What can the designers of new global governance models learn from the European experience? Over its seventy years of existence, the European Union has achieved peace, prosperity and progress in a continent that, for centuries, had hardly experienced ten years without a war. The core factor of this success lies in the fundamental goal of the EU: to better achieve together what cannot be achieved apart.
At the core of the European Union Treaty is the little-understood article 5 on the principle of subsidiarity, which can be paraphrased in this way: “the European Union acts to better achieve together what cannot be achieved apart”. Is there anything to be learned from taking this principle from the regional to the global? I argue that there is something to be learned about addressing global risks through global solutions from the way that the EU achieved peace, prosperity, and progress together, and that these results cannot be achieved apart.
Peace in Europe, and across the globe, is only guaranteed by addressing the roots of conflict. Prior to the process of European integration in the 1950s, going back centuries, it is almost impossible to find a decade of peace between current EU member states. Clearly, peace among European nations since 1950 has not been achieved by the EU alone – the presence of the USA, NATO, and the fear of the Soviet Union were all important factors. But NATO defends European members from external aggression, it does not prevent conflict amongst European states, as the 1974-2004 conflict between NATO members Greece and Turkey over Cyprus illustrates. The military interests of the USA have swung towards East Asia, leaving Europeans to deal with Russia on their own. Most EU members have never been far from conflicts with their neighbours. The more recent conflicts in Yugoslavia and Ukraine illustrate that the past seven decades of peace in Europe can only be extended in the long term through EU member states acting together.
“At the core of the European Union Treaty is the little-understood article 5 on the principle of subsidiarity, which can be paraphrased in this way: ‘the European Union acts to better achieve together what cannot be achieved apart’.”
Prosperity in Europe has improved dramatically since the 1950s because of regional cooperation. The living standards of every EU member state have improved significantly since the 1950s, in particular those countries that started from a low standard in Southern and Eastern Europe. Rising living standards across the EU include substantial improvements in income per person, education, and life expectancy. It is possible that states could have improved their living standards without the EU, but the relative decline of non-member states such as the UK from 1950 until membership in 1973 makes clear that this is probably not the case.
Social progress in Europe has been achieved through the spread of social freedoms and rights, changing our relationship with our environment, and supporting the spread of democracy. The social freedoms of people living in Europe have increased massively since the 1980s. These now include the freedom to travel, study, live and work in each other’s countries without significant restriction. At the same time, social rights, particularly human rights and workers’ rights, such as gender equality, LGBT rights, paid holiday leave, parental leave, equal pay, fair treatment, and limits to the working week have all become law across Europe because of the EU. The EU has promoted the strongest environmental protection programmes and laws in the world, trying to lead the massive transformations needed to cope with climate change. The spread of democracy through EU membership is crucial for ensuring that countries are safer for people to travel, study, live and work within. But more importantly, the fact that democracies do not go to war with each other means that peace, prosperity, and progress in Europe and across the globe can only be guaranteed if the goal of our collaboration is to better achieve together what cannot be achieved apart.