An Unwarranted Pessimism: Rethinking the European Integration Debate

By Asselborn, Jean | Harvard International Review, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

An Unwarranted Pessimism: Rethinking the European Integration Debate


Asselborn, Jean, Harvard International Review


When the French and Dutch referenda on the European Constitution failed in late spring 2005, Luxembourg held the rotating presidency of the European Union. A few days later, while chairing the EU Council of Ministers, I looked at the concerned faces of fellow foreign ministers and knew that the same question was on all of their minds: how long will it take for the European Union to recover?

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What ensued in the following weeks and months was an unprecedented plunge into Euro-pessimism, as much among leaders and decision makers as among the wider European public. However, recent developments provide sufficient grounds for abandoning the talk of gloom and crisis in favor of cautious optimism about the future of Europe. Leaders now need to build on this nascent optimism and promote a positive view of Europe, one based not on myths and prejudices but on the day-to-day benefits enjoyed by the citizens of an enlarged European Union.

Reasons for Optimism

There are several reasons for optimism about the future of European integration. Most significantly, the setbacks of 2005 have not led to an institutional stalemate, nor have they sounded the death knell for the constitutional project, as many of its critics had predicted. Luxembourg went on to hold a successful referendum on the Constitutional Treaty only a few weeks after the French and the Dutch had rejected it, thereby clearing the way for further ratifications. Other countries have since approved the Constitutional Treaty in its current form. At the same time, the European Union continues to manage its day-to-day business successfully on the basis of the provisions outlined in the Treaty of Nice. Some important and difficult decisions have been made, most notably the opening of accession negotiations with Turkey, the agreement on a new seven-year budget, and the decision to contribute more than 7,000 European troops to the UN mission in Lebanon. Finally, there has been an unexpected benefit from the referenda setback, for it has provided the impetus for an unprecedented period of reflection and debate about the future of the European Union. This fresh debate has provided a powerful opportunity to dispel a number of myths that have emerged about the European Union in recent years and that are becoming increasingly engrained in public opinion.

Dispelling the Economic Myths

The most notorious myths about European integration concern migration, the European social model, and the constitutional process. These myths soured the debate about the EU constitution and helped defeat its ratification in the French and Dutch referenda.

National governments are not without blame for the current state of affairs; they have far too often used Europe as an excuse for their own failings. The fact that EU decisions are taken jointly by all member states and that each government has its share of responsibility is rarely mentioned. Politicians cannot blame their ills on Europe during the week and expect citizens to support further integration on the weekend. Instead of using Europe as a convenient scapegoat, decision makers must take the lead in the debate about European integration by force of argument and not by propaganda. Any attempt to generate wider support for the European project will have to start with the dismantling of prevalent prejudices.

First, EU enlargement is said to have led to a massive and uncontrolled flow of migrants that has flooded labor markets, costing jobs in the old EU member states. The actual evidence about the impact of the free movement of workers within the enlarged European Union shows it to be of great benefit to the economies of the host countries. Experts agree that the European Union needs migrant workers to help counterbalance the negative labor market effects of low birth rates and rising life expectancy.

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Some of the real issues that have arisen as a result of the 2004 enlargement of the European Union concern the countries of origin of the workers, which are faced with a serious brain drain in different sectors of their economies. …

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