Year LXI, 2019, Single Issue, Page 12
As 2019 came to an end, the European Union found itself looking back on a mixed and somewhat contradictory year that had seen some positive results (most crucially the outcome of the European elections in May), but also brought some negative developments, including the emergence of divisions within the ranks of the pro-European political forces. These forces have different ideas concerning the role that Europe should play in the 21st century, and are therefore at odds over the changes that need to be implemented in order to ensure that Europeans, with their wealth of values and their model of inclusive democracy, are guaranteed a leading role on the global stage in the future; they also disagree over specific policies. While still ready to close ranks in their opposition to the nationalist and illiberal forces that constitute their common enemy, the pro-European forces are more fragmented and quarrelsome than in the past. This was clearly demonstrated by the squabbling that led to the rejection of as many as three Commissioner candidates and prompted Margrethe Vestager (one of the Executive Vice-presidents of the new European Commission) to admit that on certain policies the new Commission will likely be forced to rely on variable majorities, which could even include nationalist parties.
The current European Parliament and European Commission thus appear to be weaker, in many respects, than previous ones. Furthermore, though global events are putting new pressure on Europe to respond as one, these events and this pressure seem to be depriving Europe and its political representatives of the capacity to keep calm and stifle their feelings of disquiet in the face of a future that looks increasingly complex and uncertain; this profound unease is a symptom of an existential crisis that can be viewed and interpreted from different perspectives, but certainly not denied or ignored.
It has to be said, though, that this general unease is having the effect of imparting momentum to the Conference on the Future of Europe. First mooted last March by Macron in his open letter to the Europeans, it is a proposal that grew in strength over the course of 2019: after being taken up and promoted by the newly appointed Commission president Ursula von der Leyen in July, the Conference was formally launched at the European Council of December 12th, 2019 (albeit without, as yet, being given specific mandate, structure and time frame). Accordingly, it is looking set to be, for the next two years, the key factor in European political life. It will inevitably be central to the pursuit of all the political ambitions harboured by the new Commission and the new Parliament, which range from the European Green Deal to the carving out of a new geopolitical role for Europe, given that these objectives can only be pursued effectively if they are properly supported by a clear vision of the type of power that Europe wants to exercise internationally, and providing Europe proves able to stand on its own two feet (an ability it currently lacks or possesses only to an extent). Debate over what aspirations and objectives Europe must have in the new global setting, what European policies need to be put in place in the strategic sectors in which, individually, the European states no longer wield influence, and, consequently, what European instruments and powers, currently missing, need to be created to ensure that Europe can act effectively, will thus be unavoidable questions, and it will be up to the Conference to address and discuss them in complete transparency.
This is not to say, of course, that the Conference will necessarily manage to respond adequately to the problems that today’s world is throwing up for the Europeans; on the contrary, the debate that has thus far developed around the start of this process certainly suggests that the voices of those proposing inadequate, pseudo-solutions (such as calling for merely cosmetic changes to the rules governing the current system, carefully designed to ensure that political control and the levers of power remain entirely in the hands of the member states) are initially going to drown out the message of those calling for the transfer of real powers to supranational institutions. But the fact is that the impotence of the current institutional framework can only be overcome through a radical change of direction, and those fighting for this — for a new Europe, capable of acting effectively and with democratic legitimacy —, will, as in the past, eventually find that the unfolding of events is the best ally of their cause.
Europeans today find themselves caught between, on the one hand, the reality of politics, whose iron laws are firmly anchored to the logic of power, and, on the other, the wishful thinking of those who believe that the current European model, in which the concept of power is entirely absent, can survive, in spite of everything. Within the dialectic created by these two perspectives, they need to decide whether they want the future to see Europe playing a leading role on the world stage, or instead just a “bit part” as a satellite to the global powers. This dialectic defines the battlefield of the fight for a sovereign Europe, by which we mean a federal Europe operating as a state: the same European federation envisaged by the founding fathers, outlined in the Ventotene Manifesto, and indicated by Schuman in his speech of May 9th, 1950.
The European Parliament bears considerable responsibility for determining the outcome of this process. The fact that the Parliament is the citizens’ directly elected assembly and received a strong mandate in the last elections means that is has a duty to translate the fervour and enthusiasm surrounding the launch of the Conference into ambitious and concrete achievements. Its stances thus far have seen it assuming a guiding role, and it has raised the right issues; however, it has stopped short of expressing an intention to translate the requests and demands that will inevitably emerge from the Conference into reform proposals that, to lend real substance to the work of the latter, are conceived as constitutive elements of a coherent new Treaty — one that can be adopted using new rules with respect to the current ones (which require unanimity) and will thus set the stage for a core group of states to advance towards political unity within the current EU and single market framework.
This is the crucial challenge to be thrown down to the national governments, and around which it is necessary to engage with the citizens. Through a non-paper published on the eve of the 12th December European Council, it was taken up, in part, by the French and German governments. France’s response was also accompanied by a startling intervention by its president, Macron, who, in an interview with The Economist, spoke of Europe’s disappearance as an independent community as a concrete possibility. In their joint memorandum, the two governments supported the type of mandate for the Conference envisaged by the European Parliament, having accepted the guiding role of the latter; but their proposal, too, like the Parliament’s, postpones the true development and implementation of the necessary reforms until after the end of the work of the Conference, thereby dramatically weakening the whole process. However, should the European Parliament, in this setting, manage to find and display the courage and ambition necessary to be a true leader and groundbreaker, then it may well find common ground with France, and thus form an alliance that Germany will find it difficult not to join.
The challenge is on! And, as with any true political challenge in which the building of the future is at stake, we need to see reality (i.e. the objective conditions that constitute the framework of the challenge) putting pressure on the existing power structure and raising awareness of the change that is required; but we also need to see some real human courage. Europe’s current ruling class, shunning cowardice and excuses, has to demonstrate concretely that it can rise to this historic moment in time.
30 December 2019