A window of opportunity has opened up for the European Union to reform its policies and structures over the next 18 months. It needs to move on from last year’s gloom over Brexit, Trump and fear of disintegration into a more confident affirmation of its positive role in governing interdependence and globalisation in Europe.
The huge agenda involved was flagged by European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker in an impressive speech this week. Calling for a more united and democratically accountable EU, he spoke ahead of the German elections and French labour reforms that also set the scene for such a move.
His message to central and eastern European member states which fear being marginalised by a faster core is that if they adhere to the rule of law and common values they are entitled to a single speed and destination of travel. For southern countries anxious about an incomplete euro, flagging economy, reduced interdependence and low investment he called for a banking union, a pillar of social rights and stronger trade agreements around the world.
Unanimous voting on tax and foreign policy should be replaced by majority decisions. For those worried about migration and terrorism he proposed tighter controls and more unified legislation.
He wants to amalgamate the presidencies of the commission and the European Council representing member states with one to make it more comprehensible for citizens. That person would be elected using the lead candidate system used in the last European Parliament elections in 2014.
These are unusually bold and radical ideas, rare indeed after the depression of recent years in this area. Their chances of being implemented depend on governments and citizens rather than the commission he heads, but they bring together many strands of politics and policy now becoming more possible.
Unless the euro is made more complete through banking reform, more fiscal capacity and debt instruments it will not withstand the next downturn. The impatience with global corporations paying so little tax drives current demands for turnover taxes and tighter regulation. Their profits and sheer power over new communications infrastructures must be harnessed to the public good much more effectively.
Ireland’s official trepidation over these moves is shortsighted. This country is relatively undertaxed overall, has a narrow tax base and needs to develop its economic model to meet the demands of a more modern and prosperous society. We no longer have the UK to hide behind and should not rely on such windfalls.The same applies to foreign and security policies in a period of geopolitical change and neighbouring instability.
A meeting of EU policymakers and specialists organised by the Greek think tank Eliamep last week debated whether such changes can be made. Noting the tensions between north and south, east and west in the EU, they agreed these go well beyond Brexit. The hard Brexiteers seek to tear the whole structure down, but have not succeeded. That leaves no room for complacency, since big changes usually come through crisis.
Thus the moral hazard feared by Germany if wealth transfers from north to south must be matched by the catastrophe it faces from a resurrected populist hazard if Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron fail to initiate such an economic, social and political renewal. A grand German coalition with the Social Democrats would be more sympathetic to Macron’s proposals for a euro-zone government and parliament than one with the Liberal Free Democrats.
Juncker did not endorse Macron’s ideas in full, signalling his determination to maintain the commission’s independent role, which helps protect the interests of smaller states. France and Germany are tempted to more intergovernmental means. In a post-Brexit EU Germany will be weaker and France stronger strategically, French experts believe.
Juncker’s ideas on how to make a technocratic, remote and complex EU better understood and accessible to citizens are also good. Lead candidates in the 2019 European Parliament elections could have stronger European parties and programmes and a more unified electoral law to make them more identifiable. Other ideas canvassed at this seminar include bringing Juncker and his vice-president to national parliaments to give them a better hearing.
Overall the EU needs a new narrative of belonging and action if it is to defend itself in coming years. The mobility and openness it represents needs to be backed up by more solidarity and protection of citizens. That does not need treaty change now but better politics.
These initiatives are a welcome sign that a wider and more confident agenda is emerging. The opportunity to act on it will not last long.