Why the European Union is Stronger Than You Think

Miguel Laborda Pemán

6 mins - 7 de Noviembre de 2023, 12:00

A few weeks ago, Boris Cyrulnik, the French neuropsychiatrist who popularised the idea of resilience, acknowledged his frustration with the European situation. Witnessing how the collapse of Europe had thrown his own family into extermination camps, he openly expressed his astonishment. A lifetime of teaching his patients how to get back on their feet after biographical vicissitudes, to confirm that, as a community, we Europeans still face similar ghosts to those of a century ago. But is this really the case? And do we Europeans have reason to abandon ourselves to melancholy? Does Europe offer us a space for learning, adaptation, and hope?

We know what enables societies to learn from their experience and adapt to changing contexts. It can be summarised in four basic intuitions. First, diversity is important: only plural societies are able to find the best ideas in the face of new challenges. Second, it is good for a system to be divided into several components (be they communities, regions, or business areas) so that risks do not impact overall. Third, measuring results before making a decision (like a thermostat that heats or cools the room depending on the temperature) often works to achieve better results in the future. Fourth, the existence of different levels of decision-making: when those at the bottom fail or get lost, there is always someone with an overall vision capable of coordinating, helping or, if necessary, imposing their decision.

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Despite Cyrulnik’s disenchantment, the EU has shown an enormous capacity to adapt to unprecedented shocks for the new generations. Olaf Scholz himself reminded the European Parliament on 9 May 2023 of the ease with which many people underestimate the EU’s “capacity for change”. And yet, over the centuries, we Europeans have equipped ourselves with values, rules, and procedures that are very useful for remaining free and prosperous despite the growing uncertainties that surround us. What is the secret of this permanent adaptation?

We are a diverse continent. And the first attempt to unite this variety of peoples, the Roman Empire, ended up collapsing in the face of its inability to manage this diversity. It is no coincidence that first the last emperors and then Charlemagne’s successors opted to touch the ground: they divided the Empire to make it more governable. But these firewalls, while making the problem more manageable for each, ended up being detrimental to all. Without coordination, the resulting states, accelerating their divergence as if they were species evolving in different ecological niches, were locked in mutually destructive competition. Only after sowing death and ruin across the continent on countless occasions did European elites decide to sit down and talk.

This concert of nations was a big step towards Europe’s survival. But it was not enough. We were beginning to win the peace, but we still lacked progress. The advent of democracy solved that limitation. With it, states were able to exploit for the benefit of all the thriving diversity that the wars of religion had accentuated. For the truth is that, in addition to being just, democracy is, above all, useful: it allows those who face challenges in their daily lives to transmit their proposals for solutions to those who design public policies. By loosening the grip on innovation and facilitating the circulation of new ideas, democracy acts as the thermostat of our societies.

As we know it today, the EU is one of the most finished products of what we call a resilient system. In its most elementary characteristics, it bears many resemblances to an anthill or a neural network, which are flexible enough to adapt without breaking down to unexpected challenges. At its core are states, which, despite the bad reputation of borders, delimit public conversation, facilitate social cohesion, and reduce the risks of contagion. Above them, a mechanism of cooperation that makes it possible to manage interdependence more effectively than the old concert of nations. And below them, the citizens, who, in all their diversity, ensure through the democratic process that policymaking takes account of their problems and their solutions. It doesn’t sound bad, really.

In addition to a fresh perspective on our history, understanding Europe as a resilient system also provides us with some keys to remain free and prosperous. If Hungary or the rise of the populist right are a threat to the European project, it is not only because they threaten fundamental European values. It is above all because they threaten to reduce the diversity needed to meet the challenges ahead. If we know that a collective in which diverse visions coexist tends to make better decisions than a collective made up of only the best (the wisdom of crowds), a Europe without Hungarians or a Poland with a muzzled LGTBI collective would be less able to face the future. These are unfair ideas, but they are above all useless.

There are other, more subtle risks to remain alert to. The pandemic and growing geopolitical rivalry have reinforced the role of central coordination. The state is back, whether in the form of activist industrial policy or interventionism in energy markets. The increasing use of regulations, directly enforced in member states, is a clear symptom of a drive for uniformity that weakens the innovative capacity of the lower levels. The revolution in mass data collection and processing calls into question the role of democracy as a social thermostat: why call for a vote if bureaucrats can ask ChatGPT?

This is not to indulge in misguided populist rhetoric but to focus on the lessons of our history: diversity of national perspectives and a difficult balance between technocracy and democracy have been central to Europe’s best experience of peace and prosperity. A good understanding of Europe’s capacity to reinvent itself should alert us to inertia and short-sighted euphoria.

The coming decades will test Europe’s ability to remain an area of peace and prosperity. The invasion of Ukraine is only a stark beginning. In a global context where considerations of efficiency are giving way to those of power, we must ensure that the Union has all the tools it needs to remain what it is. The European experience of the last seventy years provides us with a handful of basic insights into what enables institutions to adapt and continue to fulfil their role, just as the overwhelming evidence of the remaining centuries shows us what happens when one of these ingredients is missing. It will be those insights that will save us from the threats lurking out there as much as from ourselves. 
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