Towards a European public space

02.06.2013 - 21:28

For three years now, the end of May has coincided with the publication, by the European Commission, of Country Specific Recommendations for each Member State, a central step in what is now known as the European Semester. This novelty of the Lisbon Treaty marks a fundamental leap forward towards a genuine Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), by providing the Commission with an important right of inspection over how Member States elaborate their policies and control their budgets. 

Other significant achievements have been reached in the midst of the crisis, creating a banking and fiscal union, and completing EMU. It is important to remember that all these developments have been achieved at a moment when the scales have been tipped towards inter-governmentalism and away from supranationalism. This was clear to see during the painful European Council of February 2013 on the Multiannual Financial Framework. 

Yet, among the public, there are few people who seem conscious of the importance of these new competencies, and the new role acquired, for instance, by national parliaments. Many citizens have lived the crisis as a bad dream, something they view as imposed by far-away decision-makers, without being able to evaluate the responsibilities and competencies of the different actors involved. It is thus not surprising that, in the midst of the confusion, often triggered by governments themselves, a growing number of parties have surfed the wave of uncertainty and insecurity, identifying the European project as an easy scapegoat and feeding once again the nationalist feelings that the entire project was meant to eradicate.   

These parties have not had to make much effort to obtain unexpectedly good results in just a few months’ time. In this way, parties feeding nationalist feelings are offsetting the very parties and governments that, having given them leeway in the first place, find themselves suddenly entangled in a trap that they have largely contributed to create. The discussion on the budgetary framework for 2014-2020, which should have provided the occasion for a genuine structural reflection on the future of the Union, never took place. This reflection will however need to be undertaken, at one moment or another, given the urgency of current economic and geopolitical challenges. It will have to address not only the political evolution of the continent (towards a political union or a federation of nation states?), but also a revision of the rules and behaviours in a world marked by uncontrolled financial practices, unbridled globalisation, and unscrupulous practices by a number of economic actors who have placed themselves deliberately outside the normal economic and social traditions. It is this leeway that led for instance the Belgian Prime Minister – a convinced European by nature – to question publicly, in the Belgian Parliament, in an unusually harsh and provocative manner, if Europe’s fate would mean reducing the hourly salary to the one paid in China!

Disenchantment about Europe, currently stigmatised in many speeches and press articles, is a logical consequence of what President Barroso qualified a few weeks ago as a kind of “European fatigue”, a strange form of institutional paralysis that could worsen, in a rather dramatic way, next year, on the occasion of the European elections. 

Faced with this unprecedented situation, the President of the Commission decided to react. In a speech on 23 April in Brussels entitled “A new Narrative for Europe”, he pleaded for a mobilisation of Europe’s cultural and research resources, the men and women who feel the pulse of evolution, and who find themselves today in the front line to evaluate, forge and carry the future of the European project. 

In his speech, J.M. Barroso recalled Adenauer’s interesting reaction to the proposal submitted by Monnet and Schuman on 23 May 1950: “ We are not engaging in a purely material enterprise, we are engaging in a human enterprise which will promote peace and mark a major step for civilisation”. These words resonate all the stronger today. Europe cannot be confined to an economic endeavour. It is also a cultural and human project because it touches the lives of 500 million people. The same conclusion appears week after week in the Citizens’ Dialogues which are organised throughout the year across the European Union: Europe needs a new vision, a new dream, new reasons to believe.  

Our continent counts a sufficient number of perceptive minds to enable it to revisit and structure the project, and, above all, to better explain it to people. It is now up to them to take up their responsibilities, in order to counter populism and avoid future disasters. It is urgent therefore to put in place what the President of the Commission called a “European public space”. If there is one lesson that the 2013 European Year of the Citizens has thought us so far, it is the need for an urgent response. It’s the very survival of the project that’s at stake here: a project that, built on the ashes of a devastating war, still remains unchallenged by any possible alternative, notwithstanding the attacks, the delays and the disappointments.