The world needs something like the European Union. It needs a global actor ready to take the initiative on climate change. It needs a polity underpinned by a powerful economy that can push for new global financial arrangements. And it needs political leaders able to articulate and act upon an alternative to the war on terror.
Yet the actual existing EU was nowhere in the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen. Its main financial and economic preoccupations are to weather the financial storm while sticking to tight fiscal and monetary discipline; it appears incapable of offering imaginative solutions to address the suffering of people at the sharp end of the crisis, in for example what are known the Pigs states (Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Greece) let alone in the wider world. And it is hesitant and divided when it comes to developing its own external and security agenda, especially if it involves any departure from the American dominated agenda, whether we are talking about Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel and Iran, or strengthening the United Nations.
The political reforms in the Lisbon treaty were supposed to help Europe to act in a more united way – instead, as has become painfully obvious, it has proliferated ineffective voices. We now have a president of the council, a Spanish presidency, a foreign minister, a president of the commission, not to mention Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy.
The problem, at root, is not, however, the lack of appropriate structures (though more democratic structures would help). It is the weakness and indeed absence of popular support. The low turnout for European parliamentary elections and the national basis of voter preferences is one illustration.
From the beginning, the EU was a peace project. It was designed, initially, after Europe's great civil war, to prevent another war on European soil and later to overcome the cold war divide. Indeed, a huge achievement of recent years has been the peaceful integration of the new eastern members.
But the method chosen, known as the Monnet method (after one of the founders, Jean Monnet) was to bring Europe together through economic integration, through policies adopted by the political elite rather than through public debate. In recent decades those methods have been largely market methods. In particular, the Maastricht treaty, signed just after the end of the cold war, which established the economic and monetary union and laid the basis for a single currency, was a compromise between the neoliberalism of Margaret Thatcher and the Europeanism of Jacques Delors, then commission president.
The consequence was "convergence criteria" (the European equivalent of structural adjustment), which restricted the size of national budget deficits, and an unwillingness to increase spending and redistribution at a European level. Indeed, the new eastern members joined on much less generous terms than earlier new members. Moreover, the political vacuum created by the proliferation of presidents exposes what is actually a rather small administration to public gaze. Because there seems to be no politics, the European Union is seen as just another layer of regulation.
To a younger generation, who did not experience the world wars or the cold war, the European Union appears not as a peace project but as a neoliberal bureaucracy. This is why much of the left and the Greens joined the xenophobic right in voting against the referendums in France, Holland and Ireland. The European Social Forum, for example, which until recently mobilised many young radicals behind an anti-war and anti-neoliberal platform, has been a space where anti-EU attitudes have been spread.
Somehow, popular support for the EU needs to be remobilised. It is perhaps the only way out of the current global crisis now that it is becoming clear how difficult it is for the US president, Barack Obama, to act decisively. Of course there need to be new, more democratic, structures. There should be an elected president, for example. And there ought to be a family of taxes at a European level that would allow the EU to develop a degree of autonomy – carbon taxes, for example, or taxes on international speculation (the Tobin tax). But these can only be achieved through political pressure. And that means that the EU has to reconstruct itself as a peace (and green) project instead of a fundamentalist market project.
This article first appeared on guardian.co.uk's Comment is free
Professor Mary Kaldor is Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Global Governance