FEU, a newborn in the liberal family, a fresh start for the EU

As the new year unfolds, new resolutions are put to the test and new projects begin. For the European Liberal Forum, 2022 marks the launch of our very own publication outlet: the journal Future Europe. And so it is with the utmost pleasure and a certain emotion that I introduce you to this first issue of our young and ambitious journal. The aim is to provide a forum for all who believe in the European project and want to shape its future, to reflect on current issues, and propose bold new ideas and directions. Future Europe brings together academics, practitioners, and citizens at large. It welcomes a plurality of voices, bound together by our principles of free speech, fact-based argumentation, and respectful discussion.  

This journal fills a gap that we believe exists between academia, policymaking, and the wider public. European Studies as an academic field has experienced a formidable boom in recent decades. This has led to a number of crucial insights into the development of the European project, its strengths and weaknesses, and ways to address them. Yet these are not always considered by policymakers and indeed are often unknown beyond specialised circles. At the same time, academics sometimes tend to stay too long in their ivory towers and could benefit from the practical knowledge of those involved in the day-to-day business of making Europe and from getting a better grip on the wishes and aspirations of its citizens. This is this dialogue that Future Europe wants to foster. 

Future Europe also aims to foster dialogue between various fields of knowledge. It is interdisciplinary in nature and brings insights from various fields of the social sciences – politics, economics, and legal studies – to better understand the challenges that lie ahead of us.

In this respect, this first issue could not be timelier. Europe is facing a number of unprecedented and daunting challenges. A pandemic that has shaken our societies to their core and led the EU to fundamentally re-evaluate and upscale its budgetary commitments. Climate change and the necessity to transform the Union into a champion of sustainable transition and the carbon-neutral economy. A world, finally, where new powers rise and old ones refuse to give way and where Europe needs, more than ever, to stick together and offer a united front if it wants to preserve its way of life and its values. 

To address these many challenges and to remain relevant, the EU needs reform. This is Europe’s window of opportunity, perhaps more than at any point in our recent history. Pro-European, moderate, and progressive forces are now in control in Paris, Berlin, and Rome, and in many other capitals of the continent, providing an impetus for change. Old ideas are giving way to new ones. We cannot afford to stay complacent, and we all need to take part in this crucial discussion. The choices we make today will define what the EU looks like ten or twenty years down the road – just muddling through or changing fundamentally so as to build a better Europe. The EU has always managed to rise to new challenges when needed and to take decisive steps when facing existential crises.  

If what we need now is a new vision and concrete proposals for action, it is fitting that the opening section of this first issue is devoted to the Conference on the Future of Europe. The Conference, whose first citizens’ panels took place only a few months ago, in autumn 2021, represents a unique and formidable opportunity to give a voice to all citizens across the continent. Never in history has a participatory exercise of such scale been organised. This shows that, far from being a remote and alien construction, the EU is perfectly able to listen and be responsive to people’s needs and wishes. The widely shared hope is that this process will result in bold new ideas and reforms that can put the EU back on track, fit for the century and able to deliver. To achieve success, concrete actions must follow. The Conference must not join the cemetery of lost opportunities, where so many grand ideas for Europe have already been buried. This would not only be a waste, it could also backfire, providing Eurosceptics with concrete evidence that, once again, the EU ignores the will of its citizens and is plagued by a democratic deficit. The stakes are therefore high and the boundary between success and demise will be thin. It is precisely these concerns that the first contribution in this issue seeks to address as it analyses the opportunities and obstacles the Conference may face in leading reform and proposing solutions to ensure that the promised outcomes are delivered.  

Future of Europe Journal

In discussing the content of the Conference’s debates, one crucial issue should not be overlooked, that of EU’s enlargement. Not only enlargement resulting from the admission of new Member States but also that resulting from the possible break-up of existing ones. The rise of secessionist parties and Europe’s relationship with the Western Balkans countries appear to be entirely separate issues but in fact give rise to similar pressing questions for Europe: the role of nationalities and nationalism, the protection of minorities, and whether or not the EU can function efficiently with one, five, or say ten new members. Moreover, the role of the EU in the Western Balkans region is also supremely important from a geopolitical point of view. If the Union does not provide greater certainty regarding its engagement in the region and a clear pathway to accession, it is likely to see competing powers – China, Russia, and Turkey – filling the void. The EU cannot afford to let this complex region and its people sink back into instability. It is its historical responsibility. 

This brings us to the focus of the second section – what the geopolitical ambitions of a renewed and strengthened EU should look like. The rise of China emphasises that it is time for a more assertive Europe on the world stage, with greater capacity to ensure its security and defend its interests. Our countries are confronted with similar economic and security threats and face the same systemic rivals, China and Russia. Our partnership with the United States is precious and must be preserved, but the EU’s ability to act globally must move beyond that partnership. Europe is less of a priority for the US and, where our interests are not aligned, Europeans must be able to make a different voice heard. Europe must gain its strategic autonomy to truly own its future; it should not abandon its vision of a global liberal order. 

Just as rivalry between the West and Russia defined the second half of the 20th century, so relationships with China will surely define the coming decades. In many ways, however, China promises to be an even more formidable rival. It is only a matter of time before it becomes the world’s biggest economy and, despite what was initially believed, this economic development, this greater openness to business, and the profound societal change resulting from it, are not translating into a transformation of its political system. China is on course to defend an alternative political, one may say civilisational model, one not based on a free market, human rights, and liberal democracy, but based on rugged nationalism, statism, and oppression. This fact must be acknowledged and these differences must not be swept under the carpet. China’s interests are, for the most part, fundamentally at odds with our own, which means that there is no more time for complacency and naivety. Wherever China oppresses its people or bullies others it should expect a firm reaction from Europe. Equally, China’s attempts at undermining Europe’s security and autonomy should be met with firm resistance. 

That being said, we must also learn how to live with China, since it is foolish to hope for any significant change in the Chinese regime in the near future. The Pacific region on the other hand, where, in contrast to the US, few European countries have vital interests, cannot and should not be a security priority for Europe or for NATO. Our interests are not always aligned and Europe should not let itself be dragged into a second, arguably more dangerous Cold War. Cooperation is needed on many fronts and is required to ensure that China does not sever its link with the rest of the world, as was so spectacularly the case at the beginning of the pandemic. New ways of dealing with China are therefore necessary, and this is what the three contributions in this section explore. Europe needs to find a new doctrine, a fully fledged China strategy that both stands up to China where necessary, especially when our core democratic and human rights values are at stake, and ensures continuous cooperation and economic partnership. 

One topic symbolises well this possible equilibrium with China: the development of the 5G infrastructure. So far, security concerns have been met with protectionist responses and a trade war between the US and China entailing mutual bans of proprietary 5G equipment. This is a zero-sum game that will have only losers, for 5G bears the promise of a more efficient economic system, of greater innovation. The EU should embrace another viable alternative to this predicament and assert its leadership in promoting an open and interoperable 5G architecture, paving the way for more international trade and cooperation. 

In the last section of this first issue, our contributors look at these technological developments and what they entail for Europe’s economy and security, both from an external and an internal point of view. Technology is never value-neutral and Europe must ensure that the digitalisation of our society follows a logic that takes into account our core beliefs, fundamental values, and (cultural) heritage. Human-centred digitalisation should thus be the vector for a liberal approach towards more inclusive growth for individuals, opening up endless opportunities, while sustaining the European way of life. In this regard, keeping control of algorithms is key, especially considering the role they have played in the rise of populism and the deterioration of the democratic debate. 

Although populism is not an entirely new phenomenon in Europe and the world, populists have gained even more exposure during the Covid-19 pandemic, capitalising on people’s distrust of their governments, aided, one must admit, by the sloppy response from many governments and disregard of civic liberties. Populists and their conspiracies must be fought and contained, but it is the role of liberals to provide an effective alternative voice. 

Finally, there are two main takeaways with this first Future Europe issue. The first is that our European home is both strong and fragile. Its roots run deep but are not yet firmly fixed in solid soil. Europe is fragile because it is not yet well armed for many of the challenges that have already arisen and the threats that loom. It is still too slow, too fragmented, too pusillanimous. If we are not careful, this could jeopardise our unique political model, a model that is our main strength because it is the only one that is sustainable – not yet perhaps for the planet, but the only model that can deliver development and progress. Second, what all these excellent contributions show is how complex and entangled all these issues are. Addressing them will not be possible if we keep reasoning in silos. This is true for academics and experts as much as for politicians and people at large. 

Offering a comprehensive overview of some of the main challenges currently faced by Europe and providing a way forward with concrete solutions – this is the ambition of the Future Europe journal. We hope that our ambition will be fulfilled and that you enjoy the read along the way. Our best hope for 2022 is that this issue is only the first of a long series! 

whois: Andy White Freelance WordPress Developer London