The EU, more needed than ever.

The Covid-19 pandemic has made clear how divided, and sometimes selfish, EU-member states still react. However, it is obvious that fighting this “invisible” enemy would have benefitted from a better coordinated international approach.

The other gigantic challenges and threats (Climate change, social injustice, pandemics, terrorism, protectionism, etc.) that we face, require international cooperation too.

And for Europe, that means primarily strengthening the EU. At a time when nationalism and populism are on the rise, the EU is the only political force with a mandate and agenda of preserving the democratic values which are often too much taken for granted.

But at the same time, and not surprisingly, the EU is strongly criticized by those populist, often nationalist, parties.

Time to relaunch Europe, by promoting an engaging, and coherent, story: The EU, the defender of European citizens and fundamental values. In this article I propose the basis for such a new European narrative.

European institutions work better than people think.
The European institutions are working well (in some respects much better than many national governments), but certainly not optimally. The EU gives the impression that it is managed too bureaucratically and with insufficient democratic oversight. That undermines her authority, and thus her effectiveness.

The EU is deeply undervalued. National politicians, by blaming the EU for decades for all unpopular measures, are largely to blame for that. So are the media with their constant complaining about the “democratic deficit”. The EU is indeed governed by technocrats, but under the permanent political supervision of, and controlled by, politically responsible people (in the Council and Parliament). It is often the Council that blocks the well-thought-out Commission proposals or weakens them in such a way that the intended objective is no longer achieved. And it is not certain that the increased power of parliament (and thus supposedly increased democratic process) has benefited good governance.

The European institutions can rightly be criticised for not being sufficiently efficient and transparent. However institutional reform is slow and messy, as we have seen in the past. In anticipation of the needed institutional reform I end the article with 4 pragmatic approaches to immediately alleviate 4 institutional weaknesses.

A new vision for Europe

Von der Leyen has started her mandate as Commission President strongly, with a vision for Europe as a guiding force for building a sustainable economy. In this she can count on the support of two pillars of the EU, Merkel and Macron. After Brexit, Europe is more than ever driven by Germany and France. The departure of the UK is regrettable because its Anglo-Saxon approach formed a counterweight to the Berlin – Paris axis. But as the ever-reluctant member the UK formed a brake on the further, necessary, evolution of the EU. In that sense Brexit is an incredible opportunity.

With hindsight, the way the Euro crisis, under pressure from Germany, was tackled, was not optimal. To compensate for the necessary, long overdue savings and structural reforms in a number of countries, mainly in the South, Germany should have pursued an expansionist economic policy itself. And the extreme savings imposed on some countries had no economic logic. Only a political logic for the benefit of Northern public opinion. In Spain for instance, the savings of the last decade in the health sector, done by the PP government to meet the budgetary requirements of the EU, has had disastrous effects on the level of preparedness to meet a crisis such as Covid-19. With consequently the rise of the anti-European populist parties in many countries (in South, East but also, Northern Europe).

The EU must avoid making the same mistakes when tackling the post Covid-19 economic crisis.

A switch to a sustainable economy requires tremendous financial effort just as the economy makes a deep dive. The actual crisis should not become an excuse for side-tracking that vision. It is necessary to strengthen the present efforts to move to a genuinely sustainable and fairer economy. Just restarting the old economy will not do.
The “Green Deal” is a strong way to give EU policies a clear, and necessary, focus. But with the corona crisis, that plan is insufficient. There is now a need for a new “Marshall Plan” (to put it with a worn-out term): a huge amount of extra government resources, for a coordinated investment in the European economy to relaunch the economy based on the new vision.

With which funds?

A sharp increase in public debt and in national contributions to the EU will only be acceptable for the “rich” and “frugal” countries of the North if at the same time large savings are made on so many inefficient and unnecessary government expenditures. And the EU’s proper external cooperation programmes should no be exempt from such critical evaluation.

An increased solidarity between all EU member states is a necessary part of such a coordinated relaunch. Finding European-wide public support for such solidarity is essential.

In exchange for greater solidarity from the “richer” countries, the countries with a weaker debt position will need to be willing to make the necessary structural changes, and to accept a certain loss of “sovereignty”. “Good governance”, monitored by European institutions, should be a part of the new agreement. But that certainly does not mean another round of blind savings in a fruitless attempt to reduce debt to a mythical percentage of GDP.

Financing the additional resources (with new taxes?, savings?, financial repression?) on top of the already existing public debt mountain, requires an in-depth rethinking of our tax and social security systems. A more efficient, and fairer, tax system means taxing consumption and wealth accumulation instead of labour and wealth creation.

But we will also need to address the “limits of the state”. We must realize that society cannot take responsibility for everything that can go wrong in our lives. We must relearn to accept a dose of fatality and to continue to underline and promote the individual responsibility of each citizen. A new consensus on what are the essential roles of the state must be found. Funding should go primary (exclusively?) to those roles. In my opinion those roles are Education, Public Health, Solidarity (Social Security), Infrastructure, Safety (Defence and Public Order) and External relations.

That will require tremendous political courage and leadership. Courage and leadership that are now lacking. But the current crisis may be a catalyst for new leadership.

In the meantime, the question of future funding should not be a reason to wait for launching the new (economic) vision. Support for strong action now must be found by reaffirming the broad, essential mission of the EU (“reselling Europe”).

Europe, more than a “common market”.

“Europe” is still one of the positive forces for change. But the EU needs to reassert itself towards its citizens, with the help of its 27 constituting governments.

This by showing a new ambition in the following areas:

– The Green Deal.

The commission’s Green Deal is a way of giving a clear direction to the various existing competencies of the EU and thus making them sellable. A good basis for the necessary “Marshall Plan” to relaunch the European economies, in North and South after the Corona crisis.

Also, the basis for shaping the necessary solidarity within Europe and thus cutting the stride to the populists. We are not going to surpass the US or Asia economically. Europe only accounts for 17% of the world economy. But by making Europe strong in sustainable technology, a sector that will become particularly important for the future, we can maintain our position among the other superpowers, while at the same time creating pride again in Europe

By focusing on Europe as the fertile ground for a new way of life, with nature and man on the same level, not with man above the rest of nature, we can create a positive circle in which human well-being is central.

– Values.

Europe must firmly promote a number of fundamental values. These values ​​do not have to be reinvented; they are laid down in several treaties such as

  • The European Convention on Human Rights
  • The Paris Climate Agreement
  • The refugee treaty
  • ….

European values ​​also include the belief in the usefulness of multilateral organizations such as the United Nations, the WHO, … The functioning of these organizations is often sub-optimal, but they play an essential role in the development of international solidarity. So, it is better to criticize and to foment change from the inside than to withdraw from them.

Europe is the strongest defender of the laborious but necessary international partnerships and agreements, and the only true defender of the “human rights charter.”

This is the USP of Europe. Our influence in the world is based on that. We must act and embody this more than ever. In both our internal as external relationships the EU should rigorously insist on good governance, respect for human rights, and compliance with the international environmental agreements.

Therefore, to be credible, firm action needs to be taken against EU Member States that undermine basic democratic principles like an independent judiciary and press, or non-discrimination of individuals based on, for instance, their sexual orientation.

In that respect the hypocrisy of the European People’s Party not removing Orban’s party from the EPP group, is regrettable. European credibility is further undermined.

– Crisis management (and Healthcare)
The EU has remained largely absent during the Corona crisis. Indeed, the EU has few competencies in the field of public health. Reason why it has stayed on the sidelines while the various Member States took far-reaching measures, in a diffuse order, ignoring European rules and standards. The absence of European leaders when the various European countries close (and reopen) their borders is an inexcusable lack of political courage. A gigantic missed opportunity.

The European Commission must usurp the power to play a coordinating role in major (health) crises. If possible, with Council coverage, but in the absence of agreement within the Council, the Commission should take the initiative. If Member States do not have to follow the rules in times of crisis, the Commission can do the same if it has the support of enough Member States.

The European Commission should begin to make a public assessment of its lack of action during the crisis and retrospectively identify how a united approach at European level would have delivered better results in a wide range of areas.

– Defence

Since the second war, European countries have outsourced their defence to the US, via NATO. This model no longer works. NATO can no longer be regarded as the only defence mechanism for Europe. And this for the following reasons:

1) The US has made it clear, both during Obama’s and Trump’s tenure, that the US is no longer prepared to pay the lion’s share for European defence. They cannot be blamed for that.

2) In addition, the US has not been a reliable partner since Trump took office. There is no guarantee that NATO will intervene when certain Member States, e.g. the Baltic States, are threatened. Europe must realize that we must “do it ourselves”. We can no longer count on the US.

3) On the other hand, the US has dragged European NATO members into unwanted wars.

4) Last but not least, there is the situation of Turkey which takes its own military actions but remains a NATO member state and counts on the solidarity of the other NATO member states.

Starting from the idea that there is no real alternative to NATO, not in the short or medium term, Europe needs to build its own military defence capability and, on that basis, defend its specific interests within NATO as one bloc.

Germany and France, helped by Spain with its major external border, should take the lead here. If the UK wishes to participate, this is more than welcome, but that means that the UK must re-evaluate its “special relationship” with the US.

It will take political wisdom and courage to publicly reaffirm the importance of a credible and effective European defence. Bur Europe cannot continue avoiding the necessity of a genuine EU military responsibility in this increasingly hostile world.

Institutional reforms:

Europe works better than people usually think. This does not alter the fact that there are important obstacles to an efficient operation. However, institutional reforms are always exceedingly difficult and usually result in compromises that do not achieve the intended objectives of the reform.

Investing time and energy in institutional reforms at European level is therefore not a priority. Nevertheless, pragmatic efforts can be made to correct some institutional shortcomings.

Four concrete proposals to remediate 4 weaknesses:

1. Lack of European electoral lists.

The European Parliament is elected in national constituencies. This means that no one is accountable electorally for European policy. (Comparable to the Belgian problem where the lack of a “national constituency” makes government formation impossible). At least some of the MEPs should be elected on European lists.

This can be done pragmatically without an institutional reform at European level: Any country can decide to admit candidates for the European elections who are residents of another Member State. The European parties could then decide to place the same candidates for a number of (eligible) places on the lists in all countries. (This system can be launched even if not all countries are willing to join from the start).

2. Too many decisions within the Council require unanimity.

A pragmatic solution has recently been applied in exceptional cases: The Council takes a decision and some dissident countries are not bound by the decision. The Council should apply this much more systematically. This will allow for a more vigorous policy and publicly identify those countries that are not playing the game.

3. The non-transparent appointment of some European top positions.

The appointments to the 4 most important positions in the EU (The Commission President, the President of the Council, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and the President of Europe’s Central Bank are made during behind the scenes bargaining, in which a number of balances (region, gender, political affiliation,…) are pursued. This is not very pretty and has a negative effect on the EU image.

The attempt to appoint the President of the Commission through the “spitzen candidate” system (the “list leader” of the largest parliamentary group becomes President of the Commission) and thus to give the post increased democratic legitimacy has completely failed. And rightly so because that system was a caricature of democratic legitimacy. After all, the “list leaders” are appointed by the party administrations, and the elections take place on national lists, so that only a small fraction of the voters can vote for one of the top candidates.

Pragmatic proposal: The first step is to make the required qualifications public for each of the positions. A second step would be that individuals who aspire to these positions should make it public at least a month before the appointments are made.

4. Failure to respect European values.

The overt discrimination against homosexuality, the hidden discrimination against Roma, the undermining of an independent judiciary, are just a few examples of the ignoring of European values ​​in some Member States.

The European institutions appear to be largely powerless to do anything about this. The new procedure of democratic accountability launched by Didier Reynders, the new Commissioner for Justice, is a step in the right direction. It could include stopping financial aid to those countries based on a (qualified) majority in the Council or Parliament. In anticipation of further institutional reform a pragmatic sanction at party level is possible: The major European groups (EPP, Socialists, liberals, greens) should make a pledge to commit themselves to expelling national parties participating in governments guilty of anti-democratic policies, from their group.

A pragmatic relaunch of Europe

The EU needs to reassert itself towards its citizens by reaffirming the broad, essential mission of the EU (“reselling Europe”), and this by promoting an engaging, and coherent story: The EU, a defender of European citizens and fundamental values.

The story includes managing climate change, actively seeking the establishment of a sustainable economy in which private initiative and creation of added value are central, pursuing of structural cooperation to guarantee social justice, upholding essential rights and freedoms, and organizing crisis management and a common defence against external threats.

At the same time, some agreements can be made with a view to greater credibility and effectiveness of the institutions:

– The major European parties (EPP, Socialists, Liberals, Greens) must make a commitment to, on the one hand, place the same candidates for a number of (eligible) places on the lists for the European parliamentary elections in all countries, and on the other hand to commit to expel from their respective groups, national parties participating in governments engaged in anti-democratic policies.

– If unanimity is not found in the Council for important decisions, but an overwhelming number of countries agree, the Council must push through the decision, taking note of the dissident countries.

– The qualifications required for the appointment of some European top positions must be made public. A second step would be that persons who aspire to these positions must indicate this.