It was a brave thing to attempt – a conference called ‘The EU’s Fifth Project: Transitional Governance in the Service of Sustainable Societies’ (#EU5P)*.
Especially at a time when the EU is under attack, not entirely undeservedly, from so many sides. Two intensive days last week (May 8-9) with dozens of talks and discussions arguing that the EU’s 5th project should be about transforming it into an enabling, diversity embracing, experimental community of nations, embracing new and different measures of progress from GDP, reshaped government policies and means of governing that support local social innovation and agro-ecological transition. All necessary if we are to create sustainable societies across Europe and as part of a more just and peaceful world.
And despite all the critiques of the EU, it worth remembering, especially in 2014, 100 years after the First World War began, that the EU is essentially about peace and a civilising mission in a continent riven by over a millennia of war. The aim of the founders was to prevent France and Germany ever going to war again. The economy was the means not the end. And the central focus on the economy after the Second World War made sense then, but it does not now.
Not, at least, the economy as we know it. It is part of the problem not the solution, with growing levels of inequality and not merely imperfect, but insane indicators of progress – GDP, casino capitalism finance, in which, as one speaker from Finance Watch pointed out, the size of the derivative market is $700 trillion – 12 times the size of world GDP. In this mad world, risk is seen as seeing a decrease in the value of a financial asset, rather than wrecking the planet for ourselves. The governor of the European Central bank was said, by one speaker, to have been stumped when asked to think of a connection between finance and climate change and simply felt technology would sort out the climate problems.
Today, there is simply too much finance of the wrong kind, as even the Bank of International Settlements acknowledges, and not enough finance to invest in real things that will make a difference to poverty, tackling climate change, and make the transition need to a new kind of economy built on ecological principles. But, of course, we also need to remember that despite all the talk of not having business as usual, for the few the system is working – delivering more wealth and power into their hands.
That’s why, as various speakers illustrated, so many people from the bottom up are trying new things – from the transition town movement with over 1300 known initiatives, city mayors, community supported agriculture, local currencies and much more. All are different kinds of the types of social innovation that needs supporting. It requires experimentalism in governance, which involves many more actors than traditional centralised, bureaucratic types in interactive and energising ways.
And it took two Americans to remind Europeans that in some ways the EU itself was a kind of evolving experimentalism in how to build and run a community of diverse nations – without having a civil war to settle the outcome as happened in the US. Although you could see Europe’s previous 1000 year history of wars as something of a counter to that.
But also as something to remind us when hearing the debates about the EU and the future it is about much, much more the taxes, Brussels Bureaucrats, free movement of labour, goods and serivces, and the rest. It is about finding a fair, equitable, sustainable and peaceful way to live together, and not just in Europe – where we are a rather privileged peoples compared to most of the rest of the world, as several participants pointed out. Europeans will have to adjust to both climate change but also geo-political change and find a new roles and ways of doing things in response to both.
This is why a strong, coherent but diverse Europe / EU that supports and bridges the gaps between social innovation and ecological innovation should indeed be its 5th project. Not federalism, not fragmentation but cooperation in solidarity with peoples beyond Europe from whom much of our past wealth was taken, and which places a special responsibility on the EU taking such a new approach to the future. The seeds of this are there. They need nurturing to grow.
*The Francqui International Conference 2014 was organised with the support of the Franqui Prize, the most prestigious scientific prize in Belgium, by the winner of the 2013 prize, Professor Olivier De Schutter.