2016 has done little to make Europeans love Europe. They do not want disbandment of the EU but are unpersuaded that they need more of it. The Union’s problem is that its successes (maintaining the peace in Europe for seventy years; the single market; free movement; Erasmus; many protections for consumers, the environment and at the workplace; leadership on combatting climate change; massive support for R&D: leading the world in development aid) are either taken for granted or do not rank as priorities in this sullen age of angry populism. Fear of public opinion has stalled the project, the conventional wisdom now being that big proposals should be avoided, ambitions limited, with the Union concentrating on routine business.
This New Modesty Tendency would have the Union eschew all discussion of major reform, and just concentrate on completion of complex tasks like the Capital Markets Union (a real turn-on for the electorate!) or the Digital Agenda, doing the business on Brexit and limiting the damage of the refugee crisis.
This is to take the EU up a blind alley. Unless Europe renews its ambition it will fail to deliver on the questions which the public cares about.
The Commission should take a collective deep breath and lay out in a clinical analytical exercise the steps (new policies, adequate financing, institutional changes) needed to achieve Europe’s goals on growth and jobs; immigration and the refugee crisis; defence and security; making Europe’s voice count in the world and, the efficient combatting of terrorism.
Any serious analysis and prescription will upset national capitals: Berlin (and the Netherlands and Finland) will not like being reminded of the damage that the ruthless imposition of strict austerity rules has wreaked on European growth and employment: Paris and Brussels will flinch when told how their manic fiscal policies destroy jobs. And no member states seem yet ready to face up to the institutional and organisational changes necessary to make economic and monetary union work.
Securing Europe’s common frontier will be costly, and the burdens need to be shared equitably. The EU cannot ask Greece and Italy to do more while beating them up over excessive public spending. The Germans and the net contributors will not approve but this is a matter of solidarity and common sense.
Taking defence seriously is not just a question of more spending or organisational cooperation within NATO, it’s also a matter of common procurement to drive down costs and of task sharing. The British won’t like it, but as with Mrs. May’s missed dining opportunities, they can now always be asked to leave the room when Europe’s future is on the agenda.
In an age when authoritarian populists and nationalists are in the driving seat in the world, Europe stands out as the world’s best hope for sanity and peaceful engagement. But to count requires more than just using any soft power derived from being the planet’s biggest aid donor. At every stage the EU’s clout is hindered by the need to act unanimously. The world has moved on, so must we. Member states won’t like it but they will like Europe being marginalised even less.
The silo mentality that still exists in our own countries hindering information sharing and working together between the different national services seeking to counter terrorism is naturally prevalent in the EU. Cooperation between member states has actually thwarted a number of terrorist attacks but recent examples show that we still have a long way to go before Europe’s anti-terrorist measures can provide reasonable assurance to people that all is being done to protect them. Cooperation is the smart way to improve levels of protection, far preferable to the dumb way of scrapping Schengen which wouldn’t work and would be economically devastating.
If the Commission hangs back, waiting for a request from national governments for this kind of stocktaking, it will wait forever. If it factors in all the problems of getting a blueprint for the future approved then all ambition will be sucked out of the exercise. If it bides time until after the Dutch, French and German elections, another year will have been wasted, the Juncker Commission will seem increasingly lame-duck and more pretexts for delay further and further into 2018 will fatally sap its authority.
The Commission should simply state in clear language that if Europe takes a certain course of action, backs it with resources and any necessary organisational changes then it would indeed be possible to attain higher levels of growth and employment, protect Europe’s external frontier, increase our defence capacity, start to count in the world and protect better the Europeans at home. Conversely, these goals we all say we share will not be reached if these essential changes are not made. So we should stop pretending to Europeans that there is some easier, less painful way of achieving our objectives. There isn’t.
Maybe resistance in national capitals will be so great that any attempt by the Commission to kick start European integration will hit the buffers. But you never know until you try. And, quite frankly, what has this Commission to lose?
Things started so well for the Juncker Commission. The extra legitimacy of the new procedure for electing the Commission president; its five-year programme bearing the imprint of the Grand Coalition in Parliament; a new emphasis on the Commission’s right of initiative; a more political Commission; some early policy successes such as quick approval of the Juncker Investment Plan. But at half-term this Commission seems a busted flush, making a virtue of inaction, its initiatives seeming increasingly technocratic, its members colourless to the point of invisibility (with a few honourable exceptions like Mrs. Margrethe Vestager), its staff demoralised, its President whose mojo appears simply to have petered out, delegating too much authority to his ubiquitous henchman. Add to this the public relations disasters of Mr. Barroso’s new job, of Mrs. Kroes’ defective memory (‘Oh! I’m director of that company? Whoops, sorry, I forgot!’) and Mr. Oettinger’s motor mouth, and the Commission once again plays to the stereotype of a bloated, out-of-touch elite which sets ethical rules for everyone except itself. These peccadilloes are minor league but taken together they have major consequences.
So at the beginning of 2017, Mr. Juncker and his colleagues have a choice: business as usual (some of it important, including the Brexit negotiations) following a political agenda set by others, a Commission which marks time and to which things happen rather than one which makes things happen.
To paraphrase Roy Jenkins, it is time for the Commission ‘to leave its winter quarters’. It must show that Europe’s agenda is too important to be dominated managing the exit of a member state which does not even know what it wants. It needs to start speaking plainly and clearly about how the Union can up its game. It needs to confront the forces of conservatism in national capitals and it needs to start taking the argument to the public.
The Commission has a substantial communications budget (more than 200 million euros) but scattered as if by pepper pot on too many projects and organisations. This is a strategic resource and should be redirected to engage public opinion on the real choices for Europe: If you want a Europe that works for you, this is what Europe needs which is not necessarily what Europeans always want.