Stuck in an existential crisis, the European Union must shake-off its fears, revisit its values and achievements, and claim back its self-confidence, Frans Timmermans said in Brussels on Thursday (22 October).
“Europe is going through an existential crisis,” said European Commission First Vice-President, speaking at the traditional annual State of Europe event of Friends of Europe, a Brussels-based think tank. “What was unimaginable before now becomes imaginable: the disintegration of the European project,” he said, noting that the refugee crisis has brought this situation to the fore.
Discussing with EU grandees the root causes of the depression enveloping the continent, shattered first by the financial and Eurozone crisis, the Ukraine crisis, and subsequently the overwhelming influx of refugees, Timmermans warned against being taken over by fear.
“If fear dominates, people go looking for confirmation that the fear is justified,” he said, stressing that the politics of fear is being exploited by populist movements.
Refugees are humans not just numbers
Timmermans blamed politicians across the political spectrum for having become too practical and having abandoned the speech based on values. “We started talking about practical solutions to things like engineers instead of politicians,” he said.
That is particularly evident in the refugee crisis discourse. Talk about numbers and figures has progressively dehumanized the debate. “If politicians would speak about refugees thinking more about what they would do if they were in that situation, I think we could win the debate,” he said.
The financial crisis has spread the virus of mistrust and infected EU leaders, EU grandees agree. Divisions between North and South over austerity measures, and the Stability and Growth pact, has pushed out caricatures of lazy Greeks and German Nazi which are unacceptable, Timmermans said.
“If we compare the conclusions of the European Council fifteen years ago with the ones of today, every element needs to be negotiated at the highest level so that not one word can be construed in the right way. That is a blatant manifestation of distrust between member states,” he said.
“We are in a situation today where we lost track of what we share or the common destiny we should be building and we are looking especially at the differences between us. This is a true European illness,” he continued, adding that we constantly look for scapegoats and differences.
Friends of Europe President, Viscount Etienne Davignon, echoed the distrust among EU leaders, saying that in the past, divisions always were mended by a sense of complicity which does not exist anymore.
“We have to restore pride in our strategy. We should not be ashamed of what we have done,” he added, echoing Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, who spoke at the dinner prior the event.
Self-confidence in demand
More than pride, there is a real need for self-confidence, argued instead Timmermans.
“For the first time since WWII, the middle class feels that their children might be worse off than they are and that creates a lack of self-confidence and that permeates in all our democratic structure,” he commented.
To fix the lack of self-confidence and pride, Timmermans insisted for a real ‘retour to values.’
“The European ideals have still a strong support among the populations across Europe,” he said.
Europe cannot be communicated. Communication has been overplayed. “This has been done. Propaganda has been tried. It does not work,” he said urging for a discourse based on policies.
“If we are leading on policies, on setting the agenda, then we can be convincing,” Timmermans insisted, admitting the younger generation has a role to play if they break free of the silos social media has created around them.
We have now in Europe the healthiest, the best educated, the best networked generation in our history – the Dutch Commission first vice-president said. “That is a very good starting position. But there is an inability of getting organized. There is a feeling that if you put it on FB that’s good enough. It’s not. Society needs more structured organisations if you really want to change things,” he added.
For Europe to regain public trust, it has to regain its demographic soul,” said Zoe Konstantopoulou, former speaker of the Greek Parliament. “To regain the trust of the people, it should go back to trusting its people and to respecting them.”
“We are certainly dwarfed by some of the challenges around us, but so is everyone,” said Christian Leffler, Deputy Secretary General for Economic and Global Issues at the European External Action Service.
“Europe has not quite made a real choice yet to develop a vision of where it wants to be,” said Marietje Schaake, Member of the European Parliament and Commissioner of the Global Commission on Internet Governance. “I still feel that a real sense of urgency to make Europe the smartest continent on Earth is lacking.”
“The fact that we do not have a strategy for Syria means that the refugee crisis, as a direct consequence of what’s happening there, is more complicated,” said Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, President of the Dutch Advisory Council on International Affairs and former NATO Secretary General.
Turning to social and economic issues, Nicolas Schmit, Luxembourg's Minister of Labour, Employment and the Social and Solidarity Economy, said widespread feelings that Europe no longer cares about social equality are fuelling euroscepticism.
“It looks now like a Europe that puts markets above people, and populist parties want to use this,” he said.
- Friends of Europe: Never mind Europe’s crises, what about its future?