October 7, 2016
Written by Barbara Aubin (Head of Content)
On the 30th of September, the 1989 Generation Initiative held a roundtable at the LSE, drawing together a mix of students and EU professionals to discuss the State of the Union delivered by Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission and the recent Bratislava Declaration. Participants were asked to respond directly to both before suggesting appropriate ways forward for the EU. It was agreed that a more robust plan is required to deliver an exodus from the immediate crises; whilst in the longer-term, a process of broad consensus-building over the EU’s future purpose and therefore (institutional) competences should be formally fostered. This should involve politicians (EU and national) as well as citizens. The conclusions are outlined below.
The State of the Union and Bratislava Declaration were supposed to project unity and give direction to an EU left reeling by the Brexit vote. At a time when the Union needs inspired leadership to overcome its many challenges, Commission President Juncker delivered some strong rhetoric, but few revolutionary ideas. At Bratislava too, there were evocative phrases and powerful symbolisms aplenty. In truth however, little progress was made. This was cheekily, but not inaccurately, encapsulated by Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who denounced the Summit as little more than “a nice cruise on the Danube”.
How to ensure the EU’s short-term survival
The EU needs regeneration – perhaps even relaunch. But first, it must rebuild its image and wrest back the initiative from anti-European forces. The refugee crisis and upcoming Brexit negotiations will be the ultimate stress-tests. Pass these and we can look forward to a new dawn for the Union. Fail to do so, and difficult days will likely follow.
First will need to come acknowledgement. The Dublin Agreement – in its present form – puts disproportionate pressure on EU entry points, hindering attempts at interstate solidarity. Nor is the quota system suitable as an emergency response, as long as its continued promotion by traditional parties strengthens the far-right. What is more, the deal with Turkey (in which EU leaders have invested much hope and energy) cannot represent the main pillar of Europe’s response to the refugee crisis. Outsourcing migration control to a third country is a questionable approach to begin with, but particularly so when considering this country’s worsening human rights record. A proactive approach that deals with the source of the crisis in Syria may be required, with an emphasis on diplomacy and – in future – statebuilding. In the meantime, a greater percentage of the EU budget must be dedicated to humanitarian aid, education and improved facilities at migrant hot spots. The Bratislava Declaration made some attempt to express unity in terms of defence – a positive step. Yet unity is first needed in ‘softer’ areas of policy before enhanced defence cooperation can seriously be considered.
There will be wide-ranging consequences for the EU if Brexit is not managed correctly. Across Europe, anti-European forces will pounce on any perceived weakness in negotiations with the UK, and demand similar arrangements back home. Strength and unity will be required to conclude a fair deal for the UK, but also one that disincentives other EU countries from Exiting.
Here the EU must give the lead to the European Commission. Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier must initiate and lead an inter-institutional debate with the European Council and European Parliament to build a common position, thus limiting the scope for bilateral agreements between the UK and EU member states. It is crucial that none of the Four Freedoms be compromised.
The longer term necessity is for EU Member States to develop broad consensus on common values and a new purpose for the EU. A formal, pan-European conversation involving both politicians (EU and national) and electorates must determine a new EU mission statement, together with a revised set of institutional competences. During this process all major issue areas should be discussed as part of the same whole, not merely as discreet components. The agreement might then be enshrined in a ‘Traité Refondateur’. With the 60th Anniversary of the Rome Treaty fast approaching, EU leaders could use this moment to outline plans for such an initiative.
Whilst the roundtable was politely critical of President Juncker’s State of the Union, in this his words ring true: “We should recognise that we cannot solve all our problems with one more speech. Or with one more summit”. For the EU, the focus ought now to be upon the resolution of its immediate crises, before any formal discussions on common values, overarching purpose and new mechanisms can begin. ‘Relaunch’ now would be pre-emptive and likely damaging: with the present emphasis on defence, securitisation and control, and with popular feelings running high, any attempt to define common values may create a distorted array of competing ideas, largely inconsistent with the European integration’s founding principles.