Letters to Family & Friends: Europe tomorrow

« Lettres à mes proches : l'Europe demain », la version en français se trouve ici.
« Briefe an meine Freunde – Das Europa von morgen », die deutsche Version finden Sie hier.


Letters to family & friends: Europe tomorrow


Letters 1 to 5 by Jean-Jacques Subrenat, Roland Stalder & Daniel Marthaler 1

1/ Might Donald Trump be right?

2/ « Dover and out! », a case of amnesia

3/ On balance, is the EU a success or a failure?

4/ The EU in a global context

5/ Some future challenges for the EU

Letter 6 by Roland Stalder & Daniel Marthaler

6/ Switzerland and the European Union, such close neighbours!

1/ Might Donald Trump be right?
15 May 2017
In our conversations over a shared meal or during a walk, we’ve touched upon Europe and the European Union (EU). We’ve wondered where current trends might be leading: can our institutions survive their wear and tear, is the social fabric solid enough to avoid being torn asunder? Might Donald Trump be right in proclaiming that Brexit is the beginning of the end of the EU?
If you agree, this letter may be one way of pursuing our conversation, hopefully with some food for thought.
As the inhabitants of an imperfect but generally well-functioning Western world, we see that our societies have entered an era of instability and doubt: instability of our institutions and doubt about the values upon which they are built. In the United Kingdom, the Brexit referendum was a brutal reminder that biased information can carry consequences for many generations. In the United States, day after day, the Trump presidency is a living example of how false or incomplete news can skew the normal course of democracy.
Since the end of World War 2, and at least as far as our generation is concerned, the systematic manipulation of information was the hallmark of Stalin’s Soviet Union, of Mao’s China, of North Korea down the Kim lineage, a distinctive feature of theocracies and dictatorships. But we must face up to today’s reality: the weapon of disinformation is no longer used by dictators alone. Now, in a variety of other countries, infotainment (information + entertainment) has made inroads into mainstream media and is relayed on social media. All this has fudged the borderline between verifiable facts and propaganda, between responsible journalism and the metastatic cancer of rumours. And thus the general public is fed with a hodge-podge mixture of meaningless titbits and irrelevant news.
Is this going too far? Unfortunately not: for decades Murdoch’s media empire has done more than most in disinforming the British public about the purpose of the EU and how it really works. In the United States, the Breitbart group, whose former Editor is now the chief strategist of President Trump, has long propagated racial and religious supremacist theories which, in a healthy democracy, are normally kept in the margins. What can we make of Russia where civil liberties are trampled upon and where politically motivated assassination sometimes replaces public debate? What about Turkey where thousands of journalists and civil servants were recently fired and even jailed? What about Indonesia where a non-Muslim candidate to be Mayor of Jakarta has just been sentenced to two years in prison on the grounds of « blasphemy », simply because he reminded the public that the law does not make it an obligation for Muslims to vote only in favour of Muslim candidates?
Today, in the name of security, some democratic countries are resorting to the methods for which they criticized dictatorships, such as mass surveillance without adequate parliamentary oversight and judiciary control, the curtailment of civil rights, or the extension of censorship and the spread of self-censorship. In the long run, this perilous convergence can jeopardize our democratic institutions while, at the same time, abetting authoritarian régimes.
But then, how can one determine if « Europe » is to be blamed, or whether some of today’s problems are due to world-wide trends? In the UK, the initiators of Brexit seem to have persuaded a majority of Britons that the EU is just a set of market rules, that EU institutions have confiscated British sovereignty, that London in under the heel of Brussels without the right to react. The Murdoch media outlets have long portrayed the European Commission as spending its time forcing farmers to produce square tomatoes, or bent on killing off the pharmaceutical industry by favouring generic drugs from India. Fed with such fairy tales, a sizable chunk of British public opinion blames Brussels for the disindustrialization of England, the growth of unemployment, the fall in purchasing power and a spate of problems linked to immigration. It might be useful to recall that, since its entry in 1973 into the European Economic Community (now the EU), the British government has taken part in every joint decision which had any effect on the United Kingdom.
This is one of the tragic facts of our time: constantly assailed by a jumble of data, yet ill-informed, ordinary citizens are easily convinced that the travails of their country can be attributed to the European project, and tend to ignore the fact that many of these difficulties have other causes, some at a global level. Especially for the younger generation, it is worth recalling the motivation behind the European project and the EU as we know it today.
Citizens are eager to hold their lives in their own hands. Thus Britons, but also the Swiss, refuse to let foreign judges set the law in their country2. Nationalism has become the ultimate safe investment. Populism sets forth apparently simple solutions for global and national problems which are very complex. Populists, while prochaiming that « the people should have the last word », tend to gloss over the fact that, in a democracy, decisions are always made by a majority.
As members of Collegium60plus, a not-for-profit association in Bern (Switzerland), we are keen to understand the realities behind the headlines in printed, televised or electronic news. We thought it might be useful to place current European issues in perspective, for the benefit of those close to us, whatever generation they belong to.
The next Letters in this series will touch upon various aspects of Europe today, provide a balance sheet of the EU project thus far, and identify future trends and challenges. Finally, Letter 6 will discuss relations between Switzerland and the EU. Letter 2 will try to answer the question: Is the EU utopian? « Give me my money back! ».


2/ « Dover and out!2« , a case of amnesia

18 May 2017

On the 29th of March 2017, the European Council received a letter from Prime Minister Teresa May, announcing the intention of the United Kingdom to leave the EU3. Starting on that day, negociations between London and Brussels must be terminated within two years. For those who promoted Brexit, this is a logical move following on Margaret Thatcher’s call to her European partners in 1979, « I want my money back! »4. Thus, 38 years later, a majority of British public opinion was persuaded, once again, that the EU is mostly about money, and was convinced that some European conspiracy had deprived the UK of its sovereignty. Historical facts do not support such a simplistic view.

In the minds of the main architects of the European project (or « construction européenne » as it is known in French) – Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer, Alcide de Gasperi and some others – the chief purpose was to rebuild a devastated European continent, but also to avoid new wars. Monnet was convinced that the best way to consolidate peace was to forge a practical solidarity among nations, so he put forward a plan for a Coal and Steel Community, a first iteration of what was to become the EU. Winston Churchill made a similar plea in 1946: « We must build a kind of United States of Europe.(…) I am now going to say something that will astonish you. The first step in the re-creation of the European Family must be a partnership between France and Germany. »5.

As is clear from the above, the EU was established because there was a will to build a new Europe from its ruins, to create a sense of solidarity among European nations in order to preserve peace. France and the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), which were both acutely aware of their responsibility in this respect, launched a partnership which, even today, remains a pillar of « la construction européenne ».

There is a less well-known fact: it was first to the British authorities that Monnet presented the idea of a comprehensive partnership. In 1939, shortly after a military alliance was concluded between Germany and Italy, Monnet drafted a plan to merge the military industries of France and the UK. This plan won the approval of both De Gaulle and Churchill, who then appointed Monnet as their envoy to President Roosevelt in order to coordinate the supply of US military equipment for the war effort in Europe against Nazi Germany. In 1943, at the height of World War 2, Monnet was already busy on a new European project: « There will be no peace in Europe if the states rebuild themselves on the basis of national sovereignty, with its implications of prestige politics and economic protection…. The countries of Europe are not strong enough individually to be able to guarantee prosperity and social development for their peoples. The States of Europe must therefore form a federation or a European entity that would bind them in a common economic unit. »6.

After the war, Monnet further developed his idea: in March 1949, he submitted a plan to the Finance ministers of Great Britain and France, calling for the merger of what were then the two main economic powers in Europe. At the end of 1949, partly because of serious political and monetary instability in Paris, London finally gave a negative response to his proposal7.

The failure of the French and British project was the starting point of an even more ambitious plan for a European community, which Monnet shared with Robert Schuman, French minister of foreign affairs. Together, Schuman and Monnet approached the German leadership with the “Schuman Plan”, which was accepted. On the 9th of May 1950, in front of many European leaders gathered in the Salon de l’horloge of the Foreign Ministry in Paris, Schuman made this statement: « Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity. The coming together of the nations of Europe requires the elimination of the age-old opposition between France and Germany. » 8.

The next stages are well known9. In 1957, the six founding members signed the Treaty of Rome establishing the European Economic Community (EEC) with the aim of gradually reducing tariff barriers, setting up a customs’ union, and creating a single market for goods, labour, services and capital. To manage this vast programme, the Six established the European Commission; they also set up Common Policies for agriculture and transport. And in the ensuing years, steps were taken to strengthen the new European construct by facilitating exchanges between Member States and by harmonizing the main areas of economic activity.

Early on in the process, some had a federalist ambition for the European project, while others were keen for it to remain a common market. In itself, this wide difference of purpose sheds some light on the sinuous path followed from yesterday’s EEC to today’s EU. Already in the late 19th century Jacob Christoph Burckhardt, a Swiss intellectual, warned against the dangers of uniformity on the continent: « We must preserve Europe from the danger of a political, religious and social unity which would threathen its special character and the wealth of its spirit. »10.

A major step was taken in 1973 when the Six welcomed Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom. President De Gaulle had twice blocked the entry of the UK, and he is said to have kept in mind a remark by Churchill during the war, « If England has to choose between Europe and the high seas, she will always choose the high seas. » 11. However, in 1972 president Pompidou accepted the conditions laid down by the British prime minister, Edward Heath. One can understand why, at the time, the industrial, monetary, financial and military might of the UK made it a very attractive European partner in the eyes of Paris. We must remember that during the Cold War, one of the challenges for the EEC was to distance itself from the two large blocs, controlled respectively by Moscow and Washington. But as the Brexit campaign in 2016 made unmistakably clear, London has always tended to view the European project not as a comprehensive plan, but as a mere common market. London has long set its strategic and long-term sights on the « special relationship » with Washington, and relied entirely on NATO for collective security and joint defence.

Later steps showed how European leaders kept hesitating between consolidating the European project (improving joint institutions and procedures), and enlarging its membership (admitting new member states). For decades, Washington, with the assiduous help of London and Ankara, called upon the EU to enlarge its membership, in order to rein in this growing econmic competitor, but also to impede a European defence setup viewed as a threat to the Atlantic Alliance in which the USA are, de facto, the true leaders.

There were times when some European capitals had their own reasons to pursue enlargement, or even to accelerate its pace: in the late 20th century, this was especially the case for Germany, which was keen to have friendly neighbours in the uncertain environment brought about by the implosion of the Soviet Union. For a just recently re-unified Germany, there was a real need for a stable neighbourhood in the Baltic area and in the Balkans. Other EU members were aware that an accelerated enlargement would deepen the differences in the EU in a number of areas, regarding the solidity of their democratic institutions, the independence of their judiciary, their financial and budget ressources, the effectiveness of their security and defence systems… While all this was happening, most new EU members states were also keen to join the European Monetary System and the Euro zone. The sheer variety of situations among aspiring and new member states threatened to jeopardize the cohesiveness of the EU, which today still has to face the consequences of enlargement having preceeded consolidation. The monetary, financial, economic and social crisis in Greece is a striking example of this. Another example is the large migration from Bulgaria towards more prosperous countries in the EU.

Beginning in the early 21st century, the EU, kept busy with its enlargement and having to deal with all sorts of crises, has paid less attention to other, equally important aspects of the European project, which remain largely unattended to: the key role of culture as the foundation of democracy, the importance of education and vocational training, a long-term plan for European defence and security, fiscal harmonisation, the portability of professional competence and of social security benefits, harmonisation of border controls, harmonisation of immigration rules… These are some of the subjects the EU will have to address in the near future. The EU will also have to take its fair share in global issues: a possible new isolationist mood in the USA; the rising power of China, India, Turkey, Brazil, Indonesia; new alliances sought or concluded by Russia; the growth of Asymetric warfare12  characterized by blind violence wrought in the name of religious beliefs; the massive regression of human rights; the continued persecution of women; lack of education for the young; the need to arrive at a global management of essential resources such as fresh water; the duty to pursue the control of ABC (Atomic, Biological, Chemical) Arms of Mass Destruction; implementing the resolutions of COP-21 in order to avoid climate and ecological catastrophes.

The European project is grounded in the past: its original purpose was to rebuild devastated countries and to avoid the recurrence of war. But what does the balance sheet of its actions look like? That’s what the next Letter will examine.


3/ On balance, is the EU a success or a failure?

28 May 2017

The Treaty of Rome was signed sixty years ago. Results can only be assessed by comparing them with the initial targets. And whatever the outcome, the responsibility of the EU as a result of what it did or failed to do must be separated from the effects of broader, sometimes global forces.

The EU has come under fire from the media on a number of counts including, among other things: Member States being deprived of their national sovereignty, the increased cost of living since the introduction of the Euro, a worsening security situation due to the massive inflow of refugees, rising crime rates… Part of public opinion seems to overlook the fact that no decision is made in Brussels without the assent of the EU Member States (by unanimous or majority decision, depending on the subject) and tends to forget that no EU directive is applicable in any Member country without being transcribed into that country’s domestic law.

That being said, criticism is nevertheless justified in a number of instances. Over the decades, EU institutions have piled up an unbelievable amount of regulations covering vast areas of public policy, and it’s hard to say whether this accumulation was due to administrative routine or to complacency on the part of national representatives staying too long in Brussels. The principle of subsidiarity13, according to which a matter must first be dealt with at the level closest to the citizen and user, has not always been enforced. Many member countries want national regulations to apply to a larger number of products (e.g. snuff or « snus » in Sweden), and to some traditional food (e.g. fermented products).

The media often focus on what they see as a lack of consideration for « the will of the people ». In the case of France, the referendum held in 2005 rejected the draft EU Constitutional Treaty. The referendum in the Netherlands produced the same result. It is a fact that by adopting the Treaty of Lisbon in 2007, Member States accepted a number of articles which had been rejected in the 2005 draft14. Just as a reminder, a national referendum can only be organized by the government of that country, and the EU as such plays absolutely no part in the process. So it is unjustified and unfair to blame the EU for a national referendum, whatever the outcome may be.

Many governments have used the rallying cry « it’s Brussels’ fault » to try and explain national failures such as weakened competitiviy, declining industry, rising unemployment, decreased purchasing power, social disruption, malaise and violence. In the case of the United Kingdom, propaganda of this type has long been peddled by the Murdoch media group whose founder holds passports from Australia and the USA, but not from the UK. The same arguments are extensively used in France by « Front national » and « France insoumise », in Austria by the « Österreichische Volkspartei », and in Great Britain by UKIP and some Conservatives, to mention but a few.

And then, along came a US President who encouraged EU Member States to « follow the example of Brexit »! Jokingly, the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, declared that henceforth he would promote the secession of Ohio and Texas. Juncker is quite right: in the face of such gross interference from the other side of the Atlantic, humor is the best policy.

Criticism is quite justified in other areas as well, for instance regarding the insufficiently coordinated policy and implementation of migration in the EU. Some member countries proclaimed their willingness to take in migrants and refugees, but failed to check that the transit countries (say Bulgaria in or Turkey outside the EU) could bear the social strain and indeed had adequate infrastructure to withstand such massive flows. Such a poorly coordinated policy and the lack of means to tackle the problem have placed a disproportionate burden on some countries (Italy, Greece, Balkan countries, Turkey) in terms of intake capacity, social tension and budget expenditure. In addition, the lack of adequate and coordinated controls on the borders of the EU has heightened the risk of potential terrorists entering the Member States.

The humanitarian crises in Lampedusa, Rhodes, Calais and elsewhere have underlined the need for a thorough review of the Schengen Accords, not by putting in question the principles upon which they rest, but by making the whole system more efficient and sustainable in the long run. This cannot be acheived without a clearly defined joint migration policy and the means to fully carry out its tasks.

There have been many recommendations regarding the future of the EU, ranging from fairly simple corrective measures (e.g. simplifying rules in agriculture) to much more comprehensive reform (revision of the Treaties, new allocation of responsibilities between Member States and EU institutions). But for such an ambitious reform to succeed, Member States must stop blaming EU institutions for the results of national policies, or for joint policy being poorly implemented at a country level. One thing is now quite clear: there is no way the European project can be acheived against public opinion.

In this day and age, success or failure are often assessed in numbers. So here are a few numbers: the EU accounts for about 7% of world population, around 22% of global PIB or 17% in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) terms. In world trade, the EU accounts for 15% of all products and 16% of all services (2014 figures15). Established in 1999, the Euro monetary system and common currency is now the second denomination for transactions throughout the world, behind the US Dollar and ahead of the Chinese Yuan. And since October 2006, Euro banknotes and coins represent the largest currency in circulation in the world.

Sixty years after the Treaty of Rome was signed, the EU can also be judged without numbers. The fact that there has been no armed conflict among member countries is an important result, even though this may seem quite normal to the younger generations. But we need to remain vigilant: shortly after the UK Prime Minister sent a divorce letter to the EU, tension flared up between London and Madrid, with the UK Secretary for Defence warning Spain that tampering with the status of Gibraltar would lead to military retaliation16.

Over the past few decades, many regional cooperation or coordination projects across the world have specifically taken the European Union as their model: Mercosur in Latin America17, Caricom in the Caribbean18, African Union in Africa19, ASEAN in South-East Asiat20, and even the Eurasian Union steered by Russia21. As Jeremy Rifkin pointed out in 2004 in « The European Dream22», a number of emerging or newly independent States found inspiration in the EU to chart their own efforts, for legislative, social, economic and monetary modernisation. According to Rifkin, the European model had a wider influence that the United States as a model for innovative public policies.

We live in an era when countries and regions cannot exist in isolation. The success of the EU and its Members States depends, to a large degree, on their intereaction with the rest of the world: this will be discussed in Letter 4.


4/ The EU in a global context

30 May 2017

All manner of commentators have described the 19th as the European Century and the 20th as the American Century. Now the prediction is that the 21st will be the Asian and Pacific Century. But if current trends are any indication, we cannot be sure that the distinctions which developed after World War 2 will remain valid throughout the 21st century. The ideological divide between East and West, the irreconcilable antagonism of Communism and Capitalism, the contrast between emerging countries and « Old Europe23 », none of these render an accurate account of today’s complex world. Just to take one example, China is now the second-largest capitalist country – admittedly with its own characteristics – while still being ruled by the most powerful single-party system on the planet. The central authority in China holds the world’s largest foreign exchange reserves, and the country has a large number of ultra-wealthy citizens, while tens of millions people still live at subsistence levels.

In a world so prone to change, how do other regions see Europe, and how can the European Union (EU) be defined on a global scale?

In 1970 Henry Kissinger asked condescendingly « Europe? What telephone number should I call? »24. He was partly right, as the then EEC lacked visibility. But today, the same question could be put to Washington: would it be more advisable to call President Trump himself, or his chief strategist Steve Bannon, or his chief advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner? Condescension has never been a great tool for diplomacy, as someone like Lawrence Summers discovered: in 1999, when he was Chairman of the Federal Reserve, and just a few months before the the Euro currency was officially launched, he made this prediction: « the Euro may never be implemented »25.

If the United States were to enter a new phase of isolationism, their decision would have global consequences. In less than 3 months, President Trump has jeopardized the long-standing trust in the United States, and its Allies are no longer confident of its commitment to the Atlantic Alliance. Brexit will also come with a range of consequences: while the government in London is busy wooing Washington back into their Special Relationship, it is making known that it might withdraw from European security and defence to concentrate on NATO. It is no wonder then that France, Germany, Italy and Spain are keen to reinforce the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP), and are calling for a permanent European command centre which would coordinate national armed forces in joint operations26.

The Trump Presidency is also affecting the global economy. After exercising its leadership over many decades, Washington is calling into question some major international trade arrangements, so China is now free to present itself as the new champion and protector of free trade. By calling into question the Paris Agreement on Climate27 (COP21), the US President has jeopardized years of negotiations and is leaving environment protection to other countries (China, India, but also Europeans), because Washington now considers itself freed from any obligation in this respect, at least temporarily.

Europe will remain highly dependent on other parts of the world in many ways: raw materials, energy, investments, markets. It is true that trade among its Member States accounts for 62% of all EU trade, against 38% with the rest of the world (2015 figures), but many factors could bring about rapid and deep change: in several EU Member States the population is ageing, mass unemployment is taking its toll on social cohesiveness, urban and suburban unrest begets violence, the agricultural sector is going through difficult times, and lifestyles are undergoing rapid change.

Among world and/or regional powers, Russia remains an important partner for the EU as a prime supplier of gas and as an important market, but at the same time it is a competitor, both commercially and in wielding influence in Europe and beyond. Moscow is continually trying to drive a wedge between EU Member States by dealing with each separately. China does the same, and for the same reasons. And when national leaders (from France, the UK, Germany, Italy, etc.) visit China or Russia, quite naturally they promote the national interest first and foremost. India’s approach is less ideologically motivated than that of Russia or China, but Delhi, now highly conscious of its growing stature in the world economy, has matter-of-fact relations with European nations. Other important partners around the world do not, or not yet, view their relations with the EU as a power game, but this could change quite rapidly with the quickening pace of global competition for ressources and markets.

Arguably, the EU is better prepared than most regions to face some of today’s global challenges. Through its successive enlargements, the EU has become very aware of the importance of economic harmony among Member States, using its Structural Funds to facilitate intra-EU cohesiveness. When visitors from other parts of the world come to EU countries, they are struck by the signboards where EU funding in the construction of a bridge or road, a science laboratory or a vocational school is clearly spelled out. Above all else, we need to remind ourselves that in today’s world, the EU is the single largest entity made up of truly independent and democratic States, each with its institutions, its language(s), its cultural references, its traditions.

Roughly sketched, this is a portrait of the EU in the world context. The next Letter will address some of the challenges facing the EU as a global actor.


5/ Some future challenges for the EU

02 July 2017

My previous Letters mentioned the circumstances that led to the European project, made a brief assessment of what the European Union (EU) has achieved or failed to do, and briefly described the place of the EU in the world today. This letter will spell out some of the future challenges for the EU and its Member States.

Let’s start with demographics. In 2016, the population of the EU Members States was 510 million 28, behind China (1375 million) and India (1331 million) but ahead of the United States (321 million) and Russia (146 million). When considering population figures in the EU, Germany comes first (82 million) and Malta last (0,4 million). Some significant trends are visible in the EU: lower birth rates, an ageing population in many countries, large migrations, deep changes in family structures 29. This evolution is already having an impact on social organization, on the economy and on the budgets of many Member States.

In the United States, it is predicted that by 2050 the majority of the population will no longer be « white ». In the EU, forecasts are pointing to equally major changes. For instance, whereas the traditional religious references in Europe were Christian (Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant) and Jewish, successive migrations have introduced or strengthened other faiths (Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Bahaist, Sikh…). At the same time, the number of agnostics and atheists is on the rise in Europe. Because of these widely different trends, one of the major challenges for Europe will be how to reconcile the current development of religious and ethnic communities with the broader need to avoid confrontation. It is by providing secular education, promoting democratic practices and a common civic sense, that peaceful co-existence among different communities can be encouraged. In a democracy, taking refuge in a narrow community can lead to isolation, while cultural diversity fosters tolerance and mutual acceptance.

There are also other threats to the European project and the values on which it is established. Some European governments have implemented their immigration policies in a rather chaotic way, giving rise to violent reactions. In the longer term, intolerance is certainly not the right solution; on the contrary, there is a need for clear principles, a community-wide policy, coordinated procedures and adequate means.

President Trump uses Twitter as an instrument of government, something that a majority of EU citizens would probably not tolerate. The growing influence of social networks, the financial difficulties faced by traditional media, such features have caused an upheaval within the Fourth Estate, whose role is recognized in democratic countries. In the US, resistance is gradually asserting itself: the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)30 has already won court cases in favour of civic rights, including against a decree of President Trump; and the Center For Inquiry (CFI 31) promotes education against obscurantism (such as Creationist indoctrination by Creationists in the US) and crimes against human dignity carried out in the name of religious beliefs (e.g. penal sentences for « blasphemy » in Pakistan). There are similar not-for-profit organizations in European countries, but they need to better coordinate their agendas and pool their ressources in order to increase their overall efficiency in the EU, and exert influence beyond.

One serious drawback is that, in several member countries, people do not identify with the EU because it is seen to favour lobbies supporting specific interests, while public statements emphasize the public interest. We may be on the cusp of an identity crisis on a European scale.

The initiators of the European project did not have a clear idea of the borders of the EEC, and later of the EU. Was the main purpose to create strong links between European States and peoples? Or was it to create a network of European democracies in an otherwise hostile environment? Was the intent to reach a critical mass in economic terms? Is the purpose of the EU to make its common market wealthier, or to achieve some degree of economic and institutional integration?

In the EU, there are different, sometimes even diametrically opposite views about this: some are in favour of a confederation, while others want a single market, nothing more. Some consider that joint security and defence are indispensable features, whereas others are adamantly against what they view as « institutional creep ».

Several times in the course of the 20th century, national referenda proved quite inaquedate in gauging the deep feelings or wishes of their citizens. In the future, there will be a need for a different form of consultation, disconnected from the short-term stakes of national politics (e.g. a presidential or parliamentary election).

In the world today, we still see so much anachronic behaviour, such backward social structures, where the status of women remains lowly; where children are still deprived of real education; where misery feeds lavishly on ignorance; where future perspectives are confiscated by corruption and favoritism. By abetting these patterns and structures, one lends credence to the impunity of dictators, who consider themselves « providential men ».

In spite of all its shortcomings, and even its failures, the European project builds on clear principles. Even though much progress still remains to be acheived among the Member States, their common institutions ensure that the rule of law is generally respected, as are also freedom of thought and speech, of religious beliefs or lack thereof, and individual rights are more prevalent in the EU than in most other places. The diverse cultures, languages and traditons are free to develop.

Union does not signify unanimity. Martin Schulz, who recently stepped down as President of the European Parliament, recognized that it could be complex: « Personally I am a staunch pro-European and yet, at the same time, I don’t necessarily agree with everything. The EU is not projecting its unity, in the face of grave dangers such as those in Ukraine or Syria, nor in the negotiations on the Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement 32 ».

The future is not written in advance; it depends on a range of attitudes and actions. Naturally, political leaders and major economic forces play a determining role, but this should not dispense us, citizens and voters, from taking an active part in the debate, each according to his/her means.

A final note: there are nations where the exercise of democracy is at least as vigorous as in the EU, or even more so, such as Switzerland, a neighbour of four EU Member States. The 6th and last Letter in this series will touch upon the future relations between the Swiss Confederation and the EU.


6/ Switzerland and the European Union, such close neighbours!

by Roland Stalder & Daniel Marthaler33

02 June 2017

In January 2015, there were 1,334,767 citizens from 28 EFTA and EU countries residing in Switzerland 34, while 472,000 Swiss citizens were residents in an EU Member State, mostly in Germany, France and Italy 35.

Before 1900 Switzerland was a source of emigration, because of high levels of unemployment and much of the agricultural sector in disarray. After 1900, thanks to industrialisation, jobs were on the rise. Even before the First World War, there were 600,000 foreigners living in Switzerland 36. Historically, immigration has always been a source of cultural and economic development for the country. The above figures for 2-way migration underline the extent to which Switzerland and the EU are inter-dependent.

The EU with its 28 Member States is by far the most important partner of Switzerland. Geographic and cultural proximity explain to a large extent the political and economic weight of the European Union in the Confederation. Two thirds of Swiss foreign trade is with the EU. In 2016, 54% of Swiss exports, valued at 113 bn CHF (billion Swiss francs) went to the EU, while 72% of Swiss imports were with the EU (CHF 124 bn). It is worth noting that the Swiss Confederation, China and the USA are the 3 top commercial partners of the EU (2015 figures) 37.

Swiss culture is European. With its cultural and linguistic diversity (French, German, Italian and Romansh are the four official languages), the Confederation is a sort of Europe in miniature. In 1992, the artist Ben created the logo « Switzerland doesn’t exist » for the Swiss pavillon in the Universal exhibition held that year in Seville: that encapsulates, in a bewildering but accurate way, the country’s cultural diversity. Immigration has made a significant contribution to the cultural diversity of the country.

Switzerland is a wealthy country in which economic and social problems are less acute than elsewhere in Europe. In 2015 its per capita GDP was 57,000€, compared with an average of 26,500€ in the EU; the unemployment rate was 4.6% against 9.4% in the EU, and youth unemployment at 8.6% compared with 20.3%.

Most Swiss are in favour of their country « remaining independent » but do not necessarily understand what that expression really means. This vague vision rests on an interpretation of their history which has always glorified the Swiss struggle for independence, without a thorough understanding of the facts. The history of Swiss dependency remains to be drafted! The National-Conservative Party (SVP), which calls for « a neutral and sovereign Switzerland », encapsulates its doctrine as follows: « We must stop the elite from undermining our sovereignty and self-determination. We must put an end to efforts aimed at the insidious integration of our country into international organizations such as the EU. The supreme aim of our foreign policy must be to reinforce liberty, self-determination, democratic rights, independence and neutrality! It is our duty to fight against constant efforts to weaken our permanent and armed neutrality! »38. These claims are quite reminiscent of anti-European positions in several EU Member countries.

The myth of an independent Switzerland is constantly highlighted, while historical facts and political reality are played down: welcome to Swiss-made Fake News! In her authoritative essai on « Switzerland, or dependency as a stroke of genius »39, Joëlle Kuntz, in analyzing the myth of her country’s sovereignty, remarks that « The world is a puzzle made up of dependency in various shapes and degrees ». And in his Preface to Kuntz’ book, Benedikt von Tscharner writes: « It is important for us Swiss to be aware of these dependencies in which we live or have lived, from which we suffer, and to which we have sometimes contributed. We should not be in denial of this knowledge, if we are to reconcile our everyday transnational behaviour with our political awareness, the national implications of which are too often obscured by self-censorship ».

For all intents and purposes, Swiss banking secrecy has in fact been discontinued, and this is just one example of how some « sovereign » decisions of Switzerland are constrained. On the 19th of March 2008, the Federal Counsellor Hans-Rudolf Merz addressed the EU in these terms: « In trying to get rid of Swiss banking secrecy, you will yet again run into a wall! »40. This opinion was not really shared elsewhere, for instance in the USA where the Department of Justice is proud to have put an end to Swiss banking secrecy. On the 11th of February, barely two years after Mr. Merz’ statement, Federal Counsellor Evelyne Widmer-Schlumpf recognized that « It is not in the interests of Switzerland to be a safe haven for tax frauders »41. As for the EU, it has now secured the automatic exchange of banking data, so that in fact Swiss banking secrecy has come to an end.

« In fact Switzerland is not and has never been independent. Rather, there is a sort of awareness of dependency, and on that basis people have developed a clever way to work around it, a negotiating routine, the obsession to maximize advantages and minimize constraints », according to Katja Gentinetta.42

In order to acheive success, the Swiss must be actively engaged in the future of their country. We must defend the principles of a liberal country that is open to the world. We need to abide by these principles in order to maintain a prosperous and socially balanced society. Let us not be lured by the little music from the National-Conservatives. It is totally misleading to believe that there are simplistic solutions for complex problems. Let’s not be lulled by infotainment: we need critical media capable of conveying real facts, analyzing them and formulating opinions.

We need to be aware of the limits to national sovereignty. We need to learn how to use and steer our dependency! Small countries are more nimble and better able to adapt to new situations 43. For Switzerland to be successful, it is not necessary to join the EU. But we can, indeed we must contribute to the well-being of the international community, not by retreating into isolation, but by actively cooperating with the world at large.

(This ends the series of 6 « Letters to Family & Friends: Europe tomorrow ».

1 Switzerland, which is not a member of the EU, stands outside the jurdisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) located in Luxembourg. In the United Kingdom, rejection of the CJEU was one of the main arguments in support of Brexit. On the CJEU, see https://europa.eu/european-union/about-eu/institutions-bodies/court-justice_fr

2To celebrate the announced between the UK and the EU, the Brisith daily The Sun, dated 29 March 2017, published a photo-montage projected on a Dover cliff, with the slogan « Dover and out! », https://ricochet.com/419385/dover-uk-tabloid-celebrates-brexit-grand-style/

4  BBC, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-11598879  .

A complete report on the Summit of Heads of State and Government of the EEC, Dublin, September 1979 : http://www.margaretthatcher.org/speeches/displaydocument.asp?docid=104180

5  Speech at the University of Zurich, 19 September 1946, http://mjp.univ-perp.fr/textes/churchill19091946.htm

7  Jean Monnet, Mémoires, pp. 329-332

10Jacob Christoph Burckardt, Historische Fragmente, aus dem Nachlass gesammelt von Emir Dürr. Stuttgart Berlin, Deutsche Verlagsanstalt 1942.

11   Nouvelles d’Europe, le Royaume-Uni choisit le grand large, http://www.nouvellesdeurope.com/article-le-royaume-unis-choisit-le-grand-large-96050445.html

14 Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who chaired the committee on the Constitutional Treaty, later declared : « Ils sont partis du texte du traité constitutionnel, dont ils ont fait éclater les éléments, un par un, en les renvoyant, par voie d’amendements aux deux traités existants de Rome (1957) et de Maastricht (1992). (…) La conclusion vient d’elle-même à l’esprit. Dans le traité de Lisbonne, rédigé exclusivement à partir du projet de traité constitutionnel, les outils sont exactement les mêmes. Seul l’ordre a été changé dans la boîte à outils. La boîte, elle-même, a été redécorée, en utilisant un modèle ancien, qui comporte trois casiers dans lesquels il faut fouiller pour trouver ce que l’on cherche ». See the paragraph « Reformulation du texte dans le Traité de Lisbonne », https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/R%C3%A9f%C3%A9rendum_fran%C3%A7ais_sur_le_trait%C3%A9_%C3%A9tablissant_une_constitution_pour_l%27Europe

19 Official site of African Union, http://www.au.int/ ;

see also Wikipedia, https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Union_africaine

20 ASEAN, Association of South-East Asian Nations, ASEAN, http://asean.org/

23 « Old Europe » : Ronald Rumsfeld, 2003, criticized France and Germany for refusing to take part in the military occupation of Iraq, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Europe_(politics)

25 Lawrence Summers, article in Foreign Policy, January 1999.

33Daniel Marthaler is an independent journalist and media consultant; Roland Stalder, an engineer, has held executive positions in industry. They express their personal views here. Letter 6 was translated from French into English by J.-J. Subrenat.

39 Joëlle Kuntz : La Suisse ou le génie de la dépendance, Editions Zoé, Genève 2013

40 http://www.watson.ch/Wirtschaft/Schweiz/679052271-Chronik-eines-sinnlosen-Abwehrkampfs — « An-diesem-Bankgeheimnis-werdet-ihr-euch-noch-die-Zähne-ausbeissen »

42 Katja Gentinetta, Mythos Unabhängigkeit Kolumne zu einer aktuell sehr verbreiteten Art der Geschichtsklitterung http://www.katja-gentinetta.ch/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/mythos_unabhängigkeit_nw_140822.pdf



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