challenges of the future. Such an EU will fail - with or without Britain.