Time to ask the Eurosceptics what they would suggest

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

Britain is perilously close to the cliff edge of a no-deal Brexit, but so too is the European Union on the brink of serious trouble. Sweeping advances by populists in many EU member states could wreak havoc after next year’s elections to the European Parliament.

Strange to say, the ways to defuse both Brexit and spreading Euroscepticism are broadly similar. Voters need to be asked precisely what they don’t like about the European project and how it is managed.

The EU has for many decades been the butt of barbs and hostility, notably in the UK, but not exclusively. None of the major political parties there has ever come forward with cogent ideas for re-fashioning it. Nobody, whether in Brussels or in Westminster, has said “If you don’t like this model of European cooperation, what arrangements and responsibilities would you prefer?” And that’s equally true of other countries where the EU’s popularity is waning.

It’s time the sexagenarian EU was revived and its ramshackle structures rebuilt

A modest stab at this question was made fifteen years ago with the European Constitutional Convention. Its discussions were often highly technical, and when too politically sensitive they tended to move behind closed doors. The starting point was an assumption that all was broadly well with the EU, but that it needed a little fine-tuning. In the event, its key ideas were torpedoed when French and Dutch voters took fright at the idea of a single European constitution.

The premise among the hundred or so delegates to the convention was that ‘Europe’ enjoyed widespread popular support. And indeed, the project of ever-closer union was then at its apogee, following the successful launch of the single currency and the EU’s imminent ‘Big Bang’ enlargement. But that was then; ours is now a very different world, and the EU’s structure and mechanisms are failing to keep up.

If the European project is to survive the populists’ onslaught, it must be seen to respond to their criticisms, whether they are over migration or are longstanding gripes about Brussels’ unresponsiveness.

But Brussels has been sending a very different message. Along with Europe’s mainstream parties, it criticises the populists for being unrealistic but stops short of challenging them to put forward their own policy prescriptions.

Most people with more than a merely passing interest in the EU’s affairs know what’s wrong. Hardened political arteries have led to the EU’s institutions being overdue for reform. The commission often has the right instincts, but not the courage to communicate well with public opinion. Its leaders – the commissioners – are mainly chosen on a “Buggins’ turn” basis and lack profile and therefore authority.

If the European project is to survive the populists’ onslaught, it must be seen to respond to their criticisms

The parliament, although technically very competent, is widely perceived as irrelevant to people’s lives, hence plummeting voter turnouts. And ministerial councils, including the summit meetings of national leaders, are derided both for their deadlocks and for their failure to inspire confidence.

Until Europe’s citizens are reassured that something will be done about the lacklustre aspects of the EU, they’re likely to continue listening to the siren songs of the populists. Brussels needs to wake up and announce a major re-think if it is to rekindle citizens’ enthusiasm.

Overhauling the EU should involve a Europe-wide debate, preferably based on independent evaluations of what works, and what doesn’t. Not only in a practical sense, where the EU usually scores well, but also in political terms, meaning voter recognition and support. This initiative could at least be announced in the run-up to the European elections.

It’s time the sexagenarian EU was revived and its ramshackle structures rebuilt. It’s also time to go head-to-head against the populists. They are no more than opportunists exploiting the deficiencies of a European Union that has been so loath to reform itself.

Track title


Stop playback
Video title


Africa initiative logo