Cliff Taylor: EU struggles to find compelling vision as it hits 60

Instead of a grand plan, the union needs to take practical steps to address problems

President Michael D Higgins  hit out at an European Commission White Paper saying  it appears no one is  addressing the underlying issues honestly. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

President Michael D Higgins hit out at an European Commission White Paper saying it appears no one is addressing the underlying issues honestly. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

President Michael D Higgins was spot on. In a recent speech to an Ibec conference he hit out at a White Paper presented by the European Commission to promote debate on the future of the EU. The current lack of faith in the EU was “alarming”, the President said, and not only was nothing being done about it, but it appeared that no one was even addressing the underlying issues honestly. In this context, he said, the White Paper was a disappointment.

The paper was prepared ahead of a meeting next weekend of EU leaders, to mark the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. The EU has had some enormous achievements. But against the backdrop of Brexit, years of low growth, stagnant living standards for many, and political uncertainties, the mood may not be too celebratory.

New thinking is needed. The EU needs to find a way to show people it can still be a positive force, yet the White Paper is a document grounded in tired old arguments. Should Europe integrate further and, if so, by how much? It presents five different scenarios, ranging from a move to further integration, a continuation of current policies, a few states going ahead of others and so on. We have been around these houses many times over the years.

Precariat

There is a complete failure to recognise that something in the current mix is broken. To take just one example, there are four million unemployed youths across the EU – not far off one in five of the under-25 workforce. And, as President Higgins pointed out, there is also a “precariat” of generally younger people in poorly paid and often temporary work.

Stagnant living standards have sparked nationalist and anti-EU sentiment. The EU is in a fight for its life, but is behaving as if it is involved in some genteel debate about political geometry.

It will not surprise you to know that of the five scenarios for the future of the EU outlined in the European Commission’s White Paper, the one involving more integration magically seems to make everything look better. If everyone could only agree to “doing much more together”, we would, it says, see a Europe where decisions are made quickly, economic prospects improve and in which people’s lives are improved.

It seems, reading the document, that someone felt one negative point had to be put under this heading, and someone thought up a line that citizens might not know who to complain to if an EU body approved a wind farm in their locality. No; I am not making this up.

Threat

And then there are the connected cars, the term used to describe vehicles hitched up to the internet, allowing advanced navigation, entertainment and safety systems. They will be the forerunners of driverless cars. In the “doing much more together” scenario – the one involving most integration – Europeans would, we are told, “use connected cars seamlessly across Europe, thanks to EU-wide rules and the work of an EU enforcement agency”. It will not surprise you to hear that lesser degrees of EU integration will, the Commission warns us, dim the bright future of the connected vehicle in Europe.

Unfortunately it is the EU that is looking like the driverless car, with key elections in France and Germany carrying huge importance. A victory for Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election could threaten the whole future of the euro, and perhaps even of the EU.

The work of creating a genuine monetary union to try to underpin the euro has still to be finished – and may never be. And a big member state, responsible for around one-sixth of the EU budget, is about to walk out. The Commission is fiddling around the edges while the Treaty of Rome and its aspirations threaten to burn.

The grand plans need to be put on hold. The 27, in its current political line-up, will never agree further integration anyway. Some of the core member states may decide to move further in certain areas – depending on the French and German elections – but even this is questionable and will be limited. And this leaves Europe facing a risk. Because if it is not moving forward, the risk is that it will continue to slip back.

Unemployment

The EU was constructed as a grand political project to end years of conflict in Europe. And it succeeded. It has left this country a much richer and more diverse place. But, rightly or wrongly, to paraphrase the old sketch, many people are now asking : “What did the Treaty of Rome ever do for us?”

Surely the way to mark the 60th anniversary is not with the grand vision, but with some solid and practical steps. Rebuilding needs to start from the ground up. For example, find a way to build investment levels across Europe, more ambitious than the existing Juncker plan. Explain this in plain language and not, as in the White Paper, with a paragraph that starts : “The European Stability Mechanism becomes the European Monetary Fund.” Nobody cares what is it called.

Then launch a drive against youth unemployment and try to get a few useful things going. Everyone knows that this curse is not particularly the EU’s fault and cannot be solved overnight but surely the best minds in Europe can come up with a few useful and practical measures. The modern world likes listicles. Europe needs to find five things it is going to do – now – with its member states to start tackling youth unemployment.

The core point of the President’s speech was bang on. Europe needs to find ways to reconnect with its citizens and show that it can improve their lives.

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