Sunday

16th May 2021

Opinion

How the EU can thrive in the time of Trump

The eurozone crisis, and the migration crisis that followed in 2015, shook the foundations of European integration to the core. After the so-called Brexit vote in the United Kingdom on 23 June, people started asking existential questions about the survival of the EU. When the citizens of a member state decide to leave the Union, we really cannot continue pretending that everything is all well and good.

To solve the situation, the leaders of the 27 member states chose a method that has been used in the EU before – they declared a so-called reflection period at the informal summit held in Bratislava on 16 September. They reaffirmed the desire to move forward together. Indeed, support for the EU did increase in most, if not all, of the 27 member states in July.

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  • Nobody is sure how Europe will fare under the presidency of Donald Trump (Photo: Jeso Carneiro)

The 27 countries should come up with a new, convincing vision of the future by the end of March 2017 for the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which laid the foundation for the EU.

To achieve this vision, the concerns and needs of citizens must be the centre of our action. People are scared of the threats of migration and terrorism, they miss the feeling of safety, which the EU and its member states can provide, especially if they manage to maintain control of its external borders and succeeds in improving cooperation in the fight against terrorism.

Economic security has improved a little in comparison to the peak of the euro crisis, but more needs to be done, in particular improving the single market.

However, the concerns of the people have deeper roots and cannot be healed by a few decisions taken in Brussels. These concerns include globalisation, job security, migration, sovereignty and corruption.

The EU is resilient enough

History never repeats itself. However, we can see some similarities between the fears and concerns of the 1920s and 1930s following the First World War, which ended the previous period of globalisation, and the present day.

The victory march of globalisation has stopped and entered a slowdown stage, of which the extent and duration are impossible to forecast. The idea of restoring borders between states and continents is increasingly more popular, at least in democratic Western countries.

The anti-globalists are sensing their strength and have targeted the EU; for the EU with its free cross-border movement of goods, capital, services and people is the most authentic manifestation of globalisation on the European continent.

For decades, integration was a mostly positive phenomenon for European citizens. When problems occurred, stating that we were looking for a Europe-wide solution was usually accepted by the people. These days are gone and Brussels is now painted as the source of problems, not solutions.

The near future of the EU will probably be determined by the following trends: insecurity about the relationship with its most important strategic ally, the US; a painful adaption to 27 member states; strong anti-EU pressure on governments; the political impossibility of major integration steps; and the weakening of solidarity among members.

This makes achieving the goals of the Bratislava Declaration very difficult. Fortunately, as proven by the management of past crises, the EU is resilient enough to not let the political capital invested in the European project over generations go down the drain.

Listen to national concerns

All repairs begin with the acknowledgement of the problem. Let us suppose that the leaders of the 27 EU member states have done this with the Bratislava Declaration and the repairs can start.

First, national political elites must find the courage to explain the importance of EU membership and its positive aspects with the same conviction, or passion, as the opponents. If not, then… the fate of David Cameron should serve as a warning.

Second, everyone, including the EU institutions in Brussels, has to understand that the slogan “we will look for a Europe-wide solution” does not do the trick anymore. This means that the European Commission and the European Parliament have to listen to the national concerns with a particularly sensitive ear.

Third, those, who would like to take advantage of the exit of the United Kingdom have to accept that the time is not right for new integration steps.

Fourth, we must do everything we can to restore solidarity between member states. In addition to managing the current crises this probably also means a more nuanced interpretation of EU rules. Brussels cannot risk breeding even more tension. Restoring solidarity also means reviewing and interpreting these rules together, this means an honest discussion on the lessons learnt from the migration crisis between all member states.

Prepare for Trumpworld

Fifth, we must prepare ourselves for the so-called Trumpworld, a situation where the commitment of the US to the European continent may weaken. Nobody is realistically working towards the establishment of a European army, but strengthening of EU defence cooperation is on the table and it merits support. The EU will certainly have to take a fresh look at its enlargement and neighbourhood policies.

Sixth, trade. Agreements between major trade powers focus less on lowering tariffs (there isn’t much left to do), and more on the creation of standards, a regulative environment. It remains to be seen whether the US as the biggest economy in the world will pull itself out of this process. But while the US is reflecting, the leaders of the EU should use the time for a new, honest discussion on globalisation with its citizens and for negotiations with other partners. Work on the agreement with Japan has recently progressed well.

Now for the seventh and last point. Big crises have the potential to change balances within the EU. In some sense, the departure of the UK gives more weight to the German-French engine that lost some of its momentum after the big enlargement of 2004. But smaller member states will have an ever bigger role to play for the future of our Union. Responsible action for the common good, for our common Union strengthened by solidarity is a must for all of us, big or small.

Matti Maasikas is deputy foreign minister of Estonia, which takes over the presidency of the European Council in July.

Disclaimer

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

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