EU can be agent of change - but only if its members pull together

 

EUROPEAN DIARY:Political courage, collective ambition and solid pragmatism – all are essential if the union is to survive, writes ARTHUR BEESLEY

A FEW weeks ago, when the euro crisis might just have gone nuclear, European leaders received an unsparing report* from a “reflection group” led by former Spanish premier Felipe González on the long-term challenges facing the EU. Though couched in positive terms, it doesn’t make for wholesome reading.

If the Titanic struggle to save the single currency is an inch-by-inch campaign of attrition, González and his team were charged with mapping out issues which are likely to surface in the years between 2020 and 2030. Crystal ball-gazing over such a long horizon is unavoidably risky, but they are steadfast in their conclusion – “The choice for the EU is clear: reform or decline.” The looming threats are as numerous as they are grave, be they in the fields of economics, demographics, energy, security or in terms of the EU’s own legitimacy. “For the first time in Europe’s recent history there is widespread fear that today’s children will be less well off than their parents’ generation. Today, we live in an age of insecurity.” Serious stuff from serious people. González’s colleagues include such notables as former Polish president Lech Walesa, former Latvian president Vaira Vike-Freiberga, Nokia and Royal Dutch Shell chairman Jorma Ollila, Confederation of British Industry chief and former Financial Timeseditor Richard Lambert, and former EU commissioner Mario Monti.

It was French president Nicolas Sarkozy who called three years ago for the formation of the group. At that time, the credit crunch which led to the current financial mess had just struck.

Few might have thought then that it would lead Greece to the brink of the abyss and threaten Spain with a similar fate. The crisis has affected Europe more than any other region in the world by uncovering structural weaknesses that have been long been diagnosed but ignored, they say.

Thus the message is stark. “Our findings are reassuring neither to the union nor to our citizens: a global economic crisis; states coming to the rescue of banks; ageing populations threatening the competitiveness of our economies and the sustainability of our models; downwards pressure on costs and wages; the challenges of climate change and increasing energy dependence; and the eastward shift in the global distribution of production and savings.

“And on top of this, the threats of terrorism, organised crime and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction hang over us.”

The group says the EU can be an “agent of change” in this scenario, a trend-setter and not a passive witness, but only if its members work together with a new common purpose.

“Our members agree on one fundamental issue: Europe is currently at a turning point in its history. We will only overcome the challenges which lie ahead if all of us . . . are able to pull together with a new common purpose defined by the needs of the current age.” According to the group, this requires political courage, collective ambition, solid pragmatism and a clear sense of ideals worth fighting for.

Now that may well read like any old stump speech from any old politician, a litany of well-rehearsed statements of the obvious. Once the arguments are advanced, however, they inevitably raise a multitude of prickly questions for political leaders.

While endorsing the contentious push for increased central economic governance, the report says the EU needs to act decisively to avoid “protectionist temptations”. In so doing, it raises the spectre of “economic nationalism” and “de-globalisation” as countries assert their autonomy on economic issues.

On security and the protection of individual freedoms and human rights, it says striking the balance “will vary over time”.

Other conclusions raise specific questions in the Irish context. For example, the group wants a stronger single market and says this should be accompanied by “improved tax co-ordination”, something which would threaten the competitive clout of Ireland’s low corporate tax rate.

The group also says Europeans need to embark on a serious discussion about the need for safe nuclear energy. In addition, Brussels should redirect resources from the Common Agriculture Policy towards environmentally friendly agriculture and stock-breeding, and take an active part in reforestation.

To one extent or another, all of this is tricky politically. But the report says Europe’s strengths are real. “With the biggest market on Earth, a quarter of the world’s trade and the donor of two-thirds of development aid, the EU matters,” it says.

“The EU has the capacity to think and act in the long-term interests of European citizens. Member states are frequently constrained in their actions which militate against long-term planning.” While pointing to the opportunity this presents, the group notes increasing criticism of the EU and its performance. Strengthening a sense of ownership must therefore become a driving force, the group says.

EU leaders welcomed the report, but the questions it raises for them are indeed profound.


*The report can be found at: http://www.reflectiongroup.eu/