As EU emerges from “valley of tears”, there’s hope but also challenges

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Shada Islam
Shada Islam

Managing Director at New Horizons Project

What a difference a year makes. This time last year, in his annual address on the “State of the Union”, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker warned the EU was “at least in part in an existential crisis” and that too many “unresolved problems” stared us in the face.
Since then, things got worse ‒ at first. Donald Trump moved into the White House, Britain started negotiations on its divorce from the EU and nasty politicians emerged from the woodwork, threatening the liberal order.
But guess what? It’s not that bad anymore. While most Americans still struggle to make sense of the president they elected, Europe has bounced back. French President Emmanuel Macron is making all the right noises about Eurozone reform and the need to “rebuild” the EU. He can count on the support of the next German leader, whether it is Chancellor Angela Merkel or Martin Schulz.

Is the EU really out of the “valley of tears”?

So is the EU really out of the “valley of tears”? And if so, what can be done to transform this temporary reprieve into permanent peace and progress? Here are some suggestions:
Stay calm in the midst of all the horrible noise, fury and bluster. It’s a loud and distracting world, crisis-ridden, moth-eaten and getting noisier by the day. If it isn’t Trump tweeting, it’s frothing and fuming over Brexit that dominate our lives. Like it or not, the EU is the adult in the room. And the authority it exerts now comes from quiet self-assurance and grace under fire. As EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said recently, “being peaceful doesn’t mean being weak”. Let it stay this way.

Change with the times. It’s no use hankering after “US leadership” or the “good old days” when the West ruled the world. That post-World War order is over, forever. It won’t come back after 4 years or even 8 years of Trump. The world is moving on, quickly. The EU should use the coming years to forge its own global identity, move out of America’s shadow and build new strategic friendships – and reenergise existing ones – especially with the new kids on the bloc, China and India.

Even as they rejoice in Europe’s renewed drive, EU policymakers should be careful not to come across as complacent and arrogant in their interactions with European citizens and a watching world. The populist threat in Europe has not disappeared. The East-West split over refugees, values and freedom of expression is serious and dangerous, tarnishing Europe’s global reputation. Brexit will be a drain on energy and resources. The current peace is not permanent but should be used to develop a new self-confident European narrative which resonates with citizens.

Start getting serious about tackling the many challenges in its neighbourhood. It is fine to criticise and slap sanctions on Russia, seek an end to membership talks with Turkey and to put off further enlargement with the Western Balkans states. But these tensions cannot go on. Like it or not, the EU has to find a way to stay engaged with the “bad hombres” in its immediate neighbourhood. And even if it puts relations on hold with governments, there must be no suspension of ties with the region’s people who continue to look to Europe for badly-needed succour and support.

Avoid creating Fortress Europe. The EU has welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants in recent months and has kept its doors open despite the populists, internal divisions and a nagging press. While the number of people seeking to enter Europe may have gone down, young men and women looking to escape war or find a better life will continue to come to Europe. It’s important to start a serious rethink of EU immigration policy, especially in view of Africa’s growing population and Europe’s shrinking and ageing one.

Keep Europe open for business. Interestingly, while the US withdraws from trade deals and contemplates new ways of protecting domestic producers, the EU has been seeking out new trade deals with an array of partners. The recent EU-Japan political deal on a free trade agreement has sent the right message on Europe’s desire to keep its markets open. The EU is right to demand better access to foreign markets. But it would be a pity if that message of openness was overshadowed by ill-thought, stringent new moves to keep out foreign investments.
The short list above is not comprehensive. There will be much more to do in the months ahead. But it’s time to make a start.

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