Professor Mario Monti, former EU Commissioner and Prime Minister of Italy
Professor Mario Monti, former EU Commissioner and Prime Minister of Italy

Integration is in crisis, and not just in Europe. We have come to the point where we have to ask a fundamental question: do Western democratic systems still have the vision and the energy to support political integration?

Look at national debates, for instance over Scotland or Catalonia. Look at global issues, too, like trade. Right now, the World Trade Organisation is struggling to even keep the existing level of integration. In many of our countries, the instincts for bringing back borders are more powerful than they were in the past. Yet this hits the EU particularly hard as integration is the key concept of its existence.

Integration is important for the world, but it is essential for Europe. For 60 years, Europe experienced an incredibly virtuous circle of integration and democracy. Greece, Spain and Portugal are good examples, and so are the Central and Eastern European countries.

Why has this link been broken? In my view, after years of political experience at the European level and at governing a European nation, the problem is how domestic politics has changed over the last five to ten years. The time horizon of political decisions is getting shorter and shorter.

Politics in ten seconds

We are leaving it to the less democratic nations to engage in long term strategies. Take China which considers the year 2021, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the communist party, as short term. The medium term for Chinese leaders is the year 2049, the 100th anniversary of the communist revolution.

In contrast, our political landscape is increasingly dominated by tweets with a maximum of 140 characters and by ten-second television spots. These modalities of communication act as a filter. Some notions go easily through the filter, others don’t.

An audience is easily seduced in ten seconds if you say how the refugee crisis forces us to close borders. If, however, you want to explain the long-term and indirect effects of such decisions ­– i.e. that whenever you close borders, countries enter into decline – you are very good if you can do that in one or two minutes. In the competition for getting your idea across, long-term thinking is at a comparative disadvantage.

 A dangerous and cynical game

This has huge repercussions. In the past, national leaders saw the European Union as an investment that was in the long-term interest of their country. Now, when leaders assemble for a European Council, they often don’t even have a long-term national agenda. When they consider issues of migration or fiscal consolidation, they think about upcoming elections, or even about the day-to-day polls, and how these will affect the balance of power in their domestic coalition.

Brick by brick is taken from the European construction.

When prime ministers speak of the EU or Brussels, they are not exactly positive or even fair. Each government that is in difficulty because of the crisis and because it is slow to adapt to globalisation, blames the EU for its misery.

In my experience, everybody around the table does that, but one did so much more than the others. It was David Cameron who brought the game of cynicism of playing with Europe for domestic purposes, to the extreme. He initiated the referendum not in the interest of Europe, nor of the UK, nor even of his own Conservative Party but simply to secure his own leadership. This dangerous game was played in one of the most serious, law abiding and pragmatic countries in Europe. It is a tragedy for the UK and for the EU and, in the end, for David Cameron himself.

Boost public investment

What are some key issues that should be addressed in order to reduce the source of mistrust across Europe? What is most urgent to my mind is to bridge the gap between the North and the South of Europe. Year after year, these countries mistrust each other more. This is why I would like to suggest an informal meeting of some government leaders from the North and the South. The North needs to see the need for economic growth in the South. The South needs to see that they cannot play with the rules.

Together, we should identify a policy that is positive by Keynesian standards, but also acceptable to the minds of Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble. Let’s make reassuring plans of how to handle public deficits not to the detriment of future generations.

We need to boost public investment, which will increase aggregate demand and at the same time will benefit the next generations. We can do that by excluding public investment spending from our calculation of deficits. But in doing so, it has to be clear to the South that these new rules can then not be played with.

It is my profound conviction that we need to make sure that our political systems become more serious. Otherwise, Europe will disintegrate.

Please reflect on your own life and the lives of your children. The natural state of affairs for Europe has always been marked by conflicts and wars between Europeans. Integration has given us 60 years of peace and prosperity. We cannot afford for this era to become nothing but a parenthesis.

Professor Monti was speaking at United Europe’s 8th Young Professionals Seminar which took place from September 23 to 25, 2016, at Villa Vigoni

Mario Monti