Will Europe’s year debut be a success?

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

Meetings like the Visegrad 4 and the recent "Club-Med" summit are anathema to European unity, because of their fragmentary nature. [Shutterstock]

As Europe begins to think in earnest about life after the UK, the future of the EU remains very much obscured. In the week leading up to the Bratislava summit, a number of think tanks have outlined what they think the historic meeting will bring, starting with Jean-Dominique Giuliani.

Jean-Dominique Giuliani is the president of the Robert Schuman Foundation.

This week Europe is starting a new political year. On 14 September, Jean-Claude Juncker will deliver his annual speech on the State of the Union and two days later, in Bratislava, the bloc’s heads of state and government will convene for the first time without the UK.

However, 2016 will, in all likelihood, herald a major turning point in the history of Europe: terrorist attacks, Brexit, Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Mali… The security of European citizens is now under threat, both from inside and out, by terrorism and the return by some major states to the use of force and the fait accompli. The world arena is changing because of this.

The migratory crisis that witnessed the arrival in Europe of over a million people, who are not all refugees, has still not been solved, and in order to soften its impact we unfortunately have had to turn to some very unreliable external partners such as Turkey and Libya.

Populism, extremism and nationalism are taking democracies everywhere by storm, including across the Atlantic. However, incomplete Europe is proving to be particularly vulnerable to it. None of the member states have been spared, neither the inventor of parliamentary democracy or wealthy, peaceful Germany.

The economy is still suffering weak growth and has not overcome public debt; it has been destabilised by globalisation, which dictates the free movement of capital and goods, but rejects that of people.

At present, Europe is not the only one to be confronted by these four challenges. They are also those of the entire planet, which is failing to respond to them with a minimum set of governance rules.

The most recent G20 was a perfect illustration of Huaju (Chinese word drama) during which each placed appearance over content; the UN is struggling to appease the conflict in Syria, and to prevent evident threats, such as those created by North Korea. During this time of transformation we can expect more surprises than certainties in the international arena.

Europeans ought to find even more reason here to end their division and even their indifference toward the European Union, which was their choice, so that they can set an example and suggest rules of conduct to the international community, which no longer even looks like a community.

But solidarity between the member states has withered and the fashion now is to meet in “small private clubs” (Visegrad, Southern States, social-democratic leaders), which is deadly poison for European unity because they cause fragmentation.

And these problems (security, migration, populism, economy) fall totally within the competence of the states which decided not to grant responsibility to the common European institutions. It is therefore in the capital cities and between themselves that the future of Europe is being decided, not in Brussels or in Bratislava.

So it is pointless to criticise Europe – when we criticise it we are simply punishing ourselves – but we really must think how it might be useful in settling these serious issues and how we might go about this to solve them effectively.

It requires strong national commitment after honest, frank debate. We cannot be certain though that the traditional community method (“more Europe”) would be the most suitable today. We might have to take other paths to reach a clear, reasonable objective to unify the continent.

Integration is still a goal, but it is not necessarily the best way in the present circumstances – because we have focused on procedures rather than objectives our leaders, at home and in Brussels, provide an image of impotence at a time when Europe needs in fact to show its power – because of the comments about and even the announcements of, the “dislocation of Europe”, those involved are helping to undermine it.

Those commenting must now become actors, and act according to the issues at stake courageously, creatively and fast.

It is urgent to guarantee the security of European citizens with greater defence spending. Firm, honoured commitment in this area is a first priority. To guarantee the security of our borders we do not need a European Sea Rescue Organisation but a true joint migratory policy. To support the growth of the European economy we may have to relinquish some of our doctrines.

Any progress towards more joint action – and this has been announced for Bratislava – is of course positive, but we are in real need of true solidarity. Solidarity with those who are physically countering terrorism, real solidarity with the states which face the migratory wave, solidarity with the states that are struggling to overcome economic difficulties, solidarity with those who have decided to act.

To convince the citizens of Europe that the populists are wrong, that the extremists have always been wrong, and that nationalism has already brought us the worst, we need real acts and rapid results and no more pompous declarations.

And if we cannot do it as 28, then some voluntary states have to take the initiative. It is surely more via the example of a few that European integration will succeed in adapting to these new challenges.

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