A more con­fi­dent EU agenda is emerg­ing

The Irish Times - - Opinion & Analysis - Paul Gille­spie

Awin­dow 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 Euro­pean Par­lia­ment elec­tions in 2014.

Rad­i­cal ideas

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.

Moral haz­ard

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 eu­ro­zone 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.

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.


It needs to move on from last year’s gloom over Brexit, Trump and fear of dis­in­te­gra­tion

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