There is a small window of opportunity to restore citizens’ trust in the European Union ahead of 2017, when both France and Germany will hold general elections, and the UK is expected to have a key referendum on its membership to the EU.
Meeting at the annual ‘State of Europe’ conference, organised by Brussels-based think tank Friends of Europe, participants pointed the finger at the useless debate of “more or less Europe” which is dividing the union.
The rise of the far-right at the last European elections was built on social anxiety. Extremist parties such as France’s National Front have managed to seduce people deeply affected by unemployment, precarious living conditions, and a lack of hope for the future, policy-makers lamented.
Forget the United States of Europe
And while France struggles to solve its internal problems, it falls short in its key role of maintaining the Franco-German axis, policymakers argued.
“The Franco-German engine is working less and less, with Germany growing less and less patient with France,” said Ulrike Guérot, director of the European School of Governance (EUSG).
What she called a downward spiral will culminate in 2017, when both countries will hold general elections and the UK will likely hold a referendum on whether or not to remain a member of the European Union.
The electoral campaigns are likely to become poisonous, with the three countries going against each other. To avoid such a scenario, politicians must stop talking about more or less Europe, but rather of a better Europe.
Quoting the inspirational speech that German president Joachim Gauck made over a year ago, Guérot argued in favour of a ‘Res Publica Europea.’ “The European Republic is under construction,” she said brandishing a postcard with the slogan.
“If we open the space for a different discourse, we shift away from the deadlocked discussion of the United States of Europe towards the European Citizens. Shift away from European integration towards European democracy,” she said, arguing for a post-national Europe.
Being at a junction, with the new institutional cycle – a new European Parliament and new Commission – there is a sense that it is now or never.
“We need to restore trust with bold actions,” Elisabeth Guigou, President of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the French National Assembly, said in a written statement, noting that people expect the EU to tackle their concern first and foremost on youth unemployment.
The creation of an EU minimum wage goes in that direction of putting an end to social dumping, she claimed. Today, 21 out of 28 EU member states have established a minimum wage with very large disparities. Setting the minimum wage at 60% of median wage in each country could bring consensus, Guigou argued.
But consensus is hard to find, cautioned Stefano Micossi, a former European Commission director general for industry, and current director general of Assonime, the Association of the Italian Joint Stock companies. “There is no sense of EU common direction,” he said. “If we don’t have a common view, how do you expect people to trust their leaders?”
For Ulrike Guérot, it is undeniable that the national versus European discourse is preventing the EU from moving forward. A better Europe would demand shifting the debate, now built along national borders, towards a centre versus periphery debate, said Guérot, noting that rural areas across the EU are being left behind.
Departing from business as usual will require “courage”, added Conny Reuter from Solidar, lamenting that “Brussels” isn still too often made the scapegoat of national failures.
Speakers proposed two ideas in order to move away from the divisive discourse, and rebuild trust: 1) Make citizens live Europe through domestic policy, according to Anna Terron, special representative at the Secretariat of the Union for the Mediterranean, and; 2) Enhance cooperation between the European Parliament and national, regional parliaments, insisted Guérot.