Tuesday

16th Apr 2024

Column

Too much 'EU crisis' talk — let's praise where the politics works

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The EU is an indispensable organisation. Are you surprised I am writing this? Am I doing PR for the EU now? No, not really. On this site, I have often criticised EU actions. Because it is an indispensable institution, it needs scrutiny and criticism.

The recent debate on AI shows once again why the EU is indispensable.

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  • The European Commission has long experience in regulating and policing complex industries. Even the big EU member states do not have such capacities and skills anymore

The risks and dangers of AI have been highlighted for many years. My organisation Democracy Reporting International has been highlighting for many years that a wave of generative AI tools was approaching the market — with all its associated risks.

Yet, policymakers in many countries seem to be surprised and overwhelmed by the development, ever since ChatGPT broke the dam of mass-market generative AI-tools.

One cannot say that the EU is fully prepared, but it has new legal frameworks that start giving us a concrete basis for discussion and action. Concerns about manipulative use of generative AI can begin to be addressed through the reinforced Code of Practice on Disinformation, adopted in June 2022 and the Digital Services Act, adopted in October 2022. The proposed AI-Act would provide systematic regulation of the field.

The European Commission has long experience in regulating and policing complex industries. Even the big EU member states do not have such capacities and skills anymore. Not to be outgunned by global companies, the EU framework is better suited to respond to these new challenges.

Instead of helpless handwringing, in the EU we can act and make a difference. Yet much of the debate about the EU is not about how best to act, but about whether it should exist and whether it will survive. Countless articles declare that it will be 'torn apart' by this or that problem.

People talk about the 'European project', implying that it has an end date, as projects do. Is anybody talking of the 'German project' or the 'Croatian project'? No. They are seen as being self-evident realities.

Most of the media will once again discuss next year's European Parliament elections as a horse race between anti-European 'populist' parties and all the others. If the former win more seats, a European crisis will be declared. This has become the main story of the European elections.

Next year's elections

But it is misleading.

Even if far-right parties win more seats, the EU will not disappear and it will not stop doing things. The question is which things it will do and how. That is what matters. And for that, the share of votes between the European Socialists, the European People's Party, the Liberals, the Greens and others will be far more important than the number of rightwing MEPs.

Take another area: the undermining of the rule of law in a number of member states. The EU could and should have acted already in 2011, when Victor Orbán's party bulldozed an undemocratic constitution through parliament (no referendum was held). But it chose helpless handwringing (as did some of the big EU states, like Germany.)

As more authoritarians, notably the Polish government, took inspiration, the EU and its other member states finally moved beyond handwringing. Since then, the commission has published regular reports on the rule of law, and the European Court of Justice has been involved. EU member states and the parliament have agreed on additional options for financial sanctions.

The EU can make a difference. Financial sanctions in particular have an impact. The Polish and Hungarian governments have started to take some steps to improve the rule of law. But there is a big risk that the commission will again be too soft and be satisfied with cosmetic changes, especially by the Orbán government.

This is where European electoral politics come into play. The vote share of the democratic parties in the European Parliament is important for the direction of the European Commission and the appointment of its president.

Whether the commission is a true "guardian of the treaty", whether it is tough or soft on things like democracy and the rule of law, how it responds to climate change, how it deals with corporate or government lobbies — all of this is influenced by EP results. The vote in one year should not be cast to show support to the EU, but to decide what kind of EU we want.

This is the real story of the EU. Not one of weakness, but of an institution that plays a powerful role in many important areas — and that's why it needs scrutiny and critical debate. This is what we should focus on, not the never-ending ruminations on the EU's crises and probable demise.

Author bio

Michael Meyer-Resende is the executive director of Democracy Reporting International, a non-partisan NGO in Berlin that supports political participation.

Disclaimer

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

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