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20th Feb 2019

Van Rompuy sets out minimalist EU vision

  • The EU in the near future is neither set for a great federalist leap nor a 'retrenching behind national borders', believes Van Rompuy (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Europe needs to shift its focus from open borders to "protection", while avoiding interference in areas where national governments can better act alone, EU Council chief Herman Van Rompuy has said.

Speaking on Tuesday (1 July) at the European Policy Centre, a Brussels-based think tank, Van Rompuy laid out his vision for the next five years and on what challenges his successor will have to face.

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"Building Europe is not about grand design and master plans but about finding concrete solutions to immediate problems," Van Rompuy said.

In his view, neither a great federalist leap nor a "retrenching behind national borders" are likely to happen, rather the established method of "building Europe with small steps, each step seeming too small and too slow to address the mounting challenges that we could face far better together."

He noted that for the first time, and in order to accommodate British concerns, EU leaders last week said the concept of an "ever closer Union" as enshrined in the Treaty, does allow for "different paths of integration".

He said EU leaders at a summit on 16 July will exchange views with the next European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, on the working programme for the upcoming five years.

"Of course this looking-ahead exercise comes at a very specific moment. Not only at the start of a new five-year cycle, but also as our countries are finally emerging from what for many of them was the worst economic crisis in a generation, and as public disenchantment with politics has spread," Van Rompuy said.

On the rise of euroscepticism and the sucess of populist parties in the recent EU elections, he noted that opinion polls and surveys suggest a broader disenchantment, not only with EU institutions, but with national institutions also and with politics in general.

"I take no comfort in this sad fact, but it seems to indicate that this is not only about Europe, but maybe a wider crisis of politics that begs deeper questions – question of society, of culture, of the relationship of citizens with public authorities in all their dimensions."

He also saw a fault in the EU focusing too much on opening up - lifting borders, allowing for investments, workers and companies to move freely - while neglecting the people who are not "movers", who want to feel protected and "at home."

Van Rompuy, who in his spare time writes haikus, a Japanese form of poetry, added: "As human beings, we need both. A space in which to fly, and a nest we can call ours."

"Europe, the great 'opener' of opportunities is now perceived by many as an unwelcome 'intruder', the friend of freedom and space is seen as threat to protection and place".

He said it is essential for the EU to protect not only businesses, but also employees, not only those with diplomas and languages who can move around, but also those who stay back home, the workers who fear competitors for their jobs.

"Where national authorities are best-placed to provide care, people expect that the Union does not get in the way. Indeed, there are cases, where precisely because of its scale, the Union must tread softly. Not disrupt, but respect familiar places of protection and belonging – from national welfare choices, to regional traditions and identities, all the way down to local cheese".

Failure to deliver on this will result in an even bigger success of eurosceptic and populist parties in five years time, he warned.

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