The time to debate the very future of Europe is now and only a long-term perspective will restore the confidence that is needed to overcome the crisis – says think-tank
It appears that Europe has forgotten former United States President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's insight that "out of every crisis, every tribulation, every disaster, mankind rises with some share of greater knowledge, of higher decency, of purer purpose". Today, as they head off to yet another 'crucial' European Union summit under inauspicious circumstances, the continent's leaders should embrace the fact that they have gone further than ever toward the very purpose of their unity. Europe is not on the verge of collapse. Far from it. On the contrary, leaders should seize this opportunity to consecrate a principle of continuity of the union. If only Europeans had an FDR to tell them that "this is no time for fear, for reaction, or for timidity".
While many see a possible change in the EU's mandate or its composition as a catastrophe or failure, it should also be seen as a sign of a common willingness to adapt and evolve. There are no valid reasons for Europe to be set in stone. Despite the uncertainties, difficulties and tensions between its member states - Europe is maturing into a stronger union. While the EU as we know it may disappear, it was the enthusiasm for a Europe we never knew that drove integration this far. There should be room to tolerate mistakes and misguidance in one of the most ambitious political and economic projects in history.
There are many ideas on the table for the summit. Between the European Commission's project for a banking union, the report of the four presidents on a genuine economic and monetary union and the compact for growth and jobs; there is plenty of room for negotiation and compromise. France has already conceded that a mutualisation of debts will take several years to achieve and will demand stronger political integration.
Nonetheless, lost amid the technicalities is the most crucial debate - for deeper political integration requires a clear vision and a grand strategy for Europe. And 10 European foreign ministers might argue that the time for a debate on the future of Europe is now, and that only a long-term perspective will restore the confidence that is needed to overcome the debt crisis. But a growing aversion to risk and a fear of failure are hampering any visionary action. And as long as decision-makers fail to believe in the immense opportunities that lie ahead, neither will their people.
As the last few weeks have shown, popular pressure and democratic consent can no longer be ignored. In the same way that market pressures are pushing member states to reconsider their priorities, national elections and partisan demonstrations are redefining democratic accountability. These new red lines are also paving the way toward more ownership and representativeness. Whatever the outcomes of the crisis are for the EU institutions, it will have shown how indispensable innovative accountability processes have become for strengthening and deepening integration.
Being united in diversity also means that an economic loss is often a political gain and that a political loss is often an economic gain. Indeed, only a political decision will resolve the economic woes. It nonetheless remains to be seen if greater political unity should be a prerequisite to sustainable economic recovery. Decision-makers have to avoid a chicken and egg dilemma: what comes first between political, economic, monetary, banking and fiscal union? As difficult as it might be, negotiating all aspects of unity in a single package could constitute a vital step forward, provided that everyone commits to the overwhelming but necessary process of a treaty change.
It is undeniable that a grand vision will not resolve all of Europe's many pressing problems - short-term measures are needed to stabilise the situation - but one is nonetheless required to re-evaluate the relationship between member states and European institutions, to reform the very structure of European economies and to preserve existing social models. Although a roadmap may be agreed upon in the near future, it will prove useless without a clear direction, one that only the continent's leaders can provide.
The union's success so far has relied upon the resilience of the European people, the courage of its leaders and the dedication of its institutions. It is also based upon its specific understanding of sovereignty and democracy. The hardships of today are a clear indication that the EU's current structure and mandate are no longer sufficient for it to advance. While a lot may change, the union will continue to exist. Perhaps there is not that much to fear after all.Guillaume Xavier-Bender is a programme associate at the German Marshall Fund of the United States think-tank, which first published this article as part of the Transatlantic Take series