Still no good news for the 'make-or-break' EU Juncker promised


Picture of Ana Palacio
Ana Palacio

Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Spain, former Senior Vice President and General Counsel of the World Bank

From the challenge of Russia to the on-going tragedy unfolding in the Mediterranean to the persistent sense of economic drift, Europe finds itself at an inflection point. The disaffection of European citizens looms large, and institutions in Brussels are perceived as uninspiring and directionless. This leads to an uncomfortable but urgently necessary question: What is the point of the European Union?

Last autumn, Jean-Claude Juncker was widely hailed for the radical redesign of what he himself proclaimed a “last chance” European Commission, but after nearly nine months the outlook is hazy. So far, Juncker’s new commission has chiefly led to much confusion within the EU bureaucracies. It has disrupted the traditional matching of the European parliamentary committees with the commission’s directorates-general, and the prior structure in which directors-general reported to a single commissioner has turned into a hodge-podge of solicitations, responses and endless co-ordination between many members and vice-presidents of the commission.

Juncker’s aim was to clean up all the red tape, but the drive for better regulation has so far seen a move away from formal legislation towards soft rulemaking, which means recommendations, guidelines, comprehensive assessments or even no regulation at all. The decision to scrap legislative proposals left unfinished from the previous commission, notably the “circular economy package”, has raised hackles, many in the Parliament where the move is seen as an institutional attack.

After nearly nine months the outlook is hazy

This bad blood has spilled over into the commission’s 2015 work programme, which parliament has yet to approve. Some major initiatives have been launched – the digital single market, the energy union and Juncker’s infrastructure investment plan – but on the whole these so far lack meat. Clouding the commission’s early months of 2015 was the uproar surrounding the ‘Luxleaks’ revelations about tax holidays for Luxembourg-registered corporations and the subsequent debate at the European Parliament with the tensions it created. The European Council, meanwhile, has maintained a level of unity and activity on key topics, but EU member states too often continue to display parochial attitudes driven by national interests. All in all, the make-or-break EU with its much heralded institutional structure has so far been characterised by narrow expectations and great disorientation regarding Europe’s future.

The tragedy of all of this is that it comes at a time the European project faces troubling challenges that require concerted effort, bravery and most of all leadership, which have been lacking except at rare moments of emergency. This has been the case while Europe’s overall economy has moved from crisis to morass, with occasional moments of high-tension brinksmanship over “Grexit”, or the even more likely “Graccident”. The EU’s tendency has been to act quickly until a threat subsides at which point interest wanes. During the 2010-2014 EU mandate, under Herman Van Rompuy’s Council Presidency, this gap-closing was impressive and resulted in fundamental changes in the Union’s structure. Yet it is far from complete and sorely lacks drive. Where, for instance, is the finalised Banking Union?

This confusion reflects the worrying trend in Europe in which there is a growing reticence towards forming an ever-closer union while openness to the membership of “any European State” committed to the EU’s core values dims. Throughout the European project there has always been tension between the widening and deepening, but now both are waning. Juncker’s announcement before taking office that there would be no new membership for the next five years was significant. Although none of the candidate countries was at all likely to achieve membership before 2020, formally foreclosing this avenue sent a message as did the downgrading of the enlargement portfolio vis-à-vis the neighbourhood policy. These two ethics, the embrace of the idea of Europe whole and free and the push for ever-closer union, have propelled the EU and its successes. Without them there is a real danger of an unravelling of the European project.

Looking beyond Europe, there is a new world emerging in which the EU’s place at the table, or that of any of its member governments, is not a given

Europe’s hesitant mood is exacerbated by its daunting neighbourhood. Pundits solemnly note that the Union has gone from seeking to create a “ring of friends” to having to deal with a ring of fire, but this turn of phrase only in part captures the reversal in the EU’s relationships with others. It has gone from generous and benign but what is generally considered non-essential activities in its near abroad to a moment in which the events in the EU’s neighbourhood have a direct impact on Europe’s own internal dynamics.

In the EU’s southern neighbourhood, the disorder that now extends from Syria to Libya to Mali has fostered the spectre of domestic terrorism in Europe, and has also brought to the fore fundamental questions over identity and immigration. To the East, Vladimir Putin has not only created the menace of Ukraine sinking into chaos, but is also dangerously threatening the political and territorial stability of some EU member states. Moscow’s insidious attempts to weaken Europe from within by courting populist and eurosceptic political parties like Hungary’s Jobbik, Syriza in Greece and most openly the Front National (FN) in France are aimed at more than breaking EU unity over sanctions policy but at breaking the Union itself. For Putin has identified the most fundamental challenge facing Europe: political disaffection.

The rise of emerging powers has created self-doubt among Europeans about the role of the Union in the world. Seven years of austerity have brought much uncertainty about governments’ ability to fulfil their end of the social contract. High unemployment and the bleak outlook for youth in many parts of Europe, along with the general perception of growing income inequalities, are fuelling support for re-packaged old ideas, anti-system rhetoric and rose-coloured nationalistic nostalgia for bygone days. It has been seen in Syriza’s electoral victory in Greece, the growth of populist Podemos in Spain, UKIP’s ability to pull the Conservative Party to the right, the sudden rise in Germany of Alternative für Deutschland, the comeback of the former True Finns Party and the FN´s string of successes in French local and regional elections.

This constitutes a serious threat of dysfunctional government at a national level, but it also poses an existential threat for the European construction. People’s identification of the economic crisis with the European Union is near-universal. Germans resent the EU for funnelling their taxes into bail-outs for the southern eurozone countries, while Mediterraneans, epitomised by Greece, scorn Brussels for the hardships of austerity. Everywhere there is the view, however contradictory, that the EU has both done too much and too little. The bulk of the criticism is in fact well-founded, as the EU has acted slowly and insufficiently. But some is plainly undeserved: Brussels has too long served as a convenient scapegoat for national governments. Regardless of who is actually to blame, the economic downturn has seen the perception of failure firmly attaching itself to the European Union.

Pundits solemnly note that the Union has gone from seeking to create a “ring of friends” to having to deal with a ring of fire

Looking beyond Europe, there is a new world emerging in which the EU’s place at the table, or that of any of its member governments, is not a given. This requires a reset in the way that we Europeans think of ourselves, of the role we want to play and the strength of acting together.

The palpable sense of disappointment and insecurity in Europe ignores our many assets. We enjoy all the advantages of free circulation, peace and genuinely high social standards. In general terms, Europe has an educated, healthy and diverse population, the vitality created by innovation and research and a belief in the rule of law and human rights that is ingrained in its DNA. But Europeans have not recognised these strengths and do not know how they can be translated into a new global role. Thus the fear persists of a world that belongs to others, and in more concrete terms Europe’s economic and social systems remain unadapted. This represents a particular danger for the European project, because it has increasingly relied only on prosperity as the central justification for its existence.

It was not always so. The original impetus for European unity was peace. The Schuman Declaration opened with the exhortation: “World peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it”. But with the early death of the proposed European Defence Community, and the Atlanticisation of security in the context of the Cold War, peace became less of a guiding force.

Prosperity – which was initially seen as a means – gradually became the end. The economic boom of the 1960s saw growth become a centripetal force within the shell of Cold War security. This was reinforced in the 1980s when, with François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl’s backing, Jacques Delors thrust prosperity to the fore with his Single Market drive.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 saw Cold War fears evaporate, leaving Europe to generate its own momentum. A push for a distinct rationale for the EU gathered momentum in governmental corridors through elite-driven projects, notably institution building and enlargement, with an emphasis on shared values. But these efforts were not enough to generate a political centre of gravity, particularly among the broader public, that would be separate from the overarching goal of prosperity. Now, the blame for Europe’s faltering economy has been placed at the feet of the EU, with more than half of Europeans telling pollsters the lives of their children will be more difficult than their own. This begs the question: Why have the European Union?

Societies tend to mobilise around big ideas. This can, as in the Cold War, be a threat, or a cause as with the American civil rights movement. Or it can be a project, such as European integration at its inception. What we lack right now is just such a big idea. These are concepts that cannot simply be manufactured, there must be a match between a push forward and public yearning. This has been the central problem of recent attempts to coalesce public support at the European level, notably the ill-fated EU constitution. There was just not a perceived need, so the narrative faltered. But today there is a simmering desire for something to rally around, along with a sense of Europe’s disarray. In the absence of a clear vision of the future from Brussels or any of the national capitals, the overly simple and uncomplicated messages of populism or nationalism are enticing for Europeans.

There is nevertheless a hunger amongst many for inspiration that offers an opportunity for a visionary message that would strengthen the self-confidence and legitimacy of the European Union. There are openings, but they must be seized: recent events within Europe and its immediate neighbourhood should translate into a convincing narrative that Europe’s very real security threats can only be faced in common; or more broadly engaging citizens in an ambitious new drive that would fulfil Schuman’s vision of a Europe that is a beacon of peace and ideas for the world. But first it is necessary for European leaders in general, and those in Brussels in particular, to be more ambitious and brave and to look beyond narrow short-term interests.

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