Tangible results for citizens must be EU’s focus

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

Macron will give a speech on his views for the futurre of the EU 48h after the German elections. [Julien De Rosa/EPA]

Rising Euroscepticism is a key challenge for the EU. Long-term treaty change should be discussed as a counter measure but European leaders should focus on delivering benefits to their citizens here and now, writes Alexander Bürgin.

Associate Professor Dr Alexander Bürgin is Jean Monnet Chair at the Izmir University of Economics, Turkey.

Brexit, fears about increased support for the far right in France, nationalist-populist parties in power in Hungary and Poland, propagating Eurosceptic and illiberal policies, and the strong likelihood that the anti-European Alternative für Deutschland will overcome the 5% threshold needed to enter parliament in the autumn reveal a new dimension of anti-European feelings. It has led some observers to predict the eventual demise of the EU.

One main reason for the alienation of many citizens from the EU is the sense that the prevailing economic arrangements are profoundly unfair to ordinary people.

The economic recovery of recent years remains unbalanced, and many are confronted with stagnating wages and rising living cost. Consequently, the management of the Eurocrisis is perceived by many as benefiting only banks and asset owners, not the ordinary citizen.

Another reason for the success of populist, anti-European parties is widespread discontent with increasing numbers of refugees, fuelling the fear of national identity loss.

How should decision makers at national and EU level react to this mounting frustration among citizens?

Some governments seem content to follow the populist demands for less integration and prioritise renationalisation over further Europeanisation.

But it is evident that complex international challenges cannot be properly addressed by national solutions.

Furthermore, many citizens are not only alienated from the EU, but also show disaffection with the political establishment at national level. For a large majority, the problem is not the EU itself, but its current performance.

Others such as the French President Macron argue in favour of treaty changes to bring greater convergence between the eurozone member states.

But there is significant divergence in interests between the member states. In addition, treaty change is a long-term process; the Lisbon Treaty took seven years to come into force after the European Convention started the discussion.

Therefore, although a debate about treaty changes should be on the agenda, the EU leaders’ focus should be now on the delivery of immediate and tangible results for the citizens.

To this end, more decisive political leadership is required by the member states, but also by the European Commission.

As regards the former, it will be crucial to re-establish reciprocal trust and solidarity among the member states, which has been severely damaged by the enduring crisis.

The widespread perception of German hegemony has to be addressed. As long as many actors at national and EU level continue to perceive that further integration will mean greater domination by Germany, the less they will support a further transfer of national competences to the EU level.

Consequently, a good starting point is the revival of the Franco-German tandem, and the announcement that President Macron and German Chancellor Merkel will collaborate on a road map for the future European integration project within the next three months.

Regarding the role of the Commission, the current political context, characterised by member states leaders’ confusion and division over the future course of integration, provides opportunities for the Commission to assert its political leadership role.

In addition, Juncker’s organisational reforms within the executive, such as the introduction of project-team leading vice-presidents, have improved the leadership capacity of the Commission.

As the vice-presidents are less involved in daily policy-making than the ordinary Commissioners, they are able to devote more time ‘selling’ the Commission’s proposals.

Such an increase in the institution’s communication efforts with national decision-makers and the broader public is crucial to overcoming scepticism towards its proposals.

The Commission’s priority projects and current work programme highlight those policy areas in which the EU can provide added value in comparison to exclusively national approaches.

However, it is important that these projects trigger tangible results in the short term. In particular, the EU has to address the perception of an increasing social injustice in many European societies.

While improving competitiveness is a necessary condition for reducing unemployment and thus for greater social inclusion in Europe, it is not in itself a sufficient one.

Therefore, it is important to put more emphasis on the value of social investment. So far, unfortunately, several member states have failed to realise the relevance of investing in people to strengthen their skills and capacities (e.g. quality childcare, training, job-search assistance).

Consequently, the Commission should continue and intensify its efforts to promote social investment strategies in member states, through programmes such as the Commission’s European Fund for Strategic Investment, and the Commission’s Youth Initiative.

This stronger focus on social investment should also be reflected in the European Semester policy coordination, which should contain benchmarks covering the instruments of employment and social policy. In the future, budgetary consolidation and economic growth strategies promoted by the Commission should avoid compromising social outcomes.

Therefore, the Stability and Growth Pact should be revised in order to distinguish between investment spending and other government expenditure. Ensuring that companies are fairly and effectively contributing to taxes in the locations where they actually make their profits, represents another approach to countering the widespread perception of social injustice.

As regards the discontent of many citizens with the EU’s refugee policy, three main steps are necessary. First, the annual number of refugees has to remain in a range acceptable to all citizens.

To this end, the EU has to intensify the cooperation with third countries, which should strengthen their asylum systems with the help of EU funding, so that asylum seekers are settled locally to prevent onward migration to Europe.

More important, but also more difficult, are EU initiatives to tackle the underlying causes of flight. Second, the EU’s external border management needs to be further reinforced in order to prevent unregistered asylum seekers passing through Europe.

Finally, all member states have to take their share of responsibility in the processing of asylum requests and the hosting of refugees, requiring the introduction of a quota system for the distribution of asylum seekers across Europe.

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