Post-Juncker EU must find ways to connect to citizens

The past five years have been the European Union’s own version of the Infinity War, facing crises on almost every front. But as outgoing Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker nears his own Endgame, it’s time to turn the page and look at what Europe might do next. The Commission’s so-called ‘Strength in Unity’ strategic agenda attempts to do that. Issued ahead of the special May 9 EU summit in Sibiu, Romania, it tackles areas like sustainability, eurozone rules, migration and defence. Yet while the Commission lists ample challenges to keep the EU busy for the next five years, there is a lingering question of whether it does enough to address one of the most pressing issues: how to connect to citizens.

The Commission’s 82-page strategic agenda is, justifiably, in part about the legacy of the Juncker Commission, which has been at the helm during some of the EU’s most tumultuous times. It is not entirely behind the EU, but the document states that, “after years of crisis, Europe is bouncing back”. It says that the Commission made 471 new legislative proposals, of which 348 proposals have been adopted or agreed by the European Parliament and the Council.

Ahead of the May 23-26 European Parliament elections, which will determine the leadership of the EU institutions, it might seem a bit early to start planning for the next five years. But the strategy document already looks at challenges ahead, grouping them under five headings, or ‘dimensions’. These are:

  • Protective Europe: building an effective European Security Union and moving towards a European Defence Union,
  • Competitive Europe: upgrading, modernising and fully implementing the single market, including areas like artificial intelligence and a stronger eurozone,
  • Fair Europe: social inclusion and equality, regional disparities, minority needs, a fair and modern taxation policy, and affordable housing,
  • Sustainable Europe: fighting climate change, reversing environmental degradation, transitioning towards a more resource-efficient circular economy,
  • Influential Europe: strong support for a multilateral, rules-based global order, with the United Nations at its core.

Some of these ideas are familiar from even before the Juncker Commission, while some are new proposals, including, “access to quality, energy-efficient affordable housing for all in Europe”.

The suggestion that the EU Stability and Growth Pact should be simplified to promote more “transparency and compliance” takes Eurozone policy in a different direction. There is a more interventionist lilt to the call for “a modern industrial policy”, which would focus on strategic value chains and “develop new tools to address the distortive effects of foreign state ownership and support.”

The recommendations on defence and security, “to make defence cooperation within the EU the norm rather than the exception,” are bolder than anyone might have expected just a few years ago – even if they run up against the awkward reality that most member states do not meet their NATO defence spending commitments.

It is in sustainability that the Commission goes furthest, perhaps unsurprising given both the urgency of the challenges and the strength of the environment bandwagon among young Europeans. The agenda says the EU needs, “to modernise our economy to embrace sustainable consumption and production patterns….transition towards a more resource-efficient circular economy by promoting green growth, bioeconomy and sustainable innovations.”

The resulting strategic agenda is strong and ambitious in parts. It recognises the ongoing challenges, which are political, economic, environmental, social, technological and demographic. As it points out, the Sibiu EU summit is an opportunity for EU leaders to provide a fresh outlook, “by showing that they have listened to citizens’ hopes, concerns and expectations.” Given current pressures, the leaders can scarcely afford not to.

However, on that last very point, connecting to citizens, the agenda is all too silent. For all the policies on offer, there is not enough on how the EU can bridge the yawning gap between the people and the institutions.

In Brussels, officials are often convinced that the EU’s benefits are obvious to all. But that is, unfortunately, not the case. There are many Europeans who simply do not see how the EU is a valuable part of their lives – and they cannot relate to what they see as faceless institutions. Many populist, anti-EU parties have built their support on these voters who feel disconnected. The recent gilet jaunes protests in France have been a roar of anger against the establishment, which invariably includes the EU as well as the government in Paris.

The Commission does not go far enough to reconcile with these discontented Europeans. The strategic agenda talks lyrically about an ambitious EU but does not have a strategy for actually talking to citizens.

This is crucial because many have simply not been persuaded that EU has much to offer. Or, at least, as much to offer as the Commission would like. The Commission, as is its custom, tends to seek faster and deeper action than the EU member states and the citizens would like.

As well as laying out a policy agenda at Sibiu, the Commission should also ask the leaders to step up. National governments, who are responsible for implementing much of the EU’s agenda, need to take more responsibility. Citizens relate to member states much more than to the EU, and national leaders need to do more to rally their populations to the policies.

The Commission rightly states that we have become too accustomed to member states Europeanising problems and nationalising success. Now is the time to reach down into member states in order to drive this agenda. That is the way we can push sustainability policies, break the cycle of poverty and make Europe more competitive.

If the member states believe in the EU, they should do what is needed to ensure it is counted, appreciated and respected. We have to break out of the all Brussels fault dynamic. The Commission’s message at Sibiu should be: carry this agenda forward, don’t shirk it, adopt it as yours, and explain it to your people.

Europe is changing fast, and so is the world. By the end of the next mandate, China may be the top dog. Mr Juncker himself says, “the challenges we Europeans collectively face are multiplying by the day.” But if the EU still has a role to play in the future of our planet, it needs credibility. That can only happen if the EU’s leaders take collective responsibility for their fate, sharing ownership of the decisions and actions that have to be taken to build a Europe that can deliver on its promise of peace, prosperity and progress.

Author:  Jim Currie

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