“Europe is back”, EU officials proclaimed at the beginning of 2018, buoyed by political impetus and the momentum of economic growth. The optimism didn’t last long. As the year ends, many lament the missed opportunity to deepen monetary union. But 2019 cannot be ‘business as usual’, they warn. The stakes are too high.
A senior diplomat says that we should write down the details of the coming period, as we may be witnessing history in the making.
Divisions have not only taken root within the EU family, but also among those who wish to leave the union. In the United Kingdom, the split between those who continue to support Brexit at all costs, and those who want to remain in the EU seems insurmountable, leaving the country in a dangerous stalemate.
But there is another and still deeper division in Europe and beyond, between the rulers and the ruled, between an elite and a citizenship that feels neglected.
The Brexit vote was just the canary in the coal mine, said one European diplomat.
“Unless we start getting serious about ‘l’Europe qui protege’, voters will tell us the same, only louder”, the official added.
French president Emmanuel Macron’s U-turn following the protests of the ‘yellow vests’ illustrates the zeitgeist of this period.
The European economy has been growing for almost two years, and public accounts look healthier. But the boom period was not felt by many. In Italy, dissatisfaction brought a populist and eurosceptic government to power.
On the other hand, member states were incapable of seizing the calm waters to bolster the euro.
Political and geographical centre
While the expansive cycle is running out of steam, EU’s political centre is shifting closer to its geographical one.
The Franco-German axis continues to lose dynamism, dragged by a defensive French president and a lame-duck German chancellor.
The traces of what Europe could bring are rather to be found in Hungary or Austria. Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban appears to see where history is taking us.
Faced with a world of complex problems, growing uncertainties and a clumsy Europe, its illiberal model offers simple solutions and a protective image. Less than 250km away, Austrian Sebastian Kurz whitewashed populist and eurosceptic forces by bringing them into his Government.
Kurz, the youngest prime minister in the EU, was among those to refuse to sign the non-binding UN Migration Pact this month, despite holding the rotating presidency of the EU.
But migration has not been (and won’t be) the only issue responsible for cracking the bloc. Progress on the economic and monetary union with further mutualisation of risks, either with European protection of bank deposits or the unemployed, remains stuck at the member states’ table.
In the first case, Germany represents the only substantial obstacle, while the Netherlands leads a strong group against any eurozone budget that could serve to cushion future economic shocks.
Against this background, the long-awaited package to deepen the eurozone turned into a minimal agreement this month, after more than a year of lofty speeches and technical discussions.
This depressing landscape should force pro-European parties to go all out ahead of the European elections next May.
But the combative spirit hardly shines, not even among the most pro-European governments.
”I believe that the EU should be much more ambitious,” said Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, when asked about the lack of progress at the last summit in December.
“Each government defends its national position as a country”, he said. Nothing else to add to drum up support, or to ignite citizens’ spirit in this critical period.
On the opposite camp, those who want to empty Europe from within see a substantial shift within the EU machinery within their reach. No matter if that implies burying their compatriots under a pile of debt, as in Italy, or dismantling the rule of law, as in Hungary.
“Changing Europe is a big goal,” Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini told Time magazine. “It is at our fingertips”.
“If you follow the trend of what has happened in Italy, Austria, Germany, France and other countries, the European Parliament will change,” Hungarian State Secretary for Communication Zoltan Kovacs told EURACTIV.com in October.
Orban’s spokesman strips populism of its bad reputation. Because, in his opinion, it simply illustrates the fracture between what people really want and the elite interprets about the European project. Voters no longer want to share more sovereignty, but maintain “effective cooperation between Member States,” he concluded.
But this 2019 will prove how cold it is outside the union. The UK economy will be surpassed by France, and by its former colony India. The glorious past Brexiteers hoped to recover outside the EU is back, but not as they expected.
However, the bloc has no reasons to boast. The self-searching process to agree on a common vision to complete the European project has failed to bring results.
A summit planned on 9 May in Romania risks becoming another milestone to nowhere, while the builders still argue about the future they want to share.
The Union will become more ungovernable next year. Although Eurosceptic parties will not achieve their goal of conquering a third of seats in the next European Parliament in May, few doubt that their position will be strong enough to hamper legislative activity.
More problematic will be the presence in the new Commission of at least a quarter of its members sent by governments allergic to European integration.
As some European officials lament, the common position is no longer the principle of “an ever closer union” carved out in the treaties, but the aspiration to shield this cracking bloc from enormous difficulties.
Donald Trump does not care about what Europeans may believe or want to defend.
Nor he is concerned about breaking the international consensus on climate change, the other major global challenge closest to the European’s heart.
Trump Administration’s priority is to contain China, in trade, in the economy, in technology.
The confrontation between Washington and Beijing could gain momentum in February if the weak truce reached in December comes to an end.
Europe could become a collateral victim the same month, if Trump concludes European cars are a threat and imposes new tariffs, as part of his attempts to reshape global trade.
With so little clarity about the future Europe wants, and even less willingness to advance on the strategic flaws of the bloc on the economy, migration and energy, Europe will fight to keep its two feet on the ground instead of taking a step forward.
But the problems are deeper, and not only for Europe.
The complexity of steering a boat with 500 million citizens, 28 member states and fifty EU institutions and agencies only amplifies the challenges that many other leaders face elsewhere.
Democracy urgently needs fine tuning. Decades of progress and protests extended voting rights to reach universal suffrage. Now the representative system must surpass the ballot box to embrace a greater participatory nature.
”Europe must urgently embrace a new participatory paradigm that puts citizens at the forefront of the agenda and monitoring powers,” says Alberto Alemanno, a Jean Monnet professor in EU law at HEC Paris.
Otherwise, the risk is that Europe will continue to walk toward the darkness corners of its past.
“The answers of the past no longer suffice for the questions of today, let alone tomorrow”, warns a European diplomat.
But there is still hope. In Hungary, citizens are taking the streets like never before against Orban’s authoritarian grip. Opposition and civil society are fighting to erode his control by seeking to engage in new ways with communities in rural areas where Orban remains largely undisputed.
The new Volt movement already brings together almost 15,000 people in some thirty countries, with 10 parties in Member States, attracted by the idea of a united and citizens’ driven Europe.
“This election should be a fight between old ways of doing politics and a new way of doing politics, a new way that is inclusive, in which people participate, in which people have their voice heard,” Colombe Cahen-Salvador, one of its founders told EURACTIV.com
Hope was strangled from the top this year. But 2019 could bring fresh energy and ambition badly needed from the bottom. A united Europe without Europeans on board is almost an oxymoron. It may seem complicated today. But the consequences of not exhausting every possible way to relaunch the European project will prove even more disastrous.