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The EU isn't too big to fail, but it is too important to

Contrary to Nigel Lawson, the EU is not a monstrous bureaucracy, but the policy mix of austerity and reform is failing.

The EU flag flies in front of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Photograph: Getty Images.

I spoke at the Annual European University Institute "State of the Union" conference yesterday. It takes place in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, adorned with 500 year old frescoes commemorating the first Florentine Republic after the expulsion of the Medicis – a good reminder that the process of European integration has deep roots.

There was a lot of realism – about the continuing challenge of the euro crisis, about the long-term nature of structural reform, about the gulf between too many citizens and European governance. But there was also a deep determination to preserve the gains of the past – for example in President Barroso’s speech – and wherever I went, a desire to see Britain as part of the European future. In my contribution, in the session on governance and institutions, I made five points.

First, that the debate about legitimacy and efficiency/delivery is happening all over the world. The Chinese are thinking about it; the Americans are debating it in the discussion of 'gridlock'; it is part of the debate in the Arab world as governments elected after the revolutions of 2011 are faced with real economic and social choice. In Europe, legitimacy has two elements – the 'one nation one vote' principle embodied in the European Council, and the 'one person one vote' principle in the European Parliament. The danger for the EU – as elsewhere – is whether legitimacy AND efficiency is missing.

Second, the protest politics in Britain, Italy and elsewhere, is not just (or primarily) about frustration with the EU; it speaks fundamentally to frustration with the traditional politics of centre-right and centre-left, and the desire for a new political alternative. For me, that is about rejuvenating social democracy, but there is no point in hiding that a traditional social democratic offer of social justice through state redistribution is not going to work or sell.

Third, the EU’s biggest problem is its delivery deficit, not its democratic deficit. This is not a new tune of mine, but while some of the EU’s work is very good indeed – I have just spent two days in Brussels preparing for my International Rescue Committee role and learning about some outstanding European development work in crisis-hit places – the policy mix in response to the economic crisis is still some way from bringing closer the light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t buy the Nigel Lawson argument that the EU is a monstrous and marauding bureaucracy, but the policy mix of austerity and reform is out of kilter with the economic needs in a balance sheet recession.

Fourth, there is a pressing and outstanding agenda for Europe’s soon to be 28 members, beyond the euro crisis. I won’t rehearse again what this covers, but the sense that there is traction on youth unemployment and migration is encouraging.

Finally, the twin narratives of Europe’s development so far – peace on the continent, and reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall - need to be supplemented by a clarion call that Europe’s purpose is to help its citizens achieve prosperity and security in a 21st century marked by shifts in global power. This cannot be done at national level alone, nor by ad-hoc alliances around the globe to take forward trade promotion or security cooperation.

I don’t buy the argument that Europe is 'too big to fail'. But I do buy the case that it is too important to fail.

David Miliband is the incoming President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee

This piece originally appeared on his blog