Time for Europe to move with the times

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It's time for the EU to seize the mandate given by votes in May's European elections, writes Sophie In't Veld.

It’s time for the EU to make the changes demanded by voters at May’s European elections, and make the bloc fit to meet the challenges of today’s world, writes Sophie In’t Veld.

Sophie In’t Veld is a Dutch MEP for the liberal D66 party/Renew Europe group.

European parliamentary democracy is alive and kicking. In the last week of May, over 200 million Europeans cast their vote for the European Parliament. On the surface, daily life in the EU institutions seems to carry on pretty much as before. But look closer, and you see that voters gave the European Union a thorough – and long overdue – shake up. The 51% turnout, the highest since 1989, shows that they care. The fact that, for the first time ever, the two largest groups in Parliament have lost their overall majority, shows that they want us to change course.

Commentators are fretting that the European Parliament is “more divided than ever” and European politics are “fractured”. Quite the contrary: the end of the EPP-S&D duopoly will breathe new life into European politics. New majorities create new dynamics and end the paralysis. This is a golden opportunity to reshape the EU and make it fit to meet the challenges of today’s world.

If voters have given us a message of change, that change must also be visible in the choice of leadership. While the whole world is changing, European leadership has stubbornly remained composed of white, middle-aged men in grey suits. The past decade has seen a black man in the White House and (and very nearly a woman). London and Rotterdam have Muslim mayors. The Prime Minister of Ireland is an openly gay son of immigrants. Doctor Who is a woman and the next James Bond is black. Half the government ministers of Spain and Canada are women. In the next weeks and months, the new leadership of the EU for the next five years will be put in place. Now it’s their moment to catch up!

The world is changing rapidly and profoundly. Europe must change and adapt at the same pace. The challenges are massive, so the answer cannot be a small, weak European Union, stripped to the bone. The newly elected European Parliament and the new European Commission have a stronger mandate than ever to tackle the big issues head-on.

At the top of the priority list is the urgent need for action to tackle climate change. We are in a critical phase. Climate policies are not a threat to our prosperity, but rather an opportunity for innovation and growth. It creates new markets, new opportunities, new jobs. In the next five years we have to initiate the energy transition that steps up efforts towards a zero-emissions economy as well as ending our dependency on Russian and Saudi fossil fuels.

From left to right, all across Europe, citizens demand that we manage migration. Makeshift attempts to close the southern borders of the EU and outsource migration policies to unsavoury regimes have proved a failure in every respect. They have proved inhumane, ineffective and costly at the same time. We must do better. Containing illegal migration demands managing legal routes to Europe as well – something from which our ageing societies will benefit. In this next term, we need to adopt a comprehensive asylum and migration package, including legal labour migration. Only this can turn the current, negative narrative on migration around.

On the basis of new-found internal strength, Europe can re-position itself in today’s rapidly changing geopolitics. It’s a question of realpolitik. It is time to recalibrate transatlantic relations. The special relationship between the EU and US is robust and lasting, but it is clear that the US started to shift its focus towards other parts of the world, well before the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House. Europe needs to grow up and take care of its own foreign policy and defence. But that is not enough. Europe must become a self-confident heavyweight geopolitical actor, defending and promoting its values and interests worldwide. Relations with China should be deepened beyond mere trade relations. Europe also needs a comprehensive EU-Africa strategy, aiming for exchange and cooperation in the framework of a mature and equal partnership.

The same goes for the digital revolution. Europe is lagging behind, and increasingly the digital platforms that run our lives, are in the hands of American or Chinese companies. We depend entirely on non-European companies and governments for basic services and information. Raising protectionist walls will not do the trick. We have to further open up the internal market and grow our own giants, based on our own European values and needs. A European Commissioner should get the complete digital portfolio, covering all aspects, technological as well as ethical, big data as well as data protection.

The biggest threat to European unity is not an external enemy, but forces from within, attacking European values. Strengthening the European community of values and law will be an overarching priority. Setting up a comprehensive mechanism to uphold democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights is an absolute must for the next Commission.

Laws and standards are useless if they are not applied in practice. Revelations of a diesel emissions scam, money laundering by banks in various member states, massive fraud with EU funds, or abuse of personal data for election meddling, have shown that oversight and enforcement are insufficient in the EU. National governments flouting the rules on asylum, fiscal discipline or the rule of law pose a threat to the EU as a whole. The Council has acknowledged this in its draft “New Strategic Agenda, and it must therefore be among the top priorities of the new Commission.

In this parliamentary term, we should finally implement the pledges of the founding fathers in the 1957 Treaty of Rome: “to ensure the economic and social progress of their countries”…and ”the constant improvement of the living and working conditions of their peoples”. We will create a Europe that protects its people and their rights. A social Europe is too important to leave to the populists. The EU should not duplicate national policies. But as well as addressing cross-border issues like tax avoidance or social security and labour mobility, we need to set common standards. Issues like income inequality, poverty and youth unemployment are common European challenges. In this term, the social pillar must be converted from a political declaration into solid legislation and policy measures.

The extended deadline for Brexit comes up on October 31. It would seem that the political deadlock in the UK can only be resolved by a people’s vote or new elections. It is painfully obvious that the promise of Brexit bliss was always a cynical lie. The EU27 must prepare for every possible scenario and provide clarity to people and businesses. Whatever the scenario, the EU shall not give in to blackmail and threats, and any further delay shall be granted for a specific purpose, like a people’s vote or an election.

But reacting to Brexit is not enough. We urgently need a coherent vision on the future of the European Union. We need to further strengthen European parliamentary democracy and redesign the electoral process, in such a way that in 2024 European voters will be able to vote for truly pan-European candidates, and use their vote to designate who their political leaders shall be.

That vision needs to encompass a road map to the accession of new countries. It is clear that some aspiring countries are nowhere near meeting the conditions for membership. But it is equally clear that without a European prospect, they will turn to other powers, such as Russia.

To achieve all the above is a daunting task. But on May 26, European citizens gave us a clear mandate. We have a duty to fulfil their expectations. And we have every reason to have confidence that we can do it. Europe is strong and resilient. We tend to underestimate what we are capable of, when we join forces. Just look back and we see we have created the best continent in the world. And we will show the world what Europeans are made of. If we work together, we can do anything!

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