BY: ANDREIA SOARES E CASTRO
Every year in September, the President of the European Commission delivers his State of the Union speech before the European Parliament, assessing the achievements of the past year, presenting priorities for the year ahead and the course of action to address the most pressing challenges facing the European Union (EU). It is important because it is the nearest thing the EU has to a general policy speech by a national chief of government and because it is supposed to be a political answer to EU citizens’ preoccupations. Moreover, it comes amid renewed concerns over the rise of anti-EU forces in several EU Member States, and in the context of the upcoming European elections in May 2019.
Since Jean-Claude Juncker took office as President of the European Commission on November 1, 2014, he delivered four State of the Union speeches, highlighting the fact that the Union is not in a good state, urging action and more solidarity between the EU Member States.
In his first State of the Union 2015 address, at the peak of the migration crisis, he said: “This is not the time for business as usual”. In his 2016 address, the year of the Brexit referendum, Juncker acknowledged the EU’s existential crisis, referring to “so much fragmentation, and so little commonality in our Union”.
In the 2017 address, revisiting the debate where the European Commission presented the “White Paper on the future of Europe”, Juncker set out his own “scenario six” for the future of Europe, combining elements of each of the original five scenarios. But the “window of opportunity”, mentioned by Juncker, to reform the EU in order “to build a more united, a stronger, a more democratic Europe for 2025” has not been considered the first priority of all 27 Member States, which was precisely one of the many contentious issues that divide the EU members.
This year’s State of the Union address comes as no surprise in the context of a profoundly divided Union, visible in the Member States’ tensions over migration, that is here to stay, the reform of the Eurozone or the debate on the future of the EU27. Hence, the same enduring problems and challenges were identified in Juncker’s speech: migration, terrorism, climate change, lack of solidarity, lack of social Europe, security, Brexit and the “exaggerated nationalism”.
Acknowledging the many (unresolved) problems at home, Juncker looked abroad and suggested moving from unanimity to qualified majority voting in foreign affairs so that the EU and its Member States can be the “architect of tomorrow’s world” instead of holding a passive role in global affairs. Although the idea is interesting, it needs to be followed by joint action. The problem is that foreign and security policies represent powerful bastions of national sovereignty and are very difficult to transform into supranational policies. In addition, the lack of solidarity and mutual trust between the EU Member States and different positions about the future of Europe further jeopardizes the application of that proposal and consequently the EU’s international role in responding to the current challenges.
The so-called re-foundation of the European Union, beautiful on paper, is rather hard to implement, especially nowadays with a number of populist governments in power that are anti-EU. In other words, the ever closer union principle, enshrined in the EU treaties, is no longer the priority. Instead of “more Europe”, in response to the challenges Europe is facing, Member States and EU institutions are calling for a “better Europe”.
While in Bratislava, after the Brexit result, the 27 Member states declared that “the EU is not perfect but it is the best instrument we have for addressing the new challenges we are facing”, these nice words alone are not sufficient in responding to the myriad of challenges and guaranteeing the EU’s unity (and ultimately its survival).
While French President Emmanuel Macron defends more integration, the Eastern countries resist the idea of giving more powers to Brussels and of having a second role in a multi-speed EU. Meanwhile, the Northern states are opposed to a strengthening of the Euro, which would entail their obligation to share risk with the poor economies of the South.
All that said, the real state of the Union is a fragmented one with internal divisions between the Member States and lack of support of the European citizens. In addition, there are countries like Poland and Hungary that face accusations of turning their back on the EU’s values. Last, but not least, the divisions are reinforced by the rise of nationalist and far-right movements in the EU, some currently in office, and others in the opposition, endangering the future path of the European project. In fact, anti-EU forces, like the far-right movements, benefit from the very real policy failures (on both a national and a European level) and citizen’s frustrations, posing a policy problem as they want to end the EU.
This explains the relevance of the upcoming European elections as another opportunity to team up pro-EU forces that advocate for the indispensability of the European project and to clarify what “reforming” the EU needs, along with when and which Member States agree with it.
While domestic policies and elections are at the center of EU evolution, it ultimately can lead to the disintegration of the EU. To prevent this from happening, and to restore voter confidence in the European project, the national narratives (and practices) about the EU must change, in order to promote, and in some cases, reinforce positive sentiments of a collective Europe.
The EU also desperately needs active European citizens that are engaged not only during the elections but beyond as well. Here, it is important to point out that since the first European Parliament elections in 1979, the turnouts have been declining steadily.
Finally, it is of the utmost importance that the electorate knows the difference between voting in politicians (and political parties), who continue the effort to build the EU and those who want to destroy it and return to a nationalist past and unilateralism. Repairing the public image and sentiment regarding the EU is not an easy one, but with a concerted effort, it is also not impossible.
Andreia Soares e Castro is an Assistant Professor at the Department of International Relations, ISCSP – ULisboa as well as a Researcher at the Centre for Public Administration & Public Policies CAPP/ISCSP-ULisboa. She received her Ph.D. in International Relations as well as her M.A. in International Relations from ISCSP-ULisboa.
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