Crafting a way forward for the European Union

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The EU needs to regain its citizens' trust if it wants to make any meaningful steps forward. [Shutterstock]

The decision of Britain to leave the EU has put the European idea to the test. Now is the time to openly discuss the state of our union and the way forward, writes Petros Fassoulas.

Petros Fassoulas is secretary general of European Movement International.

There are no easy fixes. Grand statements of aspiration will not suffice. But there are specific things we can do.

Improving citizens’ trust in politics and policy-making at the national and European level is crucial to building legitimate European policies. This means increasing engagement with civil society in the decision-making process and instilling full democratic scrutiny of policies and institutions by the European and national parliaments. The full implementation of the letter as well as the spirit of Article 11 of the Lisbon Treaty would be a good beginning when trying to bring citizens closer to the EU.

Innovations in the European elections currently put forward, especially those that encourage young voters to get involved, would also go a long way to help bridge the gap between European politics and citizens. However, above all we need a proper debate on European issues ahead of and in between national and European elections, with parties prepared to link their policies at the European level with citizens’ needs at the local level.

An improved and comprehensive Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) will help ensure the stability of the euro and Europe’s economic growth. A strong economy, based on equality and justice, with an EU budget raised by own resources and focusing investment on the individual, would alleviate the sense of insecurity felt by many Europeans and strengthen the connection between EU policies and citizens.

This should be coupled with the mainstreaming of social protections in EMU policies that include common convergence criteria, investment in skilling-up the workforce, well-defined minimum income levels across the EU and protection from globalisation’s side-effects. Furthermore, a system of European Economic Governance based on the Community method and subject to democratic checks and balances at the European and national level is necessary to increase the democratic accountability of the EMU.

We also need to improve the way the Single Market works for both small and large businesses by removing physical and online barriers to trade, while safeguarding European standards in social, consumer, and environmental protection, ensuring that the Single Market works to the benefit of all European citizens.

We must also embark boldly on new initiatives, such as the Digital Single Market, which can help drive job creation by focusing on the development of new skills and supporting work environments for employees, SMEs, social enterprises and start-ups.

The freedom to live, study, work and retire anywhere in Europe is the most tangible success of European integration; it is a defining feature of the EU and key for the economic prosperity of our continent. While it is necessary to address gaps and concerns in the current system, this can be achieved through the joint management of Europe’s outer border, investment in intelligence gathering and sharing, and a sound Common European Immigration and Asylum System.

In all existing and new measures, EU citizens’ rights and those of refugees and asylum seekers should be fully respected. Security and respect for human rights are not mutually exclusive.

In an increasingly competitive global environment, speaking with one voice to represent the interests of the European Union is crucial. Strength in numbers will also enable EU member states to better protect their citizens. In addition, ensuring stability in its neighbourhood means designing a credible enlargement perspective that will bring about positive change in the Western Balkans and the Eastern Partnership countries, offering a clear outlook for their citizens

Lastly, the European Union can only safeguard its international standing and reach its objectives if it ensures that its core principles are not compromised at home. The founding values of the European Union – respect for human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights – form the pillars of European integration.

Membership of the EU must be intimately linked with continuous adherence to these principles. Violations of these values cannot be accepted and should carry with it sanctions, enforceable jointly by the EU institutions. The same should apply to certain social, employment, environmental and equality rights that should be linked to EU citizenship, guaranteed by the EU and stand inalienable and irreversible by national governments.

The European Union finds itself at a crossroads and its leaders are unsure of the course they must follow. Battered by multiple crises, stuck between citizens’ unfulfilled expectations and populists’ demagoguery, they are wavering. Nationalist and anti-European forces are exploiting people’s insecurities and seek to end the European project by encouraging isolationism and division among the European partners.

We need to stand together and confront them head-on. Whether we address migration, the economy, globalisation, climate change, security threats or Britain’s exit from the EU, what the people of Europe need is unity, solidarity and political vision.

Pro-Europeans from every political persuasion and national origin must continue to strive for a united, fair, diverse, open and prosperous Europe that puts the common interest above petty divisions, and that answers the needs of its citizens.

We have to make our voices heard, raise our heads above the parapet and speak up about the EU we need. The European project must be defended, strengthened and advanced. History and our children will not forgive us if we remain silent and idle.

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