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04/12/2016

Emily O’Reilly: Europe could face a ‘Marie Antoinette moment’

Future EU

Emily O’Reilly: Europe could face a ‘Marie Antoinette moment’

Emily O'Reilly called on the EU institutions to reconnect with the bloc's citizens in order to combat rising populism.

[IJ/ Flickr]

EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly warned that the bloc needs to create jobs and restore citizen confidence in order to stop a “wave of populism” in the West. EurActiv Spain reports.

At an economic forum in Madrid yesterday (30 November), Emily O’Reilly posed the question as to whether “Italy will be the third domino that will topple the international order”.

O’Reilly was referring to the interest with which Europe is following Italy’s 4 December constitutional referendum, which, according to recent polls, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is set to lose.

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That vote follows the UK’s Brexit result in June and Donald Trump’s US presidential victory in November. The “Ombudswoman” expressed her fears that the “wave of populism” and the EU’s reaction to the refugee crisis will be judged “harshly” by history. However, she did acknowledge the humanitarian effort that has been made by the bloc.

“With Trump, we have seen that racist and misogynist views are no impediment to reaching the White House,” O’Reilly complained, adding that the “old ghosts” that have reemerged in the US could “come here too”. She urged the EU to “listen to the citizens before we reach a point of no return”.

That point would be “the end of liberal democracy” if that populist wave swept Marine Le Pen to power in the French presidential elections next year. O’Reilly also wondered if the liberal European elite might soon face its own “Marie Antoinette moment”.

O’Reilly warned that the real problem of Brexit, the imminent arrival of Trump on Pennsylvania Avenue and what might happen in Italy and France is that it may “embolden” countries with a more authoritarian slant, like Poland or Hungary, to try and take advantage of what they perceive to be a weakened EU.

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“When people are worried about losing their job or are insecure about the future, populists find it easier to ride the wave of discontent to power,” claimed the Irishwoman, who also called on the EU not to look the other way when dealing with extremism.

In her opinion, “creating more and better jobs” and “investing better” in economic sectors is the best way to regain public confidence in the European institutions and officials.

She cited the case of former Commission President José Manuel Barroso joining Goldman Sachs and the resulting scandal as the “ammunition” that shouldn’t be fed to populism.

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“Democratic vigilance” is exactly what the bloc needs, as well as an adherence to European values, without resorting to the “minimum denominator”. However, O’Reilly acknowledged that it isn’t easy in a club made up of so many multicultural countries and different political traditions.

For years, Spain has been one of the “most concerned” about European issues and of the 261 cases opened in 2015 by O’Reilly’s office, 27 were Spanish. Most were related to social policy, health and consumer rights.

The refugee crisis “has worried us for many years”, said O’Reilly and praised Brussels for “having done many important thing in the way of protection”. However, she insisted that a “political response” is necessary to deal with aspects of the crisis that are beyond the “control of management”.

She admitted that this is no easy task, citing Angela Merkel’s much-criticised decision to welcome over a million refugees to Germany and the subsequent Turkey refugee deal.

Overall, she assessed the EU’s overall reaction as not being in line with the “values enshrined in the treaties”.

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Of the 261 cases opened by the Ombudsman’s office, many were concerned with how funds were being spent to manage Syrian refugees and how transparent the TTIP negotiations are.

The Irishwoman does not believe that Brexit will lead to Ireland reuniting in the “short or medium term”, although she conceded that there are many “political games” going on in Europe and “no one can say what will happen”.

O’Reilly also claimed that the Brexit debate is focusing more on the commercial aspect rather than the political issues.