While the economic crisis that affected the EU for almost a decade seems to eventually be easing off, post Brexit, the continent is faced with another sort of culmination; this time political.
With Brexit just around the corner, which will propel not just Britain but the whole of Europe in uncharted territory, plus several other member states having voted in populist and eurosceptic governments, many are bracing for more troubles ahead. But before we get all too gloomy and pessimistic, we must realize that we chose the democratic way. And that is the most difficult, yet virtuous path to push for an ambitious project, such as unifying countries that not until too many years ago were at war with each other.
The EU is a work at progress and just like any project, everything does not always go as planned or is just plain sailing. Democracy itself is not a perfect system, yet it is the best we’ve come up so far. It has its pros and cons and one of them is that various factors can heavily influence public opinion, which as result can make controversial decisions.
We should not let this discourage us however we ought to realize that the biggest problem that Europe has is lack of leadership at a continental level. We have created something unique on this planet, a confederated union of a sort with huge economic advantages that other continents aspire to achieve, yet although we know what needs to be done to make it function better and fairer, few leaders will even speak about it openly. Is it fear of public opinion which appears to be divided and not convinced, vested interests of the established elites in each country, or foreign meddling? No matter what the cause, Europe needs leaders and politicians that will be bold in their pan-European vision, that in addition will find ways to convince their counterparts across the continent.
Who is in?
Now it seems that only France and Germany seem not just committed to the European project, but willing to take the lead. However, Europe’s economic powerhouse -Germany- has yet to act decisively on such role. Apart from punishing other EU members that do not maintain a good record on their finances, Angela Merkel’s government has been reluctant in working for necessary structural reforms across the block, or even speak about further integration. Perhaps Germany, just as most other member states, still is only comfortable with the economic benefits that the EU is offering and either not ready for deeper integration or avoiding it to maintain a suitable to its interests’ status-quo. In addition, it may simply do not want the responsibility of leading such a diverse group of countries. Sadly, no other EU nation seems to do so either.
Time for change?
However earlier this month, the French President Emmanuel Macron, ahead of the European Parliament elections, called for a “European Renaissance,” proposing multiple new institutions and a major conference to overhaul the Continent’s political structures. These institutions will focus on defence, policing and cyber-security, environmental and social protection, trade policies and practices and finally the establishment of a “Conference for Europe” by the end of the year. Its role will be to suggest a road-map for change, built on input from citizen panels, academics, civil society and religious representatives.
It is not the first time that he openly focused on Europe in his public speeches, yet this time he did so in an open letter to all citizens of the EU. Could this be an overambitious young politician, an electoral political stunt, or a prelude of things to come? No matter what, we need more national leaders to start calling to the European public, in order to achieve a more continental public opinion and demos. We need to be reminded that we are not just citizens of our local communities, nations or regions, but of something bigger too. So, if our national politicians focus on domestic issues to win the European elections, then these elections are doomed to reflect national, often petty and irrelevant to the continent, disarrays.
It’s a bigger picture
In this aspect Macron has got it right. However, there is a problem. The protests of the “Yellow Vests” in his country signify a public reluctance to change or reforms, plus a social inequality that exists across Europe. If Macron fails to deal successfully with this challenge, how then can he be able to push for reforms across the EU? Additionally, many countries do not think the way the French do. France is a republic that chose a very centrist approach to government, something that other nations lack or never had, therefore they cannot accept the federal model that many pro-Europeans like Macron are promoting.
The Visegrad group, or the Hanseatic 2.0 League of nations, may find his proposals or his lead not of their taste or interests. The first grouping alliance has many times so far resisted pressure from the EU to take in more immigrants and help their southern fellow states, in dealing with the refugee crisis. The second- the “Hansa,” have spent most of 2018 concentrating their energies on monetary union instead of more French-style political integration, as they stand for national responsibility over government finances and the importance of sticking to spending rules. Yet again none of these groups have taken a leading role in the EU or proposed their own vision on the future of Europe to the rest of the European citizens. Our continent is in danger of fragmentation, or even disintegration to smaller unions, with just a statutory and irrelevant EU still existing.
So what’s next?
So how can any ambitious young European politician promote a more centrist, federal model, reforms and policies on a pan-European level? Of course, primarily he will have to convince all countries and groups in the union of the necessity of such reforms and the beneficial impact they can have in every nation. But to achieve that, he will need to speak not as a French man, a Greek, a German or Dutch, but as a European who understands and respects all the different mentalities, cultures, economies and sensitivities that comprise the EU.
President Macron may have all these qualities, yet under his current role he can never successfully promote them. He is the President of France and this limits him greatly. Yet as a top EU official, such as the European Parliament or Commission President, someone like Macron might have a chance, if only national governments again are willing to listen and most importantly, stick with the agreements. Consequently, Europe’s openness and democratic values delay greatly any progress or quick response to problems that the continent is faced with. As the EU expands and takes in more nations, the diversity is enhanced thus any consensus is an ever-bigger challenge. It will need a very charismatic leader, to unify the quarrelling Europeans.
But as things stand, no government in Europe seems ready to accept a leading voice outside their ranks. So, Macron’s initiative may be finally the only way to have a cross-country political leadership. Even if he fails in convincing the rest of the European elites to accept all his proposals, if we can have leaders of every member states taking in consideration and addressing the rest of the European citizens, it is a good start. Ultimately, we do need a “Conference of Europe,” the way Macron has suggested it. It is time that our continent has its own established think-tank, civil society platform and “agora,” something that besides was the cornerstone of Europe’s first democracy; Ancient Greece.
Modern Europe lacks a physical place outside the various online platforms, in which ordinary citizens and thinkers, together with academics from all member states and of every political, economic and social background or ideology, can gather. A place where they can collectively discuss their future, organize pan-European campaigns, network and get to know more about the EU and its benefits, or the challenges that each state is facing. And since no national or EU politician is willing to take the lead in giving Europe a single voice, perhaps then it will be up to the European Agora, to be the place of the formation of what Europe currently is deprived of.
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