Anniversary theme 2014: The EU should be strengthened, not weakened
Summary History has been galloping ahead over the last 25 years. Who can remember the moving pictures from the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989? Since then, reforms of the European cooperation have moved at such a pace that many have found it difficult to digest the news along the way. The EU has gone from having only 12 member states, when Jacques Delors was the President of the European Commission, to 28 member states today.
By Bjarke Møller, Director of Think Tank EUROPA
Europe has become united, whereas it was once divided between Soviet communism and capitalism. We gained freedom, democratisation and expanded markets, where before there was oppression, fear and a nuclear balance of terror of hysterical proportions. My generation, which was born during the Cold War in the 1960s and grew up during the deep international crises of the 1970s, has good reason to be proud and thankful for everything we have achieved in Europe.
Before we displace history and forget the results the EU’s Eastern enlargement paved the way for 10 years ago, it is high time that we tell each other what we have achieved together. In Denmark, many people complain that other European citizens living in Denmark – thanks to the internal market’s freedom of movement and anti-discrimination laws – have access to the Danish welfare system. Instead, we should be talking more about Denmark’s export of goods worth 222 billion kroner to Eastern and Central European countries over the last 10 years, as new calculations from Think Tank EUROPA show.
We’re getting richer together
The debate on family allowances and so-called welfare tourism has been blown way out of proportion, and there is even talk of extra expenses, which so far have only been calculated in millions. But the benefits of the Eastern enlargement can be counted in the billions. At the same time, the raw figures show that trading with the east is a profitable business. So why do people still complain when figures calculated by the Confederation of Danish Employers (DA) have shown that the Danes are actually receiving more money from the state during their lifespans than they pay in taxes. In the coming years Denmark will be in need of more foreign workers to compensate for the increasing number of retirees in the country. Rather than seeing workers from other EU countries as a threat, we ought to see them as a gift. A large-scale analysis conducted by Think Tank EUROPA shows that migrant EU citizens do not claim more welfare benefits than Danes do. They behave just the same as the Danes in this respect.
So instead of complaining about minor problems and conflicts that may arise, we should tell a new, positive story both in Denmark and the rest of the EU. We still need each other. We can help each other become richer and more competent. And it is much better to live in a Europe where we can cooperate and find solutions to the major challenges we share, such as climate change and economic challenges brought about by global competition. It is much better than living in a Europe where nation states are at war with each other and where their citizens are suspicious of citizens of other EU countries. Rather than forgetting history, we should revive the memory of the progress we have made together.
A dream of civilisation
Today we can travel freely across borders and we can communicate through the Internet or a mobile phone for free or without going broke. We can also get mutual recognition of our tertiary qualifications in the EU, take courses in other EU countries and young people can benefit from the Erasmus programme. We have much higher environmental standards thanks to the EU, and our wealth has grown many times over through the profits we have gained from trading in the internal market.
It is no wonder, then, that young generations of Ukrainians have demonstrated in the Maidan Square for their country to join the EU, so they can break free from Putin and authoritarian Russia’s powerful grip of the east. They see the EU and its many common regulations and standards as a step towards civilisation and an opportunity for protection against the corruption and nepotism that generations of rulers have suffered in their own country.
Many in Denmark and prosperous Western Europe seem to have forgotten the significant economic and political progress we have made by working across European borders. The EU has helped countries prosper in the east, west, north and south, and it has helped the continent become much more secure. We have made measurable progress that previous generations who suffered under nationalist wars and economic protectionism would have envied. Rather than being proud of our achievements and supporting closer cooperation in the EU, we are witnessing an increasing proportion of the population choosing to vote for EU-sceptic parties and opposition parties. Of course, there are many things in the EU that could be improved and changed, just as the Danish society also has many problems and challenges that call for reforms. But turning the EU into a scapegoat for the crisis and other problems represents a gigantic distortion of reality.
Dangerous distortion of reality
There are neo-nationalist parties on both the extreme right- and left-wings of the Danish political system who are trying to convince the public that the EU undermines the Danish welfare state and that it is bureaucratic and paternalistic. But this is not true. The EU has not undermined the Danish welfare system. On the contrary: over the last 25 years the Danish welfare state has grown and welfare expenditures have reached historic highs, whilst the internal market has been liberalised in a number of ways. In reality, we have had the opportunity to expand our welfare state because, roughly speaking, we have earned billions on cheap North Sea oil and because of the internal market has increased our prosperity. The EU is not an obstacle, but an important prerequisite for the prosperity we enjoy in Denmark.
Similarly, it is a myth that the EU is bureaucratic. Yes, the EU’s directives can be difficult for the average citizen to understand, but they are laws that are passed by the Danish Parliament as well. Complexity is a basic condition of modern society that we cannot avoid. But the EU is not a bureaucratic monster, as EU-sceptics claim. Public expenditure in Denmark is equivalent to about half of its gross domestic product (GDP), while the EU budget only comprises a little over one percent of the member countries’ GDP. There is far more bureaucracy and government control in Denmark than there has ever been in the EU. Of course, the EU has a significant impact on our society, because many Danish laws are also influenced by collaborative decisions made by the member states’ governments and the European Parliament. However, it is a myth to claim that the EU is especially bureaucratic.
The need for a new narrative
The European Union is at a crossroads. The growing popular scepticism in a number of member countries is a challenge to their cooperation. This criticism should be put towards something positive. The EU craves a renewal and radical reforms that can restore confidence in the European institutions and the value of the EU cooperation. Without stronger political leadership and a democratic renaissance at the heart of the EU, there is a risk that cooperation will wind up in a vicious circle of growing popular scepticism and rising technocracy, which mutually reinforce each other. We must take another path and modernise the EU instead. This demands a stronger political will to invest in creating more jobs, a world-class digital fibre infrastructure, better transport systems, a smart grid network in a new European energy union and a faster green transformation that can solve some of the climate challenges we face.
Instead of going backwards for fear of retribution, it is high time that the EU and its political leaders communicate a new, positive and optimistic vision of what we can achieve together. This can be done by strengthening the cooperation rather than fighting and being suspicious of others who live across our borders.
As we are facing a new wave of authoritarianism and geopolitical expansionism in Putin’s Russia, it would be dangerous and foolish to weaken the EU. We need to strengthen the EU – and if Europe is to succeed in competing globally with the United States and China, we must work much more closely in the EU and invest in infrastructure and businesses that will create jobs and growth on the European continent. The neo-nationalists who are trying to convince voters that the EU should be weakened and cut down to size are making a grave mistake. It would be a bitter and costly venture to walk down that path. That is the harsh reality of the situation.