A call to stand up for European values in Malta

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Pro-EU, but not press freedom: Malta. [Derbeth/Flickr]

EU leaders must use the Valletta summit to challenge the authoritarians in their ranks and reassert Europe’s founding values, writes Brigid Laffan.

Brigid Laffan is the director of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies and the Global Governance Programme at the European Institute Unversity.

Europe’s leaders meet in Malta on Friday (3 February), just two weeks after Donald Trump’s inauguration as US president. Both his words and actions put the EU on guard. The era when a commitment to and support for European integration was central to US foreign policy is over. There should be no wishful thinking in Malta. President Trump has been equivocal in his support for NATO, although UK Prime Minister Teresa May attempted to lock him into saying that he was 100% behind the defence alliance at their first meeting. Trump also appears to be a cheerleader for Brexit, which in his own words “will be great”. His likely ambassador to the EU, Ted Malloch, said that he would “short the euro” which is an outright declaration of hostility. Bluntly, the Union is being caught in a pincer movement involving Vladimir Putin and Trump. This marks a decisive return to hard geopolitics which is at odds with how the EU functions in the world. This is not a kind of global disorder that the EU is designed for or comfortable with.

A tempestuous international environment goes hand in hand with pronounced political volatility in the EU member states. Two of the EU-27, Hungary and Poland, already have nationalist authoritarian governments. The Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, is an admirer of Russian President Putin, who visited Budapest on Thursday. In speaking about the visit, Orbán’s chief of staff, János Lázár, said that 2017 would be an important year in foreign policy because “in place of multilateral cooperation, comes an era of bilateral cooperation”. This statement from a senior national official is chilling because it is at odds with everything that the EU has built and stands for. The EU has multilateralism in its DNA and is now threatened from within and without.

The meeting of the EU-27 in Malta is thus both timely and historic, ahead of the 60th anniversary (March 2017) of the Treaty of Rome. We must remember that this Treaty was negotiated just after the Suez debacle and in the shadow of the Cold War. The political leaders who signed the Rome Treaty were facing very turbulent times but had the courage and conviction to establish a framework of deep integration and mutual co-operation. On Friday this precious legacy must be remembered and re-affirmed.

Europe’s political leaders will no doubt be in sombre mood as they begin to come to terms with the Trump presidency and Brexit. But they must not allow pessimism to take hold. In the 60 years since the Treaty of Rome, the member states have collectively established a system based on common institutions, the rule of law and mutual respect. The EU has provided a relatively stable inter-state system that has added to the prosperity and security of its member states. It has provided a supportive framework for the modernisation and catch-up of Europe’s poorer states, the re-integration of the eastern half of the continent, and it provided European citizens with additional rights and protections that they would not have had otherwise. The EU, like all human constructions, is flawed but its flaws should not detract from the indispensable role it has played in post-war Europe.

What, then, should Europe’s leaders focus on in Malta? It is important not to expect too much given the uncertainty they face. The European Council always fails to live up to expectations. However, Europe’s leaders must begin by reaffirming their commitment to what has been collectively achieved, by emphasising the importance of European values, law and institutions. They must re-assert their commitment to the European model and collective endeavour. They must robustly challenge the unilateralism and authoritarianism of Trump and Putin and call out the authoritarians around the table. The EPP’s silence on Orbán and his Fidesz party is disgraceful. And they must speak directly to Europe’s people as this is a defining moment in Europe’s post-war history and there is a battle for hearts and minds. The EU must be the ‘other’ to the kind of world that Trump would fashion.

Beyond this, the EU has got to fix the eurozone by addressing Greek debt and the Italian banking. Four years on from the end of the acute phase of the crisis, the Union needs to put the euro on a stable footing. Addressing Europe’s debt overhang and low growth is essential as this has contributed to poor social and economic outcomes for far too many Europeans thereby sowing discontent.  The policy agenda on refugees, migration and security must all be processed given the pressures on Europe’s borders and the instability in the neighbourhood. Most important of all however is to remember the weight of history on their shoulders. They should be mindful of what Benjamin Franklin is reputed to have said at the signing of the US Declaration of Independence: “we must all hang together, or … we shall all hang separately”. Hanging separately, Brexit apart, is not in Europe’s interest.