This is the trouble I’ve seen….
Honourable Members of the European Parliament.[i] Our European Union is, at least in part, in an existential crisis. Over the summer, I listened carefully to Members of this Parliament, to government representatives, to many national Parliamentarians and to the ordinary Europeans who shared their thoughts with me. Never before have I seen so much fragmentation, and so little commonality in our Union. Too many citizens have low trust in the European Union, as the low voter turnout for your Parliament shows. In many member states major groups voice not just criticism but propagate exit from the EU or giving up parts of its achievements, like the Euro. A majority of governments of member states wants to reduce the policy range of the Union and longs for a stronger role for the individual states. Only in some areas a stronger union is favoured: migration, defence, youth unemployment. And even then: The European Commission, with the European Parliament the embodiment of the “commonality” of the Union, has less friends than ever.
Pull ourselves together
Being an ordinary politician I could say: “Do we allow ourselves to become collectively depressed? Do we want to let our Union unravel before our eyes? Or do we say: Is this not the time to pull ourselves together?” And then I could propose some measures that hopefully would strengthen confidence in the EU. Measures that “deliver” desired goods to the public, like more safety at the borders of the EU or better EU-wide internet, or more transport infrastructure. If the member states think that this is worthwhile, the Commission will prepare proposals. But I think delivering more goods to the public misses the point. It would feel like bribery.
Divided member states
As members of this Parliament you know that the European Union is an imperfect democracy the European Union. We have too many captains on the ship: 28 + 1. Citizens need a focal point that represents them. 28 parliaments do not represent the European citizenry, and the European Parliament is too weak. Strengthening the EP is not a feasible answer, for now. We must recognize that there are strong divisions between the member states. The very quick expansion of the EU, from six states that were impressed by the ravages of the Second World War, via the “logical” entry of the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian countries and the happy return to the family of democracies of Spain, Portugal and Greece, to the historical repair of the breach that the Iron Curtain had made, brought together very different political and cultural families and a variety of economies with their own strengths and weaknesses. A Europe “a la carte” is a reality and seems to be growing (e.g. the Visegrad Group asking[ii] for “flexible solidarity” with regard to migration). Is that good? It makes for a weak Union, where members already are inclined to decide for themselves which agreements to keep and which not; the Euro budget rules are a case in point. This has the seeds of distrust in it.
Reculer pour mieux pouvoir sauter
We must recognize that some citizens don’t want a Union. We must recognize that the strength of the EU, its great variety of cultures and societies, is a political handicap. So we must seek for common grounds all over again. Maybe a free trade partnership is okay for most members. States and citizens that want to go further should stand up and make proposals. The Euro may be a liability and be split up or abolished, thus removing a strong cause of frustration. A northern and a southern Union may work. Meanwhile, the further expansion of the European Union with new members must be stopped until we know what direction we go, which families we want to form.
“Reculer pour mieux pouvoir sauter.” That is what I have on offer.
[i] Texts in Italics are literally taken from Juncker’s speech to the European Parliament on the 14th of September. http://ec.europa.eu/priorities/state-union-2016_en