Clearly identify and tackle weaknesses to restore confidence in the EU

Posted on May 7, 2014


We face existential choices if we are to avoid further shriveling of support for the EU. Weaknesses must be clearly identified and tackled.

[This article first appeared in Het Financieele Dagblad]

In May, we all have the opportunity to go to the polls to cast our vote in the elections for the European Parliament. Yet so disillusioned, bored and tired are we all of the European pantomime that few will turn up to vote. Many of those who do turn up will likely vote for anti-European parties which seem set to make significant gains in most countries.

The fact that the EU’s popularity continues to plummet in all countries and that anti-European parties continue to gain support no longer surprises anyone. What is more surprising is the seeming inability of mainstream parties to galvanise support for their cause. Why have the mainstream parties become so hopelessly feeble in the European debate and can anything be done to reverse the trend?

While the cause seems all but lost as far as this upcoming election is concerned, an existential choice faces those who wish to hold the European Union together: either persist with the current mindset and see support for the EU whither away; or make significant changes that can re-energize voters to support the European cause. What are the issues and what are possible effective approaches?

Respect for the people

We have all had enough of the undermining of democracy by a bureaucracy of technocratic elite. Through its roots as direct democracy in ancient Athens and modern representative democracy in seventeenth century England, democracy is a fundamental European contribution to the world – and, together with human rights and the reflection of our values in the rule of law, should lie at the heart of Europe’s soul. Yet the European Commission is run by unelected technocrats showing ever-increasing contempt for the views of ordinary citizens. The European Parliament seems utterly remote and irrelevant to most citizens as it bounces between Brussels and Strasbourg. The President of the European Central Bank seems more powerful than any elected prime minister in the Eurozone. National leaders are kicked out when they suggest holding a referendum on policies imposed by the European Commission. Normal, hard-working people who have legitimate concerns about issues like immigration and social cohesion are dismissed out of hand and labelled xenophobes. While businesses and individuals are all, rightly, being urged to behave with propriety and integrity in an increasingly complex world, they are then also being asked to tolerate a European Union that has, for nineteen years running, been unable to present accounts that can be satisfactorily signed off by its auditors.

If mainstream parties are to gain the respect of their own voters in their own countries, they need to address these issues head on and show a determination to tackle them – a determination that results in visible action rather than mere sound bites and promises that rapidly fizzle away. Are national governments ready to hold the EU bureaucracy to account, praise what is good (and there is much of that) but be just as clear in their determination to put right what is plainly broken?

Similarly, big businesses across Europe have become increasingly vocal in their defence of the European Union. They do not seem to realise that the louder they shout, the less support there is for a Union that is increasingly becoming seen as privileging the interests of business and capital accumulation at the expense of the ordinary citizen.

Turning the Tide

What will it take to turn the tide?

A friend of mine who works for the Council of Europe recently suggested that the disillusionment we are seeing is not a disillusionment with the EU but rather the EU has become the most visible – and the easiest – target for a broader disillusionment with a Western democratic system that is perceived no longer to be working. There is doubtless some truth in that. However, how national leaders respond to the current disarray will be an important component in whether they are able to restore the public’s faith in fundamental European values.

First of all we need a recognition that a response is essential. Next we need a clear acknowledgement of both what is right with Europe and what needs to be changed. Governments are elected to serve the people not to rule over them. Similarly, the Union exists to serve the nation states not to rule over them. Language and behaviours matter. The language of issuing ‘directives’, of requiring Brussels ‘approval’ before elected national governments can set their own budgets, and endless other examples all suggest nation states that are subordinate to an unelected bureaucracy. This is, of course, not the case. What the Commission is doing is simply enforcing rules agreed between the nation states. However, the behaviours and language create the impression of rule from Brussels – something that is, rightly, intolerable to many citizens. As European Commissioners travel around Europe, they should maybe learn to hold their unelected egos in check and use language and behaviours that reflect their status – that of servants not masters. Conversely, national politicians also need to show courage and leadership. They should not continue to hide behind Brussels directives for every unpopular policy they choose to implement. Neither should they seem to their citizens to be totally supine to everything European.

Third, difficult issues need to be acknowledged and tackled head on. Immigration may be becoming one of the core issues, yet a clear response from the main parties across Europe is notable by its absence. The standard Brussels line that the free and unfettered movement of people across Europe is essential to the single market is both untrue and serves merely to inflame opinion. The issues being caused by immigration are real and need real responses both at national and at European levels. There is much that can be done yet very little has been – a situation for which the anti-European parties must be hugely thankful.

Finally, the most difficult question of all – looking forward over the next 50 years, what is the purpose of the European Union? In a recent edition of Time magazine, IMF chief Christine Lagarde was quoted as saying that we needed “to focus on the long-term backbone of Europe to make it a strong regional, monetary, banking and fiscal institution.”  Really? Is that all that is left as a long-term backbone of Europe? It is no wonder that the European people are turning away from such a limited, pedestrian, insubstantial, dry view of Europe. It is time to re-develop an inspiring vision for Europe that is meaningful, that is based on fundamental European values and ideals and that can galvanize its citizens with renewed hope and vigour.

Scottish writer and philosopher Thomas Carlyle believed that the flaws of heroes should be openly discussed, without diminishing their achievements. So it is with Europe.