Bratislava: Beginning of the battle for the ‘anxious middle’

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

Bratislava Castle will play host to the summit, where it would be best if Europe's leaders avoid highlighting existing divisions in the EU. [Kurt Bauschardt/Flickr]

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, continuing with Brigid Laffan.

Brigid Laffan is director of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute in Florence.

The upcoming summit in Bratislava will not mark a new start for Europe. It should not. It is an important signal that the member states are determined to plan the future for the EU27, but Europe’s Union will remain messy and complex because co-operation and integration across such a diverse range of countries is inherently challenging.

That said, carefully managing expectations is essential.  Far too frequently, Europe’s leaders issue grandiose statements and then fail to deliver. This gap between expectations and delivery reinforces an image of the Union at sea unable to address the problems it faces.

Brexit will not feature prominently beyond a general exchange, because until the UK triggers Article 50, there is nothing to discuss. Rather, the absence of the UK is a powerful symbol of the next phase of European integration.

Identifying what the EU27 should focus on is relatively easy: migration, internal security and the economy. These are the priorities for both governments and citizens. Far more difficult is to arrive at an agreed working plan in each of these areas.

It is difficult because the issues are inherently problematic with no easy policy solutions.  Moreover, the member states are divided about how to address them and about priorities. Yet it is imperative that European citizens feel that these issues can be and are being governed.

There is a politics of fear at work in Europe today; Europe appears unsure of itself and its place in the world. It is vulnerable to the ghosts of its past and the challenges of the present. It has lost its confidence in its future.

How best then to use the scarce time available to Europe’s political leaders in Bratislava? Perhaps the most important thing they should do is to have an in-depth discussion, to sit and talk to each other, to really listen to the pressures and problems that they face in their members states and collectively.

Given the burdens of political life and the daily grind of holding office, senior politicians do not get enough time to think strategically. This is even more acute in a system involving so many states and at a time of crisis and emergency politics.

Priority number one must be to re-affirm, in a convincing manner, their collective commitment to the shared task of governing Europe at this critical juncture in its history. In practical terms that means beginning to provide orientations to address the central challenges of migration, internal security and the economy.

It is important that Bratislava sets the agenda for the EU27 and provides the raw material for a realistic work programme. This is not the time for a ‘grand bargain’ and treaty change. Any attempt to engage in a major constitutional process would simply expose the divisions among the member states and would give Europe’s eurosceptics a golden opportunity to make further gains.

If a ‘grand bargain’ is not available, then the aim should be to achieve a series of ‘mini bargains’ in key fields. European policies designed to foster growth and jobs need to be reinforced. The emphasis on the digital economy and investment through the Juncker plan goes in the right direction but could be more ambitious. Given the low cost of money, it is time to invest heavily in European infrastructure for the future.

The Eurozone is not yet robust; addressing the vulnerabilities in the financial system and completing the Banking Union is a key priority. The Greek question continues to rumble on and it is time to finally address the issue of Greek indebtedness. Greece must find a future for itself but its partners need to agree debt relief.

Migration poses even greater challenges. Free movement, extra-EU migration, refugees and asylum seekers have become entangled as issues on the political agenda in Europe and in the minds of European citizens.

Even if the refugee crisis abates, the migratory pressures will grow even greater given the demographic situation in Africa. Europe needs migrants but not in the numbers that wish to come to Europe. This means that Europe has to strengthen its capacity to control its borders.

Porous external borders are not compatible with open internal borders. FRONTEX will be strengthened but this must happen sooner rather than later. The same goes for internal security. At a minimum there has to be improved information exchange across the security and police forces of the member states.

Finally Europe’s political leaders must bring it all back home. They must improve their political communication about Europe. The battle for the hearts and minds of Europeans is not a battle between those who favour national closure and those committed to a cosmopolitan view of the world.

Rather the battle is for the ‘anxious middle’, those who are worried about the rapidity of change in their societies, feel pressured by the challenges of diversity and are less secure in their jobs than in the past. The ‘anxious middle’ may move either towards national closure or continuing openness; their concerns are the core group that the political leaders in Bratislava must address.

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