Calais is why we need a President of Europe

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

The anarchic union. EU signage détournement, Berlin. [Joel Schalit/Flickr]

According to François Decoster, it’s time for European citizens to demand from their national leaders a clear answer to a fundamental question: “Who governs?”

François Decoster is Rapporteur on migration in the European Committee of the Regions, member of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais Regional Council, and Mayor of St Omer.

Imagine your city council had no leader and every major decision had to be taken by unanimity of the councillors, each one thinking about the ward in which they were elected. Or imagine that your national government had no prime minister, and again every major decision required unanimity of all the ministers, each one thinking of the constituency which elected them. The chaos and paralysis would impact the proper delivery of local services and repairs, or – at national level – matters such as security, defence, economic policies, and education.

If we know that such a leaderless system does not work, not even for local authorities where populations are comparatively small, why do we insist on keeping it for a whole continent? The EU is a political union of 28 member states without a clearly identified leader who is accountable to the European electorate. Yes, we have a President of the European Commission whose job is to consider the needs and problems of the overall Union and its member states collectively, who has certain powers to act in some areas, including important areas, and who is in some ways held to account by the European Parliament.

But we also have a President of the European Council, who coordinates the work of the 28 heads of State or government ,who are the ones that have to agree for major action to be taken. And we have a President of the six-monthly rotating Presidency, in effect the head of state or government, of the member state holding the presidency, who takes the lead in driving forward policy proposals over half a year.

But, citizens will ask, who is in charge? Who, amongst all of these leaders, is supposed to sort out the mess in times of crisis? Who do we vote out at the ballot box when we are unhappy with how the job has been done? The simple answer is that at European level, there is no leader! The very system we would never dream of having in a local council, a regional or national government, is what we have for our continent: a council of 28 heads of state and government who, for some very crucial matters, must agree unanimously before any action can be taken.

When times are calm, the system may work acceptably enough in some policy areas. But in times of crisis, it fails abysmally. The lack of leadership is revealed in all its horror to Europe’s citizens, the member states flounder hopelessly, and only at times can the strongest leader amongst all the heads of government show the way and generate some consensus. The current shambles in the management of refugees is one such crisis which reveals how dangerous it is to deprive the European Union of what we take for granted in all other levels of government: a formal leader, with the powers to act, and accountable to the electorate.

Everyone has seen the images on our television screens taking place at the borders of the EU. But only a few have seen what the situation is like in Calais. For this reason, on 18 September, I hosted a visit to the “Jungle” outside Calais by a delegation of politicians from the ALDE Group in the European Committee of the Regions. None of them were prepared for what they witnessed: a refugee camp of makeshift tents like we have seen on other continents many times before, with thousands of human beings, many of them highly educated, living in miserable conditions, jostling for food, surrounded by rubbish, mud, and misery, entirely dependent on what the overstretched Calais city administration is able to provide them with. And this in 21st century Europe!

Let me be clear: the Mayor of Calais is doing an extraordinary job to help accomodate the migrants and refugees, with genuine humanitarian concern, the government opening up a reception centre, with EU co-funding, that every day provides to all of them the possibility to leave the Jungle for a few hours and have full meals, showers, leisure facilities, social services, and rooms for women with children. But this assistance only helps to alleviate the conditions they experience in the Jungle and does not provide a long term sustainable solution.

Migration into Europe cannot be left to individual local authorities, where large numbers of migrants happen to arrive (by accident or by design) to cope on their own with the day-to-day management and slow process of integration. It requires a European solution. And the urgency of the problem demonstrates that running the affairs of Europe by a council of 28 heads of state or government from summit to summit, requiring consensus, is a dangerous recipe.

It is time for European citizens to demand from their national leaders a clear answer to a fundamental, question: “Who governs?” It is time for Europeans to demand the right to elect a European president, with the responsibility of thinking about the whole of the Union, having the powers to act in matters of European relevance, who is fully accountable to European voters in European presidential elections, by universal suffrage.

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