Nicolaïdis: Reflection group plans ‘big event’ ahead of EU summit

Kalypso Nicolaidis.jpg

The Reflection Group which recently published a report about the challenges facing Europe between now and 2030 would like 2014 to be the benchmark date by which Western Balkan countries should be given firm assurances on their EU accession, Kalypso Nicolaïdis, a member of the group, told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.

Kalypso Aude Nicolaïdis is a Franco-Greek professor of international relations at the University of Oxford. She has advised current Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou on European affairs since 1996 and chaired an international group of expert advisors on the Convention on the Future of Europe.

She was speaking to Georgi Gotev.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

Professor Nicolaïdis: the Reflection Group's report is out now, what next? Are you going to present the report to group of citizens or think-tanks? What are your plans for the following weeks?

For a start, we all hope that the European leaders who requested the report in the first place will engage with it. Beyond the Council, the various members of the Reflection Group are committed to promoting these ideas in the public space, and we want to do this – individually or together – by taking part in debates and conversations with citizen groups, NGOs, think-tanks, politicians, MEPs, MPs, unions and so on interested in these issues. This we can do in our respective national but also professional languages.

In the short term, we're planning to hold a big meeting with NGOs, think-tanks and foundations in Brussels on 16 June, the day before the EU summit. We do not want to pontificate but rather have a conversation, hear reactions and discuss ideas on what concrete implications people will come up with.

Aren't we talking about making up for what did not take place before? If I am not mistaken, you are the most cosmopolitan member of the group by your background and you were one of those advocating for greater transparency during these one-and-a-half years of work…

Well, it is true that some of us, including Žiga Turk [the Reflection Group's secretary-general, formerly minister for growth in the government of Slovenia] and Lykke Friis [who left the group to become minister of environment for Denmark], were keen in particular on using the web as much as possible, through virtual consultations. Other members had legitimate concerns about our limited capacity.

In the end, we did consult many experts, individually or as a group, as well as foundations, think-tanks and research centres, even if it wasn't on the scale that I would have hoped.

To be fair, we did not try to pretend that this was not an exercise in democratic deliberation. We were nominated by the Council as supposed 'wise' persons, and selected for our complementarities. We propose a diagnosis, not necessarily always original, simply as a contribution to the debate on Europe's future, which is pretty vibrant if you look at the web, even if not in the wider public.

It's the EU leaders who should pick up the ideas and start real action. Isn't this the philosophy?

Indeed. It is up to European leaders to take decisions, which is what they were doing on the very weekend we issued the report, as everyone knows, by spectacularly reforming economic governance in the EU.

The message of the report is that it is change on this scale that is needed – and most importantly needs to be sustained – in other areas like energy, education or security. And of course, the mood of the broader public matters too, and its willingness to accept the ways the unavoidable costs are distributed. Our role was not to provide a blueprint but elements of a diagnosis and broad guidelines for action.

The report seems to be a compromise – you were selected from different countries to reflect a balance. Some countries have reservations about certain EU policies and the report does not go very far in certain directions. If you were free to write it yourself, in what fields would you be more daring?

Sure, this is a compromise. It's a compromise in terms of substance, style and presentation, reflecting the sum of the biases and préjugés of these 12 people. But then again, in this we do reflect the EU's culture of compromise and consensus for better and worse. The debates we had during this period made it amply clear that we each have our pet ideas and proposals – but there was no need for the group to adopt such a laundry list! Thankfully, we all have an independent voice.

My own concerns relate above all to Europe's role in a non-European world, what I call its post-colonial agenda. For me the challenge continues to be that of translation between academia and the policy world, and making the best use of our overlapping fora – for instance I just published a piece advocating that the EU neighbourhood policy [must] be decentered, drawn from a report I wrote with colleagues for the European Parliament three years ago.

We need to make this conversation as productive as possible, so that the EU and its thousands of agents become increasingly self-reflective.

The report speaks about the need to change the tone of political discourse to ensure the support of citizens through better dialogue – perhaps this is a field by which you are inspired as well. What do you think is needed? We see populists, for example, who have no problem with their political discourse and get a very easy response. And we have EU strategies, such as Europe 2020, that get very little attention from the broad public…

This is old hat – I wish you would ask my students rather than me! There is no magic recipe for "the right discourse". We are not an autocratic EU, and we do not need a single top-down European story – I have a book in the pipeline arguing this.

Moreover, a lot of what the EU does is boring for the average citizen and it would be foolish to pretend otherwise. The EU is a hugely complex system of compromise-making and trying to make it simple in the eyes of the citizens would be doomed.

And yet, ownership of the Union does matter. It requires not only for national elites to stop treating EU decisions as if they were not themselves part of them; it also requires restraint in the other direction: European elites should stop blaming great swathes of Europeans for voting a certain way, for not understanding, for not really meaning what they put in the ballot box.

Perhaps most importantly, populists could be contained if people felt very concretely that the EU does not take away from them the control they have over their everyday life, but empowers them. And that means that EU matters should be much more deeply embedded in domestic politics.

Let me add a last point, dear to my heart. I feel that at the European level, we have failed to generate the sense of 'fun' and excitement that can attract new generations to politics. Politics should also be about the ties that bind, and exist alongside music, dance, poetry, theatre, art and culture. That's why I have long suggested the creation of a big European festival of European politics, a big 'agora Europe-Europe' which every year would gather people from all over Europe and all walks of life around political and cultural happenings.

You mentioned Europe and the world. It would be valuable to hear on your views on what Europe should do next with its neighbours: for example, we have the Western Balkans at our door, and Ukraine is not mentioned in the report…

Well, many countries are not mentioned in the report! Still, we mention very unambiguously our collective commitment to continued enlargement to all the official candidates, which of course includes Turkey. By stating that the true limits of Europe are applicants' capacity to adapt to the membership criteria, we reject the idea that any group of 'wise men' could draw a map in the sand and tie the hands of the next generation by determining once and for all what the borders of the EU should be.

We didn't have room to be more specific, but we were all clearly extremely committed to the next enlargement, that is to the Western Balkans. Indeed, we discussed the idea of making 2014 a benchmark date whereby the countries in the region would be given an absolute, firm commitment on accession and a clear road map laying out the last part of the journey.

At the same time, the EU would have strengthened the conditions that empower the 'agents for change' in each of these countries, especially when it comes to their capacity to fight clientelism and corruption by holding their government to account. I believe that Greece in particular is committed to this agenda –starting in its own backyard of course!

Maybe this agora that you mentioned could take place in this context?

The agora-Europe could take place in many different contexts. That is the beauty of it. But yes, that is a great idea! It could indeed start in 2014 and mark the celebration of 'Europeanness' on an anniversary of the darkest page in our history.

The European Parliament also speak about agoras: they recently spoke about a European Parliament agora on poverty. Should these annual agoras be thematic?

With George Papandreou, we started promoting the idea of an 'agora Europe' in 2002, during the European Convention. We were very happy to see that the European Parliament had taken this initiative around themes on which they might legislate. But let me also stress that the idea of agora-Europe that we are promoting is on a different scale – like a few hundred of these EP agora in the same week! And it would be multi-dimensional, more like a pop festival.

A kind of Woodstock of Europeanism…

Exactly. Which means that it should not be stalled by officialdom, but would be about engaging with officialdom, which is different from the European social forum, for instance.

With countries competing to host the agora, like they do with the Olympic Games?

That is a great idea. In the end, this is about letting a thousand flowers bloom, so if people have ideas about how this agora-Europe could be done, they should become part of the conversation.

There is no mention of agora in the reflection group report, nor the burka, for example. These agora could perhaps focus on issues such as European identity.

The agora idea, like many ideas, is one you can infer from the report where we call for more deliberative democracy. The report restates the big principles we are all admittedly familiar with and then it's up to each of us to propose specific ways of implementing these principles.

European identity, values and the meaning of belonging to the EU is certainly one of these topics that does not go away. I for one have long advocated that the glue that binds us together is not a common identity but a highly demanding form of mutual recognition of our respective identities as well as respective political contracts and socio-economic bargains, at the national or any other relevant level, as with cities and regions. This is what it means for the EU to be a demoi-cracy.

Sure, the question of Europe's Muslim neighbourhoods is at the heart of the integration challenge in Europe – and we need to deal much better with the interaction between these two kinds of 'neighbourhoods': minorities within Europe and our relationship with the Muslim majority countries outside Europe.

But identity and whether the burka is soluble in European culture is not the be-all and end-all of what the EU is all about. Other people might be more interested in discussing how the rule of law empowers minorities, how real free movement of doctors or patients across borders is still a challenge, how one might teach European history without overlooking mutual hatreds, or what we still have to offer to the rest of the world without paternalism. The EU is what each of us makes of it!

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