Dad, political sociologist, local councillor, drummer from Malta

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Might and turbulence

The Times, 30 March 2015
http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20150330/opinion/Might-and-turbulence.561958




The latest book by best-selling sociologist Anthony Giddens, former director of the London School of Economics, known for his respective sociological and political theories such as structuration and the third way, is titled Turbulent and mighty continent. The book won the 2014 European book prize and a new revised and updated edition has already been published this year.

Giddens explains the European Union’s current turbulence and lack of might, amidst divisions and conflicts both within as well as alongside its borders. Citing internal examples, such as high unemployment, public debt, north-south disparities and lack of support for the European project, he nevertheless braves the storm and provides realistic suggestions so that the EU can gain its place as world leader in various fields.

True to his unquestionable skill in rendering complex concepts accessible to a wide range of readers, Giddens says the EU is essentially characterised by three identities.

The first, ‘EU1’, comprises the Union’s formal structures, namely the Commission, the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. ‘EU2’ - where much of the real power lies - comprises German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Fran├žois Hollande, one or two other national leaders and the heads of the Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Giddens adds that the presidents of the European Council and the European Commission often get a look in this power structure. Finally, ‘Paper Europe’ comprises Europe’s future plans, road maps, regional strategies and other designs drawn by the Commission and other agencies.

Giddens strongly argues that the EU should be turned into a ‘community of fate’ in a positive sense. For this to take place, common values and goals, such as solidarity and a sense of belonging, should be fostered, not only within nations and regions, but also for the EU as a whole.

In this regard, he argues that inward-looking nationalisms as well as the prevailing ‘German Europe’ are non-starters.

Here, Giddens tackles Eurosceptics, who are so fond of criticising the European project but then don’t seem to worry about rule from bond markets and giant corporations and who seem nebulous to the possibility of the return of serious national conflicts and to the domination of the US and China should the EU keep losing global influence.

In this regard, a fragmented Europe has little chance of making its voice heard on a global level. Hence the need for common action at various levels, from foreign policy to climate change.

Through ‘Sovereignty Plus’, EU member states have more influence in the world than if they simply act as individual voices.

Turning to specific areas, Giddens argues that, as regards climate change, the EU should not repeat recent flops but should take the lead on a global level.

Opportunity and risk are two sides of the same coin with respect to environmental protection and energy security. Once again, greater political and economic integration will enable better tackling of such challenges through a concrete vision, especially when one notes that, as things stand, some states are very much dependent on energy from external sources.

Giddens, a supporter of renewable energy sources and transitional technologies, does not shy away from discussing paradoxical truths in this regard.

For example, Germany’s decision to shut down nuclear energy and move towards renewables has also meant that, in the meantime, it is also highly dependent on coal, which is the dirtiest fossil fuel.

At the same time, 22 per cent of German energy now is renewable.

On windy and sunny days, as much as 85 per cent of the country’s electricity needs are met. Truly a case of the entanglement of opportunity with risk.

Linking energy to the economy, he adds that many jobs can be brought back to Europe if energy investment becomes the centrepiece of direct European investment.

Giddens also argues for more integration within the eurozone, which should also mean bringing back money lost through tax avoidance and tax havens.

On foreign policy, he argues that the EU should drop its flight from power and adopt a common security strategy. Otherwise, it will keep relying on the US when necessary, while resembling the UN, being ‘well-meaning but without real power’, and being too divided to take effective decisions.

Turning to migration, Europe is seen as being characterised by ‘superdiversity’ or ‘interculturalism’, where people have plural identities and allegiances. Here, Giddens reminds us that the same Europe which has a legacy of human rights, freedom and rule of law is the same Europe which exerted colonialism and experienced totalitarianism.

Europe should avoid one totalising narrative and instead foster and promote dialogue. Presumably, a sense of belonging to a ‘European community of fate’ would also mean intolerance has no place in a dialogic context.

On European social policy, Giddens emphasises his conceptualisation of the ‘social investment state’, which integrates a social model with economic prosperity and which invests heavily in human and social capital, for example in lifelong education. This requires an ‘interventionist’ welfare model that, nevertheless, discourages dependency by empowering citizens and decentralising decision-making.

Turbulent and mighty continent therefore articulates an inspiring message for pro-Europeans to act for a more integrated Europe. The development of ‘EU3’ should be a goal in this regard. This requires a more dynamic and legitimate leadership and increased federalism in economic and political spheres. How to get there is another question, particularly when national interests remain key factors in European policymaking.

The current ‘Grexit’ issue is an important indication as to whether a sense of cross-European solidarity can prevail, keeping inward-looking nationalisms and Euroscepticism at bay.

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