By John Wyles
The EU has never been a project in the real sense of the word, and nor is it now failing according to the eurosceptics’ chant. Projects travel from conception, to realization to completion. Instead, the EU evolves from one decade to the next sometimes succeeding and at other times failing to rise to the challenges that confront it.
Now it is in transition as the challenges, from Brexit to migration, from climate change to disruptive technologies, crowd in and possible solutions are politically difficult and technically complicated. Before the end of the year the burden of leadership will fall to a new cast of actors taking the stage in the recently elected European Parliament, in the European Commission, and as presidents of the European Council and the European Central Bank.
New leadership is needed to rebuild public confidence in the Union after a decade of austerity triggered by the 2008 financial crisis. Feeding off discontent, nationalist populism has found fertile ground across the Union for its message that an important part of the problem is the Union itself.
Eurosceptic tide receding?
It is obvious that the EU is struggling to recover legitimacy and trust across the Union. The recent EP elections give some reason for Brussels to hope that the rising tide of euroscepticism may be halting – perhaps even in Brexit-bound UK. After 35 years of steady decline, voter turnout rose from 43% in 2014 to 51%, and only in Italy did a populist party make the substantial gains that had been widely predicted for many others.
However, we should not expect a flowering of political coherence and stability. Fragmentation that for several years has been working to the benefit of both greens and right-wing populists at the national level has now arrived at the EP.
After decades of operating informal coalitions enabling them to control the Parliament, the European Peoples Party and the Socialists and Democrats, have seen their combined majority washed away. For the next five years they will have to make common cause with the insurgent greens and resurgent liberals. The outcome could be fewer stable majorities and more delayed decisions.
For its part, the new European Commission will have to cast its legislative priorities accordingly, although their sweep will not be much altered. The need for actions across a dauntingly broad front cannot be evaded and must include environmental and cyber protection, expanding the single market, embedding digital Europe, adapting to climate change, terrorism, migration and eurozone reforms.
Two contrasting visions will define EU politics
Classic left-right divisions may be less important in this EP than confrontation between pro-Europeans and nationalist eurosceptics. The latter want to recast the EU in a more intergovernmental direction with weaker central institutions. Le Pen and Salvini hope to nurture a pan-European political grouping of right-wing parties and movements, stretching from the True Finns in Finland to the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany, and the Danish People’s Party. On paper personal and policy disagreements suggest the project is too ambitious to achieve in a single parliament.
The advance of popular euroscepticism is a painful reminder of the failure of years of effort by the institutions to communicate and connect with European citizens. Perception of the Union is broadly favourable but weak, while knowledge of how the institutions work is non-existent in most countries. Brussels has long been under fire from its critics for being distant and remote, unelected and out of touch with peoples’ real concerns.
Huge threats calling for European responses
So how to explain the much improved voter turnout? The apparent strengthening of anti-EU populism certainly created a buzz around these elections, as did political fragmentation and sharpening polarization in several countries.
Perhaps even more important is the political centrality of cross-border issues requiring cross-border solutions. Jean-Claude Juncker, the outgoing president of the Commission, is not alone in identifying a pan-European desire for protection against perils that are crowding in from the social, economic and population upheavals wrought by globalization and climate change, to collateral damage inflicted by the rivalries between the US and China and the shadow of Putin’s Russia.
Opening the EU up to the people
Europeans are beginning to realize that they have to take charge of their own security against these and other challenges. Their best option for effective and disciplined collective action is the EU, not the self-standing nation state. But not before time the frequently justified complaints about the powers of “non-elected bureaucrats” are reawakening the old debate about how to make the EU more responsive to peoples’ needs and concerns.
In a recent report from Friends of Europe, Pascal Lamy, former director general of the WTO, comes to a conclusion shared by many others that long term survival for the European institutions depends on moving away from top down decision-making. Lamy sees an opportunity for a new social contract that “sets out individual, respective and collective responsibilities for the EU institutions, member states, citizens, the private sector and civil society.”
Scotland’s Centre on European Relations, by contrast, is one of several think tanks attracted by the idea of citizens’ assemblies that could be “a major contribution to revitalising the role of the EU’s citizens in shaping future EU policy.”
A timely vaccination
Would Brexit have leaped so destructively on to the national and the European agenda if the English had felt more involved in European decisions? Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, says that the extraordinary political agonies Brexit has inflicted on the UK are acting like a vaccine on other member states. Nationalist eurosceptics such as Le Pen’s National Rally and Salvini’s Lega are no longer talking about leading their countries out of the Union..
No matter where they stand on the political spectrum, MEPs from continental Europe cannot escape the reality that the EU needs greater cohesion and collective strength based on both hard and soft power to deliver protection and security for its citizens.
It is more tragedy than irony that the UK, with the mindset of a world power but without the resources to be one, should be contemplating a step that will take everyone in the opposite direction. Almost certainly, the UK and its partners will be less secure and weaker in their defence of the human rights and democratic values that express both their national identities and their European obligations.