Despite the problems facing the EU, there’s plenty of reason to celebrate the birth of the EU as a political and economic entity twenty-five years ago. And in Maastricht, no less. But the celebration should include a healthy dose of self-reflection on how to proceed from here. Because if we fail to reflect on the problems and the necessary solutions, the EU may not be around to celebrate the next twenty-five years – or even the next ten.
My blog posts focus on irritations within the EU, the vulnerabilities and the potential solutions. I implore the speakers to celebrate appropriately on 9 December, bearing in mind the potential expiration date. A major source of discontent is that many people feel the EU has done little for them or their countries. These people are often labelled the ‘losers of globalisation’. According to surveys, they don’t believe membership to the EU has helped their country advance. This goes hand in hand with feelings of uncertainty about their own financial futures.
Over the past three decades, the EU and the world have experienced rapid technological development and increasing trade. This brought prosperity and better and cheaper products, but it also brought automation and robotics, which made simple and increasingly complex routine work unnecessary.
Everyone benefitted from this, particularly highly educated people with more financial power. The distribution of disposable incomes has shifted in most EU countries over the past thirty years. While these shifts weren’t significant, those with higher incomes benefitted more than those with lower incomes. The distribution of financial assets changed more prominently, with the most unprecedented growth reserved for the wealthiest citizens.
Rags to riches stories were commonplace in the EU of the sixties, seventies and eighties. High-quality education became increasingly available to children from working class families with lower incomes. This has also shifted in the past three decades: children born after 1980 to lower-income families were not afforded the same opportunities to attend university compared to the previous generations. The line of increased opportunities seemed to stop.
Feelings of disappointment and unfulfilled expectations from specific sections of our population can therefore be explained. EU countries would be hard-pressed to prevent this distribution of income from becoming increasingly unequal. They have even less influence over the distribution of capital. Tax revenues do not allow for extra investments to be made in equal opportunities.
More needed than ever
The economic crisis is gradually subsiding. But during the crisis period, anti-European sentiment doubled to include 30% of the population. This meant an increase in political support for Anti-European parties and negative attitudes about Europe in surveys. This is too serious to ignore for the next twenty-five years of the Maastricht Treaty. We need Europe now more than ever before to protect our values, to safeguard our prosperity and way of life, to thwart Russian threats and to protect us against the increasing economic power of China, which is increasing its political and military strength as well.
We should take the concerns of these ‘losers of globalisation’ seriously and ask ourselves whether our social and economic models should be adjusted to soften the rough edges of globalisation. This is exactly where Europe can come into play. The limits of the tax-based income policy are fixed at the national level: high income tax rates increase migration to neighbouring countries. The same is true of capital tax. This presents Europe with the unique opportunity to work together to develop a policy of full employment and a more equal distribution of both income and capital. Isn’t that what Europe was designed to do? To do the things individual countries couldn’t get done on their own?
Jo Ritzen, former Minister of Education (1989 – 1998)