The World Economic Forum missed European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Thursday (24 January), but presidents, prime ministers, and ministers from all EU countries were there to send the message that Europe is back.
Europe has been pulled in many directions because of the many crises of the last 10 years, but the mood of EU leaders participating in a multitude of high-level panels in Davos on the future of the Union was one of cautious optimism.
“There is no room for complacency,” said Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, stressing the need to bring the citizens on board and increase their confidence in the European project.
“We need to make them understand the added-value of the EU in delivering solutions for the major challenges facing the continent,” he added.
The list is long. From tackling migration, to strengthening the Eurozone, improving education so that it meets the needs of the labour market, to speeding up the industrial transformation to deliver on climate goals.
“In all these areas you cannot do better than in the EU. Together we will have the strength to achieve meaningful reforms, compete on the international market and have more cohesive societies,” he added.
A new report released this week by the Commission think tank, the European Political Strategy Centre, showed that investment in Europe has recovered, GDP and productivity growth continues and EU employment is at an historic high.
In 2016, the EU27 attracted €424 billion worth of foreign direct investment (FDI), against €391 billion in the US, making it the world’s top destination for foreign investment. Not to mention that the EU continues to be the largest trading bloc in the world.
But Europeans don’t see it, because the work is incomplete. Dutch Prime minister Mark Rutte conceded that a lot more needs to be achieved to reap the full potential of the Single Market.
“We can still add half of the size of the Dutch economy to the EU single market,” he said, adding that it was time to move beyond goods and finalise the digital single market.
“We need to take the necessary steps now that the sun is shining,” he added.
The better balance of power between France and Germany can accelerate reforms, which many insiders believe that the imminent departure of the UK could increase the pace towards a stronger Union.
Observers in Davos could not avoid noticing that French President Emmanuel Macron’s speech on Wednesday did not separate France from Europe and neither did Merkel’s.
This new momentum has the potential to create a sense of ownership which has often been undermined in recent years by politicians blaming Brussels for national problems.
“The answer to populism is leadership and the best way to respond is to deliver on jobs and growth,” said French Minister of economy and Finance, Bruno Le Maire.
“If the European Construction doesn’t give some positive outcomes for the people it will be the end of Europe. But if you can prove there is leadership and the ability to take decisions and improve the concrete daily lives of every citizen then Europe will move forward,” he argued.
Build the narrative to get Europeans on board
This time, insists Maurice Levy, chairman of the supervisory board of Publicis Groupe, the EU’s ‘narrative’ needs to be embedded in the delivery.
Europe has failed in the past to tell its story, Levy said. Today it is possible to carve a new narrative, Brand Europe based on democratic values and culture, he continued.
Le Maire repeated the narrative stressed by Macron in Davos.
“We have China which is booming, we have the United States which are defending their own interests, we need a strong Europe. We need Europe to become an economic continent and political power with our own rules, with the capacity of defending our own interests,” he said, stressing the need for the Eurozone to have a functioning banking union and a capital market union.
Professor Jan-Werner Müller could not help by adding a touch of realism to the rosy picture.
He pointed out that the European project was not founded for economic, but political purposes – for peace and consolidating democracies under the rule of the law.
“From that perspective, Europe is in a deep crisis. We have two member states, which are systematically violating these basic principles, one of them is getting away with it, Hungary. Poland doesn’t have that luxury, it’s only protector is Theresa May and she is on her way out,” he warned.
In Davos, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki defended his country’s judiciary which “will be much more independent and objective and transparent and efficient – because we spent 1.8% of our budget on the judiciary system which is three times more than average than the European Union.
The thorny issue risks to spoil the party. But Lithuania president Dalia Grybauskaité, who is known for her skills of persuasion, told EURACTIV in an interview that the rule of law was a core EU value.
Historian Timothy Snyder, from Yale University, told EU leaders to put themselves in Poland’s shoes. “This government associates the EU with Germany, which they see as a threat to their sovereignty,” he said. “I think they have it backwards—the EU can preserve their sovereignty. I think they are making a mistake, that can’t fully grasp.”