The result of the Dutch referendum was the latest in a series of serious setbacks for the European project. The second week of April could be remembered as the moment when all the fronts in Europe’s multifaceted crisis started to converge, writes Jorge Valero.
Jorge Valero is a reporter at euractiv.com
When Dutch voters rejected the EU-Ukraine association agreement on Wednesday (6 April), the EU’s week had already got off to a pretty bad start. In fact, this week may have been one of the toughest for the European Commission as a whole since Jean-Claude Juncker took office in 2014.
On Monday (4 April), the tax scandals that destabilised Juncker’s first days in office resurfaced, with a new leak of millions of documents exposing the myriad ways in which the rich can exploit secretive offshore tax regimes. The so-called Panama Papers scandal put the executive on the defensive again after it was revealed that one of the members of the College, Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete, was connected to the tax evasion scandal. His wife had an offshore company in Panama until 2010.
As if that wasn’t enough, on the same day, the Commission was forced to do some damage control on the Greek debt front. A wiretapped conversation between two senior IMF officials, released on WikiLeaks, showed widening discrepancies between Greece’s international lenders over the country’s bailout programme and need for a debt relief.
On a separate front, that same Monday also marked the first day of implementation for the EU-Turkey agreement aimed at stemming the flow of refugees seeking shelter in Europe. But the EU’s response to the refugee crisis faces an uncertain future, because of technical difficulties in implementing the deal and persistent criticisms over its shaky legal and moral foundations.
Just as the first group of asylum seekers were being returned to Turkey, the Red Cross took the unusual step of questioning the EU’s agreement with Ankara, a country which still has to fully ratify the Geneva convention.
Things only got worse on Wednesday. First there was the Dutch vote, which forced Prime Minister Mark Rutte to reconsider the EU-Ukraine trade agreement. The referendum did not only revive political turbulence on Europe’s Eastern borders. It also highlighted the widening gap between EU institutions and European voters.
Indeed, the Dutch referendum highlights a persistent trend for Europeans to vote against any form of EU integration whenever they are given the opportunity to do so. In the summer of 2015, Greek voters already rejected the harsh terms of a third bailout programme meant to fix the country’s finances. And in December, Danes voted against a ‘flexible’ opt-in arrangement on EU justice legislation, choosing to stay away from further integration.
Things do not brighten much on the economic front either. During a conference held on Wednesday to ‘sell’ Europe as investment destination, policymakers and analysts said loud and clear that Europe’s economic recipe was “not working” to use the words of Swedish former prime minister, Carl Bildt.
With 22 million people out of work and weak growth figures, the European economy is still in crisis, Juncker admitted at the conference, eight years after the financial meltdown in the US sent global markets into a tailspin.
“We have to do things better,” Juncker conceded. But despite the numerous calls for a revision of the European growth strategy, the former Luxembourg Prime Minister stuck to the EU’s failed mantra of “fiscal responsibility, structural reforms and investment”.
The EU’s struggle to handle its crisis was compounded by its host country’s failure to deal with with the terrorist threat.
Belgium’s Prime Minister, Charles Michel, confessed on Wednesday that “mistakes” were made before and in the aftermath of the March Brussels attacks. But he responded to criticism in the international press by comparing the four months it took to capture Salah Abdeslam with the ten years needed by the US to kill Bin Laden.
More than 30 measures will be implemented to correct the flaws detected, Michel said. But the reforms needed to avoid Belgium turning into an operational base for terrorists in Europe will take time. With only two months left before thousands of people flock to neighbouring France for the Euro football cup, time seems a luxury no one can afford.
This year was expected to be an annus horribilis for Europe. Juncker himself said at the last EU summit of 2015 that he had “no illusions” for the following year. The scars of the Great Recession, the refugee crisis, the unraveling of Schengen, the terrorist threat, the Greek saga and the risk of a ‘Brexit’ appear overwhelming challenges for today’s leaders, weighing heavily on the future of the European project.
“Europe is not capable of dealing with the big crises we face,” summarised Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the liberal group in the European Parliament, and former prime minister of Belgium.
Juncker labelled his mandate as the “last-chance Commission”. But his campaign manifesto is incapable of regaining the trust of European citizens, as the EU remains a half-built car heading toward the edge of the cliff.
For some, including Verhofstadt, it is high time “for another way of Europe” by completing the car and sharing more competences on the economic field, migration and security. However, many Europeans disagree.
It was only a matter of time before the perfect storm arrived.