Re-thinking Europe after the UK referendum on the EU

Since a majority of UK citizens voted to leave the European Union on 23 June, a lot has been said on what direction the EU should take. Between a new push for further integration, a conservative approach that sees a short-term interest in keeping the status quo and the nationalist temptation, culture now has a key role to play in advocating for a clear change of paradigm that promotes a union of the people of Europe.

Following the referendum, EU leaders reacted by laying out several options for Europe going forward. The outline of the different blueprints is not as dual as a simple “more versus less Europe”. However, the paradigm that has determined EU affairs over the past decades subsists.

The lines can be drawn on four main currents that are emerging and preparing their arguments ahead of a September gathering of heads of states and EU officials in Bratislava. First, a social-reformist squad, including German Socialist Foreign Minister Steinmeier, French President Holland and Italian PM Renzi, whose vision involves more EU integration. On the other end of the traditional argument, conservatives call for “national solutions where possible, and European solutions where necessary”, usually calling for a re-shaping of the union (with, for instance, the concept of a “two-speed Europe”). Part of this group also argues for unilaterally renegotiating their country’s membership in the EU, and putting the consequent deal to a referendum (a process inspired by Cameron’s election pledge). That would risk initiating a wave of national popular votes that could potentially result in a fragmented EU.

A third option comes from the Eurosceptics, who advocate for a return to the nation-state era and all the dangerous narratives that brought chaos to Europe during the first half of the last century. This current has been gaining momentum, and is joined by anti-establishment forces since the emergence of the poly-crises period the EU has been experiencing, by banking on citizen’s rejection of the EU’s emphasis on free trade and liberal economics.

For the time being, though, the fourth group of leaders has a clear edge over the others. This crew, led by Merkel and backed by a number of politicians weary of taking drastic moves that could backfire. It promotes a cautious approach, traditionally defined as “l’Europe des petits pas” (or step-by-step Europe), which would theoretically ensure the survival of Europe in the short term by perpetrating the status-quo.

But this is not a long-term solution. If the Brexit vote demonstrated one key element of truth, it is that the wait-and-see approach to EU affairs is the strategy that eventually backfires. Now, more than ever, the European Union needs to engage in a rethink of its vision in order to create a new momentum for the European project. This vision should be built in partnership with civil society, if it is to secure the support of European citizens.

Moreover, a definite move from the classical paradigm that opposes EU integration and national sovereignty to a union of the people of Europe is now a necessity, and should be the EU’s top priority. The cultural sector has a key role to play for this vision to be enacted, in order to create a sense of unity in diversity that would serve as a true basis for cooperation. Culture Action Europe, as the voice of culture in the EU, will advocate restlessly for such an approach to be adopted and to effectively shape the future of our lives in Europe.

For other statements and perspectives of CAE on this issue, please see here.


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