Europeans, get down to work

Europeans, get down to work. EU flags in Finland. Photo: / Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Elcano Blog.
EU flags in Finland. Photo: / Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
Europeans, get down to work. EU flags in Finland. Photo: / Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Elcano Blog.
EU flags in Finland. Photo: / Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

The risk of de-Europeanisation is clear. Brexit has obliged the European Union to look at itself in the mirror, and confront an image pockmarked by blemishes and flaws. This time the EU must decide not so much what it wants to be, as what it wants to do, both with itself and with the UK. It is not the time for debates on semantics, for talking about a federal Europe, still less a United States of Europe or a European army. Union is a good word for this unidentified political object that we continue inventing. It may even be a good idea to stop referring to a European citizenry, a term once invoked by Spain but that raises hackles in many countries. It is better to foster the idea of new programmes and concrete measures. Leaving European piety on the sidelines could be one way of making headway. In the words of the former French minister Hubert Védrine, whom no-one could accuse of being anti-European,

“to save the European project, it must be freed from Europeanist dogma”.

The EU and its governments should focus on concrete measures aimed at the recovery of a significant section of their middle classes who have been hit hard by the crisis since 2008 (and earlier), and certain aspects of globalisation. This was sold as a win-win game in which everyone came out ahead, and in which the EU played an essential role in protecting and improving the lot of its citizens. It turned out otherwise. There are winners and losers of globalisation and the crisis in Europe and elsewhere (such as the US). Joseph Stiglitz talks of the need to tame globalisation. The response cannot involve more protectionism in trade, investments and migratory flows, in a world that is much more integrated, although here it remains to be seen how the opposition of the governing French socialists and the German social democrats to the TTIP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, materialises. The risk of another “1913 moment”, not to mention another “1933 moment”, albeit without subsequent wars, is real.

The European leaders who gather in Bratislava on September 16th, without the UK, to decide the path Europe will take following the Brexit referendum need to refrain from fine words and address the specific problems European citizens face. A foretaste of what lies in store emerged from the meeting held between Renzi, Merkel and Hollande on August 22nd, on board the Garibaldi aircraft carrier in the Tyrrhenian Sea: little by way of ideas. And, regrettably, without Spain or Poland. There is no longer even a “European core”. For its part, the Visegrad Group (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) wants to use the meeting to secure a reversal of European integration, despite the fact that its members have greatly benefited from it. And it would appear that Angela Merkel’s European tour has failed to reap dividends, essentially because of the refugee question, which contaminates everything, including German domestic politics, even more so now with the social democrats’ change of heart on the issue.

Strengthening the EU’s internal and external security is essential. Fear of jihadist terrorism is spreading, inducing some societies to shut themselves off, while those in Eastern Europe have the unnerving experience of the Russian bear, playing a dangerous game, breathing down their necks. But it is necessary to combat both terrorism and the causes of terrorism, as Tony Blair once observed. To this end it is important that the EU and its member states do more domestically and within their locale: to coordinate their intelligence and police services of course, but also to bring the war in Syria to an end, as far as this is possible, and to aid the development of their neighbours, to the east and to the south. Unless a struggle is waged, not against the refugees and irregular immigrants (which are distinct issues), but rather their causes (see above), little will be gained. The EU also needs to strengthen, rather than weaken, the democracy of its institutions and member states.

The second big idea put forward on the Garibaldi and on Merkel’s tour was to boost economic growth throughout the EU (not only in the Eurozone). Ramping up the Juncker large-scale infrastructure plan, extending it by two years to 2019 and to the tune of €315 billion (albeit nearly all private-sector money, underwritten by the EU) may help, but much more is needed.

The EU needs to combat structural unemployment in the south on a Europe-wide scale, and also address what may be a new divide: that of innovation, something the Bruegel think tank highlights in an excellent report. A training plan for the young and the not-so-young is needed to reintegrate them into the labour market. This requires not only underpinning the Erasmus programme but also a genuine and efficacious extension to encompass vocational training, a necessary condition to securing a truly mobile labour force in the EU; this is something that the Germans, who are keen to attract talent in the context of an ageing population, seem prepared to bankroll, but which could benefit everyone. Of course Germany needs also to revisit its stance on its trade and fiscal surplus, which is beginning to prove unsustainable for the others, and reassess the cut in income that has led to the aforementioned setback for the middle classes in a good part of Europe, starting in the south.

The EU should carry out a thorough overhaul of its budget – virtually a “zero budget” exercise (in other words, reviewing every item from scratch) – in order to fund these new priorities, and eliminate obsolete hangovers from the past (such as part of the agricultural policy). Furthermore, while a start has been made (for example with the €13-billion fine against Apple for the non-payment of taxes in Ireland, contrary to Dublin’s wishes) it needs to make headway in preventing tax evasion and avoidance on the part of wealthy businesses and individuals, despite the efforts of countries like Ireland and Luxembourg to impede it. All for the 27/28 (since the British are still in the EU). Although the Eurozone must be completed too.

The Merkel message that “the EU is not finished” falls short when what is needed is not a grand definition that may elicit rejection, but rather an attractive narrative that undermines pessimists and populists alike. It is true that it will be difficult to achieve any in-depth reforms prior to the French, German, Dutch and Czech elections of 2017, after which some propose a new Messina, like the one that after the failure of the European Defence Community in 1955 led to the 1957 Treaty of Rome. But for the time being it is necessary to demand of European leaders what Ortega y Gasset required of the Argentines in 1939: “Get down to work”.