While perhaps there are many EU-enthusiasts among EU legal scholars, have you actually ever considered how many outspoken enthusiasts of Europe as a cultural phenomenon are among them? Floris de Witte is without doubt one of them, as his latest book makes evident. De Witte offers a paean to European opportunities and diversity, while strongly contrasting them with the current legal arrangements of the EU. He imagines a project that could absorb the social and political potential of EU citizens. He insists that this problem is existential in its nature: the Union needs to be reframed so that it can both avoid collapse and benefit from the involvement of Europeans born after 1980. De Witte attempts to lay a normative foundation for this reframing.
We see a rare instance of a work written by an EU legal scholar who manages to connect a sharp synthesis of the legal side of the EU’s crisis with an evocative depiction of the European project in its most everyday aspects. The book thus might be of interest for numerous groups of readers. Scholars working on EU law and politics may be attracted by the refreshing narrative and uniquely substantiated line of argument, although many proposals are by no means novel. Nonetheless, as one may conclude from what de Witte proclaims, it would perhaps be to his particular satisfaction if the book is read by non-academics interested in European integration, and in particular by the young Europeans (for instance by undergraduates in various subjects).
In Chapter 1 de Witte makes his goal explicit: to offer a vision of the EU’s development led by ambitions that correspond to the needs and aspirations of the young Europeans. In this part of the book the author also begins portraying the contrast between what he sees as an obsolete, ponderous EU structure on the one hand, and what he praises as diverse life and cosmopolitan experiences of Europeans, on the other hand. The attractive argument he makes is that the lack of trust, in its various incarnations, is currently an omnipresent trouble for the EU. At this point one might wish for even more elaborated, nuanced classification of the forms of both distrust and trust in European societies.
In Chapter 2 the author argues that behind all the formidable experiences – from the Euro-zone crisis to the rise of populism – lie deeper problems of EU institutional design and decision-making. The author attempts to prove that the EU mode of reconciling Member States’ autonomy with the need for collective resolution of the common problems is a process that corrupts national politics, excludes the political from the supranational level and leads to increasing Euroscepticism. However, de Witte does not pay considerable attention to a standpoint according to which the rise of nationalism is not (only) a result of EU unresponsiveness, but a manifestation of societal factors gaining ground under the pretext of a Eurosceptic agenda.
The underlying assumption of Chapter 3 is that the EU, as an institutional edifice, not only fails to utilise, but even diminishes the resources of trust existing among Europeans. De Witte insightfully explains how institutions of EU law such as the mutual trust and the principles of the internal market are rather counterproductive, contributing to the growth of distrust. The author optimistically claims that cooperation, interaction and pursuing common purposes are effective sources of trust, available in the EU. While celebrating diversity and interaction between Europeans as the sources of trust, de Witte underestimates the significance of accompanying factors breeding the darker side of the current interpersonal connections. Namely, we can identify various ‘mediating structures’ that stand in between interacting citizens. They include: the role of social media in stereotyping the ‘other’, growing social bubbles, the impact that labour migration and free movement have on the feelings of economic resentment. While harshly criticising the EU’s pursuit of uniformity, the author seems to underrate the way in which international corporations make uniform preferences at the expense of local particularities. The unique role played by religion nowadays, with all opportunities and dangers it may bring for trust in the European integration, is barely present in the argument of de Witte.
Chapter 4 discusses the possibilities to channel trust and cooperation so that the EU can once again become an appealing, political project. De Witte invokes the potential purposes and challenges shared by the youth. At the same time he emphasises that the classic EU’s purposes of peace and prosperity have been successfully achieved and thus no longer enjoy a mobilising potential in the eyes of the young Europeans. It is noteworthy that de Witte’s recurring insistence on obsoleteness of these primordial purposes does not restrain him from noticing the problems that can be framed as today’s challenges to peace and prosperity. In this context there appears a question whether it would not be more consistent and compelling to narrate issues such as cybersecurity and elections, the threat of political turmoil or radical inequalities as the new incarnations of the earlier European predicaments.
In Chapter 5 de Witte continues discussing peace and prosperity by pointing out that until the present day the pursuit of these objectives have determined the very way in which EU law functions. He instead suggests to crumble the intended rigidity of the EU. The author proposes institutional changes aimed at enabling citizens to effectively formulate new objectives for the European integration and to steer the latter’s course. De Witte believes that these changes (including the increase of political control over EU institutions and the creation of transnational party lists in European Parliament elections) would enhance accountability, representation and responsiveness at the supranational level. Nevertheless, a question arises how to avoid replicating today’s national pathologies of democracy. De Witte suggests to provide to European regions a substantial role in EU decision-making, at the expense of the Member States authorities. He also would perhaps claim that in the EU a unique space for cooperation is available, and therefore the ‘trust networks’ on which he relies can become stronger than at the national level. However, it does not extinguish doubts as to whether the new proposed shape of EU structure would not mirror the current domestic ills such as the crisis of party politics, the illusory character of a number of means of accountability or the alienation of the political class from citizens.
The last and the largest chapter is devoted to drafting ten policy recommendations, announced in the book’s title. These proposals range from a European public holiday and free lunches for all European schoolkids to the unconditional basic income for all EU citizens and the full switch to the renewable energy sources of the entire EU. Setting aside the issue of the substantive plausibility of the proposals, their merit in fitting consistently the theoretical premises of the argument should be stressed. Indeed, the book is exemplary as regards the art of linking abstract ideas to concrete solution proposals (regardless of what we think about their intrinsic value) in a suggestive, intelligible and concise manner.
Floris de Witte’s book can become an instructive attempt at getting beyond EU legal academia in order to reach a broader audience, while retaining an informed legal vision. Much of the success of the book however depends on the author’s accuracy in identifying who today’s young EU citizen is and how he or she lives. It is therefore up to the book’s addressees to eventually verify its ideas.