EU must protect its citizens
By Eszter Zalan
The EU needs to rebalance its core values to win the battle against populists, experts and EU officials argue.
The Brexit vote has served a blow to the EU’s centre, and it is clear that the old narrative that the EU is there to provide peace and freedoms is not enough to win back disenchanted voters who are disillusioned with integration.
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The rise of populism, with the EU in its cross hairs, is evident across the continent.
Voters will head to the polls in Austria, the Netherlands and France in the coming months, where populist politicians are making headways, creating more uncertainty about the bloc’s future.
The 27 EU leaders will put their heads together in mid-September in Bratislava for an informal discussion on the way ahead after the Brexit vote.
But the answer is far from clear.
“This is not business as usual,” argues Luuk van Middelaar, historian and writer of The Passage to Europe, a look inside the power politics of the EU, who earlier served on the cabinet of EU Council president Herman Van Rompuy.
He argues that the Brexit vote contradicts the “Brussels doctrine” that integration is a one-way street, and that economic interdependence among EU countries leads to “grateful societies”.
“For the EU it is very bad news. This attack undermines the raison d’etre of the EU,” he told this website.
Van Middelaar says it is unhelpful to dismiss the Brexit vote as irrational.
He argues that the underlying problem is that many in Europe and Western societies feel left behind and even threatened by globalisation, open borders and markets, and the EU is often seen as a facilitator of that, rather than a bulwark against it.
He says it “leads to an attack from the political extremes on the open, international, European order as it has been constructed since 1945”.
He warns against framing this battle as elite versus the people.
“It is basically two houses of society, almost half-half of the voters in the UK and in Austria [in the recent presidential election], a line down the middle between two world views,” he said.
The EU’s problem is that it is only working for the half of the population that has benefited from globalisation, producing more freedoms and opportunities for the 50 percent that already likes it,” Van Middelaar said.
That has to change if the EU expects different outcomes.
Instead, he argues, in order to reach out to those who see globalisation as a threat “the EU should produce not only freedoms and opportunities, but also protection”.
“It means reinforced external borders, safeguards from the global disruptive forces, like for instance Chinese dumping, and not to be perceived as the ‘Trojan horse of globalisation’,” he said.
“The new narrative of the EU should better balance providing freedoms and providing protection and order, either by itself or by not undermining existing protection, like the welfare state,” he argued.
The other 50 percent, who already support the EU and open societies, would have no other option but to agree, van Middelaar argued.
“Less Brussels, more Europe,” should be the message coming from Bratislava, argues the historian. “There needs to be a change in self-image,” he added.
Seeing the fate of David Cameron, who resigned as British prime minister after the Brexit vote, Van Middelaar said national politicians would have to understand too that if they wanted to hold on to the political centre, they would have to make the pro-European argument themselves.
A shift in tone has already been noticeable by Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, who has done a “Cameron-light” earlier, as Van Middelaar put it, in blaming the EU, but has been markedly more positive when talking about the union since the day after the UK referendum.
The balance of power would have to shift towards the Council, because member states still have the exclusive power to take action on the ground.
Inside the bubble
Inside the EU there is also a realisation that things need to change and the institutions need to be more open to the concerns of member states and citizens.
“Trade, jobs and the single market are important, but not enough,” said a senior EU official, who did not want to named.
“What is at stake is the whole model. The big question for Europe is, do we want the EU to continue to represent a liberal society, which reconciles freedom, equality and diversity,” the official told this website.
“The new narrative has to be rebalanced: keep the four freedoms, but acknowledge that life in society is not only about freedoms, and there is need for protection not only on the external borders, but also in terms of a fairer economy.”
The official acknowledged that member states do not like to be ordered around by the commission.
The source added that the commission needed to understand that the post-communist states might want to move at a different pace on issues like gay marriage, for instance.
Juncker, Schulz and the future
Some commission officials sound genuinely frustrated with the way the leadership of the EU executive is communicating and pushing member states without properly preparing proposals by listening to EU countries.
They argue, the commission is trying to "bulldoze" through proposals, when it should better prepare them by listening to member states' interests and sensitivities.
Sources say EU commission president Juncker's chief of staff, Martin Selmayr's confrontational style with member states builds unnecessary tension with EU countries, when for instance pushing for a mandatory quota system in the migration crisis.
Some argue that Juncker's habit of surrounding himself with aides loyal to Selmayr does not help him getting all perspectives from different member states.
But there seems to be little chance the institution is to change any time soon.
According to a source, Juncker sees Brexit as British exceptionalism, “not inevitable, but not surprising”. “He is does not think Brexit questions the whole enterprise,” the source added.
Some argue that the centralised structure reinforced by the Juncker commission adds to the ivory-tower mentality in Brussels, and that it cuts off new ideas and hampers communication.
“We are cutting off creativity and possibilities to communicate to the people on the ground for whom we have concreted benefits,” argued another senior EU official, who also did not want to be named.
“It is not sufficient if Juncker and [European Parliament president Martin] Schulz are calling each other every day. They are not the future of Europe, do not represent the needs of the next generation, if the next generation is to still believe in Europe.”
This might be the time for EU Council president Donald Tusk to emerge as a formidable leader in the EU.
In Bratislava, the 27 with the “UK ghost” – as one official put it – in the room, will have to show unity. They will also need to avoid a turf war with the EU institutions.
But expressing a united European leadership will be a difficult task, as some of them face elections, terror threats, or a hostile public at home.
“We face huge challenges, and to simply to argue that this is business as usual would be short-sighted,” an EU official argued.