European right divided on EU values after Brexit
By Eric Maurice
A day after the UK notified the EU of its intention to leave, leaders of the European centre-right have called for EU unity, but with a sometimes very different view on which values the EU should defend.
At their congress in Malta on Thursday (30 March), leaders of the European People's Party (EPP) insisted that the EU was facing an internal challenge from anti-EU forces, in addition to external challenges such as migration, terrorism and protectionism.
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"Populism is the biggest threat to European stability," said Simon Busuttil, the leader of Malta's Nationalist Party, who hosted the congress.
With the heads of the three EU institutions as members, as well as seven heads of state and government in its ranks, the EPP is often seen as the EU's driving political force.
After Brexit and ahead of the French presidential election, where far-right leader Marine Le Pen is now considered a potential winner, the EPP appeared far from being united on how to address the populist threat.
On the right side, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban called on Europe to defend Christianity against a Muslim "invasion".
If migration continues, he said there will be "a dominant Muslim presence in Western Europe even in the lifetime of our generation".
"Migration turned out to be the Trojan horse of terrorism," he said. "Migration turned out to be a false solution to labour shortage. Migration turned our to be more and more an NGO business."
"It has become evident that the language of liberal political correctness is unable to identify the true dangers of migration," he insisted. "Leftist policy is intellectually disarming Europe against the invasion of Muslim migration."
He argued that with socialism, Europe "would lose [its] christian identity" and he called on his fellow party members to resist the "ideological pressure of the left".
"We should not be afraid of leftist criticism calling us populists. We know we are not," he said.
Without naming the Hungarian leader, European Council president Donald Tusk delivered a different vision for Europe.
"There is no contradiction between liberal democracy and the need for order and security. Only free and law-abiding societies can truly be safe," Tusk said, in an indirect reference to Orban's claim of building an "illiberal democracy".
"People want authority, which is wise, moral and strong all at the same time," he insisted.
He said it was "both foolish and dangerous" to affirm that strengthening the EU will "inevitably weaken" nations, and that it's becoming more and more difficult to reconcile being Europeans and patriots."
The European Council chief noted that "proclaiming the 'end of history', proclaiming the ultimate triumph of liberal democracy, peace and international order, have turned out to be - to put it mildly - exaggerated".
"For rational and responsible patriots who want to maintain sovereignty and independence of their nations and states, there is no alternative to a united and sovereign Europe," he said.
Between Orban and Tusk's rather opposed visions, other EPP leaders insisted on political, as well as religious values.
"Whoever loves his country says yes to a strong Europe," said Manfred Weber, the leader of the EPP group in the European Parliament, who added that "Christianity is engraved in the DNA of Europe".
While almost all of them insisted on democracy, freedom of speech and the rule of law, German chancellor Angela Merkel noted that "freedom is not freedom from something but freedom to do something".
Same values, different ideas
"We can have different ideas about the same values," European Parliament president Antonio Tajani told EUobserver after his colleagues' speeches.
He said that European shared values could be "applied differently in countries that are in different situations".
"If we have to open our doors, we have to strengthen our identity," he said, adding that religion was only a part of it.
Only a day after the Brexit notification, reactions from EPP leaders were also highly anticipated.
The party's first message was that the UK exit should be seen as a difficulty, as well as an opportunity.
Brexit "will create a lot of damage on both sides," Weber noted. But Tusk said that the UK's departure made the EU "more determined and more united than before".
"Brexit is not the end. We have to make it a beginning of something that is new, stronger and better," European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker added.
Looking at how to cope with the unprecedented exit of an EU member, the EPP defended the idea of an EU where some countries integrate more than others to respond to Europeans' concerns.
"Multi-speed Europe is a choice, not an obligation," the party president Joseph Daul said.
"We have to address the fears of the European citizens, which are exploited by populists," he told EUobserver.
It was up to the strongest leader to set out a political roadmap. "We have to be best of the class," Merkel said, insisting that the EU should define a policy to remain a strong global player.
The German chancellor admitted that when the Schengen passport-free area was built, the EU "didn't think enough about [its] external borders".
Not giving up borders
"Our values should not stop at our external borders but we should not pretend that we don't have any borders," she said.
She insisted that the EU should not isolate itself from its neighbourhood, but had to find the right answers to external challenges without "giving up" its borders.
Noting that "Africa is at our doorstep", she said that the EU must cooperate with African countries and "help them take their fate into their hands".
She defended the EU-Turkey deal to limit the number of migrants coming to Europe, saying that "we cannot have a repeat of 2015".
Insisting on Europe's competitiveness, Merkel said that it was "important to build a digital single market". "Look at Silicon Valley," she told party delegates.
As a conclusion, the leading EPP figure also called for unity. Europeans "can do better together than going alone," she said.
"We must make an effort for this Europe because we love it."