What must the EU do to survive? Flexibility must be the foundation of any new blueprint

Mats Persson, director of the Open Europe think-tank, explains why only his drastic prescription will do to sustain the European project

“Europe hit by a populist earthquake,” read the headlines after the European elections that last month saw record numbers vote for anti-establishment parties of various shades. Tony Blair warned on Monday that Ukip’s victory should be seen as a “wake-up call” for the need to reform Europe. But where to start?

As any engineer will tell you, too much tension and a bridge collapses when hit by an earthquake or hefty wind. The trick is to build in so-called movable bearings, providing the flexibility needed for the structure to withstand severe stress. Flexibility, too, is the answer to Europe’s current predicament.

What if we could start from scratch and build a new European Union more equipped to handle the economic and democratic realities of the 21st century? What would it look like?

Well, first, we should create a robust “club” test. In which areas does it make sense for a large set of diverse countries to club together? How do we ensure that, say, Orthodox, post-Communist Bulgaria with a GDP per head of £4,670 and Lutheran, social democrat Sweden with a GDP per head of £37,195 are both at ease? How to reconcile the historical demand in some countries for more integration, with the deep-felt desire by voters in others for less? And how to do it without sacrificing Europe’s greatest invention: democracy?

“No nation was ever ruined by trade,” said Benjamin Franklin. In our test, the single market in Europe is a no-brainer. Trading with another country is easy. All you need to agree is: “I accept your products if you accept mine”. Though perhaps needing an arbiter, the principle is bottom-up and doesn’t require the creation of some superstate to function. Therefore, if we believe in economies of scale and the benefit of competition, the potential size of a single market is infinite and must be Europe’s foundation. This isn’t an ideological starting point – it’s a practical one.

This single market should also include areas like services and energy – hugely benefiting from an expanded trading place – and free movement of workers, which represents surprisingly effective allocation of human capital. But in order for it to stand politically, free movement cannot involve mutual and unrestricted access to welfare systems that differ wildly (from the needs-based model in the UK to the contributory systems found elsewhere in the EU).

Pollution doesn’t stop at borders, but micromanaging the precise energy mix of vastly different economies – from coal-dependent Poland to the renewables-abundant Denmark – is a recipe for prohibitively expensive one-size-fits-all policies. Similarly, labour market rules – the result of centuries of national democratic discourse – should not be set in Brussels. Given the sensitivity, foreign policy and fighting cross-border crime are best achieved through deals between national governments rather than outsourced to EU bureaucrats or judges.

A common currency and budget simply aren’t conducive to large clubs.  Yes, homogenous countries can benefit from sharing a currency – it can reduce costs for exporters, for example. However, the euro locked vastly different countries, cultures and economic structures into one monetary system, under a single interest rate, forever binding together the problems of all its members, debtor or creditor, large or small. The result: a sluggish economic block and a huge amount of political resentment on all sides. We would not repeat this mistake if we were to start from scratch.

Equally, the EU budget is completely irrational. Some 40 per cent of it is spent on a sector that accounts for 1.5 per cent of the EU economy: farming. Or rather, it’s spent on subsidising land owners, irrespective of what they actually do with their land, actively destroying jobs and growth. Another large chunk is spent on recycling regeneration cash amongst the richest member states, so Stockholm, London, Helsinki and Paris effectively send each other money via Brussels, for regional policies they could pay for themselves.

A much better option would be for countries to cluster together to pursue research and development projects not possible if acting individually – like the nuclear research conducted at CERN. If Europe should have a common pot of money, it should be an R&D budget. So we would redefine the EU as the single market, not a political or currency union. In place of “ever-closer union” across the board, countries could group together in currency, tax, fishing, defence or passport unions – but none of this would be compulsory.

What about democracy? The European Parliament could have a role, but as last week’s European elections showed, MEPs have failed to capture the imagination of voters. Across the EU average turnout in national elections is around the 70 per cent mark – compared to 43 per cent in last week’s poll. The answer is simple, national parliaments should be the ultimate democratic check on common decisions in Europe. Far from leading to deadlock, decisions made with greater domestic support and legitimacy have a greater chance of standing the test of time.

This blueprint would establish a strong link between voters and politicians. It would allow Britain to feel at home in Europe. Norway and Switzerland – and even Turkey and Ukraine – could eventually join, creating an even more dynamic market at the heart of Europe. We would have built a construction that could withstand even the greatest of earthquakes. 

A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

£850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

£100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn