Monday

23rd Sep 2019

Opinion

How to reinvent the EU in the age of populism

  • The EU needs to win over the Trump administration from its Farage-influenced view of the world. (Photo: Reuters)

The European Union needs to act fast to meet a coming onslaught of Farage, Trump, Putin and Johnson. Luckily there are a lot of things that can be done to give the citizens of Europe a new – positive – vision of the future of Europe, and to reduce the interest of outsiders in destroying the EU.

Show that the EU has 'got the message'

Firstly, the EU must demonstrate that it is no longer going to carry on with “business as usual”. As surveys show, when asked whether “in principle” European integration is a good idea, a large majority of EU citizens are still convinced of the necessity of the EU.

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However, when asked about the practice of how the EU is working today, they are very negative in their views.

Hence it is important to demonstrate – first by symbolic acts – that a new chapter has opened, and that the EU is now going to change direction. These changes must be achievable immediately and hence without treaty modifications. They must then be followed by changes in practice. Fortunately, a lot can be done.

The Brussels brand must die

“Brussels” is everywhere associated with “bureaucracy” and “centralisation”. To eliminate this perception, every month the College of Commissioners should spend a working week in another member state, starting with Dublin (to talk about the consequences of Brexit on the island).

Commissioners should not meet ministers there. Rather they should appear before national parliaments, encounter civil society and talk to journalists.

The college should then hold its weekly meeting on the spot, and in that meeting, discuss the messages they heard. Every effort should be made to show that the commission is breaking out of the Brussels bubble.

Costs should be kept down by allowing only commissioners plus one cabinet member to travel, holding college meetings in the Commission's representation offices in member states capitals, and avoiding ornate banquets/security.

Break the link between 'Europe' and 'austerity'

The EU should constitute a fund that buys all state-owned enterprises that indebted member states want to sell. For example, the European Investment Bank could buy the 14 regional airports that Greece must sell to meet its creditors wishes.

If all these state owned assets were bought at once (Europeanised rather than nationalised), and not sold piecemeal at fire-sale prices, the member states concerned would receive a massive injection of funds to cut the debt (€50bn in Greece alone, according to the OECD ). And the rich nations who otherwise complain that their money disappears into a black hole, would actually be buying tangible assets with their money.

Then a “Treuhand” like institution could be created on the model of the agency established to privatise industries in former East Germany, which helps turn the companies around (removing the ability of states to use such companies for patronage), and can progressively inject private capital in the fund, or privatise the individual enterprises.

Make the EU a world leader in transparency

All EU lobbying and conflicts of interest should become absolutely crystal clear for everybody. A first symbolic step could be to make the meeting calendar of every EU official public, especially indicating who is being met when, and what events/conferences they are invited to.

Ultimately every meeting between a lobbyist and officials/parliamentarians/ministers should be recorded, and the register of interests should cover every decision maker and lobbyist. Some steps are already under way, but there is a need to go even further than the current proposals.

Kill the image of a regulatory monster

From now on, every regulation/directive/recommendation should contain an automatic sunset clause that this legislation is only valid for a fixed period of time – say 10 years. If it needs to be renewed, it must be discussed again at that time.

Moreover, for all legislation adopted more than 10 years ago, the commission should propose that member states are allowed to change the legislation, if they can prove to the commission first that the change will not hinder the single market.

Have President Trump invest in Europe

On the strategic level, the EU needs to win over the Trump administration (which in turn can win over the president) from its Farage-influenced view of the world.

The EU should pitch a Transatlantic Investment Pact. Note, unlike in the current TTIP project, there is no second “T for Trade” in this. Trade is Trump’s bugbear, but investments are the core of what makes the transatlantic economic relationship special (in 2015 the EU accounted for 80 percent of global Foreign Direct Investment flows into the US).

In the process, the negotiations, which were in any case almost at a halt, can be revived as a swathe of problems will be removed (e.g. on harmonisation of laws).

By concentrating only on investment, both President Trump and the EU can come out as “winners” by pointing out how investments bring jobs to local economies rather than sucking them out.

Make the EU the motor of defence

The EU - not the member states - should take up the slack on defence spending by paying not just for extra research but also direct ownership of military kit to bring the EU as a whole to the 2 percent of GDP spending on defence mark.

This would need to be substantially more ambitious than the planned European Defence Fund, but can build on the foundations proposed in it.

In the process the EU would become the bridge for allies to meet the US president’s target – making the EU an actor the US defence establishment will be keen to keep in play. Moreover, Europeans will get far more bang for their buck by avoiding duplication of basic military research and assets, and European citizens will see action in an area where surveys suggest popular opinion is in favour of more Europe.

The EU as the new frontier

The same logic should apply for a major increase in Frontex‘s role – ideally even having national forces integrated into Frontex completely. This not would give more chance of the external border being organised uniformly, show citizens that migration is taken seriously by the EU, and make it harder for Trump to single out “good” or “bad” countries on immigration, as he has threatened to do.

Face the reality of (non-)enlargement to the east

With regards to Putin, the EU should make symbolically plain something that is already obvious to any observer of the EU: after enlargement to the Balkans, there will be no further expansion of EU frontiers for the next 20 years. By declaring this publicly, the perceived fear of Moscow that the EU is seeking to encircle it will be dampened, and so too will public fears that have become obvious, not least in the Netherlands and UK.

The EU should even offer to start trade and investment negotiations with the Eurasian Economic Union, as a recognition that it is an alternative route to link up with countries like Armenia, which has concerns about Russian influence, and that there are alternative paths to Association Agreements.

Let citizens decide the future constitution

It is in any case time to overhaul the sprawling mess that now constitutes the consolidated treaties. And this must not be done by yet another Inter-Governmental Conference, and not only because that would lead to another complex mess of treaty provisions.

Instead, the Icelandic experience should be taken and built upon.

As part of their national renewal after the financial 2008 meltdown, Iceland held a major participative consultation process that allowed a cross-selection of the population to sit down together and discuss the basic values they wished to see the country represent. This started as a purely private initiative - launched by citizens themselves. Only when it was running did the politicians feel obliged to take account of it.

Then, in a second phase, those politicians said they would like to adopt the same process when rewriting the constitution, with a cross section of citizens chosen, and with professional politicians being excluded.

Vital for this to succeed would be that member states promise to submit the outcome of this process without amendment – something that Iceland failed to do.

The time has come for national governments to recognise that they need to bring normal citizens to the table, as otherwise the population will seize a place at the table by voting for populist parties.

And why not, in those circumstances, offer British citizens a place at the table when agreeing the new constitution. Who knows, perhaps the EU they come up with will be one that a majority of UK citizens would also be keen on.

Given that the Iceland initiative did not start with the elites, this is something that could start bottom-up, right now.

So dear fellow European citizens, what are you waiting for, if you want to trump Nigel, calm Vlad and dump Boris?

Adrian Taylor works as a consultant for companies in the chemicals, energy, telecoms and transport or environment sectors.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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