The EU and the Eurasian Economic Union face a similar challenge: both need to explain to their citizens why they need these integration projects in a rapidly globalizing world.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (L) and Russia's president Vladimir Putin shake hands as they meet at Constantine Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia, June 16, 2016. Photo: TASS
While the European Union is currently experiencing the most difficult crisis in its long history and the freshly launched Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) is still in its early years, the two integration projects actually face quite similar challenges.
Most importantly, they are both experiencing difficulties explaining their goals, values and purpose to ordinary citizens. They are also facing issues related to a lack of transparency and an absence of grassroots support.
Still at the beginning of its integration path, the EAEU can learn from the experience of the EU and start working on addressing those issues in order to avoid their destructive consequences in the future.
Challenges facing the EU
The European Union, as an absolutely unique example of the successful integration of 28 sovereign states (27 after Brexit), has inspired many politicians and policymakers to believe in the power of a deeper integration process and the emergence of a true supranational actor.
The 2004 EU enlargement, constitutional reform, and the increasing power of the European Parliament as a representative of the European people – all were supposed to mark a new stage in the EU’s development. Obviously, the European integration project implies many benefits for its member states – access to the largest trade market and the reality of being a part of an influential political and normative power. The EU managed to establish a relatively transparent and open decision-making process, in which each actor strictly follows its functions.
However, many recent events have undermined this belief and, as a result, led to a significant lack of trust and understanding. This has resulted in ordinary people questioning the very need for the European Union. They no longer understand how major decisions are made and what role their nations could play in this process.
The inability of the EU to address modern challenges effectively has reduced the level of support among its citizens. There are plenty of examples that point to the growing distance between Eurocrats and EU citizens: the 2008-2009 economic crisis and increasing unemployment rates in southern countries; mistakes of the Eastern Partnership and conflict in Ukraine; rising tensions in EU-Russian relations and elimination of political and economic dialogue with Russia; the refugee crisis; Brexit and uncertainty about the near-term future of the entire European integration project.
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Besides, the recent summit of the European Council in Bratislava demonstrated the North-South split over more austerity measures and the East-West split over immigration issues.
The EU is experiencing one of the most difficult periods in its history. To overcome the existing crisis, it is important to realize not only the problems but also their reasons. Only then will the EU be able to find appropriate instruments for their effective solution.
Why is the EU losing momentum?
It seems that the most obvious answer to this question is that EU citizens are becoming more separated from the EU decision-makers, and they are starting to lose the understanding why the EU is even necessary. It seems that people are afraid, not of greater supranational control and deeper integration, but of the consequences of globalization. For them, globalization implies a system of winners and losers, and too many Europeans now fear that they may not be the beneficiaries of globalization.
Brexit is a clear example of how people can respond to this process when they see that the existing model of governance does not work properly. They also see that widespread transparency and openness to the outside world is fraught with danger. Thus, the logical response is to take effective measures for protection and security. That is, to leave the EU.
However, such measures won’t solve the problem. The mistake made by UK citizens is driven by a lack of sufficient knowledge about the EU and its capabilities. The opinion polls that followed after the referendum showed that many British people were unaware of the far-reaching consequences of Brexit and, what’s more, they did not have a clear image of what the EU is and what real threats it can cause.
The immediate reaction is the following: How could it be possible that people of one of the most developed countries in the world were so blind? And why did local authorities and the government let such a scenario become a reality? In this case, considering the eroding support in other EU member states, it is the time to take appropriate actions and thus escape greater mistakes. This must be done for the sake of the European idea and all the work done by Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman and Jacques Delors (they are founding fathers of the European Union – Editor's note).
So, the solution seems to be quite simple: It is the time for more dialogue and hard work to explain the core idea and main point of European integration. The time-consuming supranational decision-making process and the right of EU institutions to rule in particular fields over the national governing bodies should be clearly explained in terms of their possible costs and consequences. EU citizens need to realize that member states actually become less vulnerable towards global challenges and threats if they are united together with more resources and power. The more people know what the EU is and how they can participate in it, the greater the support and legitimacy the Eurocrats will have.
Lessons for the Eurasian Economic Union
The experience of the EU could be a good lesson for other economic integration projects such as the Eurasian Economic Union. Its top priority – to provide prosperity and good living standards for EAEU citizens– can hardly be implemented when a substantial part of the population of the five countries comprising the EAEU does not know that the Union even exists.
Also read: "Debunking myths about the Eurasian Economic Union"
Obviously, the EAEU needs more explanatory work at the grassroots level, where the main actors are not governments, but the people who can create necessary institutions and networks to explain the idea of Eurasian integration. The mass media is also an essential part of this process.
So, what is the conclusion? The EU faces many challenges and, unfortunately, their number is increasing. Thus far, efforts to address all these issues have turned out to be insufficient. The EU policymakers won’t be able to solve the problems if the member states and their citizens do not follow all the instructions made at a higher level.
For more than 50 years, the European idea has worked. It has transformed the continent into one of the most prosperous and competitive economies in the world. And the current challenges are just new tasks that will make the integration project more vibrant and durable. However, the EU must not forget the lessons of the past and the challenges of the future.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.