by Jesmond Saliba & Keith Zahra – CiConsulta EU Affairs Division
For the past week, and those preceding it my ‘European’ soul was put under a stress test. I am a convinced European. Being European isn’t about the flag or the passport. To me Europe is more, it’s a set of principles and values, which triggered a process, which in the words of the founding father, Robert Schumann needed constant adaptation.
The initial response to the coronavirus pandemic left many around Europe expressing doubts of the EU’s commitment to support its citizens in dealing with direct impact of the crisis, in terms of health, jobs and the wider economy. Eventually, the institutions got their act together and a massive package was seemingly agreed to, which puts on the table large amounts of money, facilitated the transfer of essential health-related essential products, and coordinated the delivery of the necessary aid to the worst-affected countries. It also coordinated very quickly the approval of state aid measures to support the different economies with the varied packages that member government came up with.
Yet, it seems the damage had been done, and with Chinese, Russian and far-right propoganda fuelling the flames, once again, the message trickling down to Europe’s citizens has been one of disappointment.
Yet, ironically, the current pandemic, and the experience which it has brought about, leading nations to work together, to support each other to facilitate the transport of essential products, to develop a vaccine and to support the hardest-hit nations to recover from this tragedy, brought about a renewed scope for the European Union’s existence. No European nation is strong enough to produce all that it needs. No European country can probably produce a vaccine on its own. This is why we need to be together.
However, this needs to instigate the start of a new process, a new will. A Project Restart – if you will – a term I have liberally lifted from a completely unrelated scenario, namely English football’s plans to resume competitions post-pandemic.
But this is what Europe needs right now, a fresh opportuntity to start again and build on the positives is has contributed to its citizens. The frustrating element for anyone looking at the EU from a favourable or even objective position is that its so many accomplishments throughout this relatively short existence are obscured buy the few notable failures that rightly or wrongly, citizens feel frustrated about.
Think about the cleaner beaches, with no sewage thrown in the sea. Stronger social worker systems, the right not to work more than a 48-hour week without overtime, the cheaper travel, the lowcost airlines, equal pay, stronger consumer protection, food labelling or product safety. And these over and above the certainly more important 60 years as a foundation of peace between European neighbourors after centuries wars an death, not to mention the incredible political, social and economic transformation of more than a dozen countries after decades of dictatorship, communism and abuse of human rights.
Yet all this is forgotten every time EU leaders spend long hours and nights squabbling about that extra 0.1% in national income to pay to the common budget, or everytime few or no Member States raise a finger to support their Southern partners when yet another boat load of migrants approaches their shores.
It is indeed a pity that these failures – which objectively do not outweigh the significant achievements, threaten the very existence of the Union and give fuel to the growing far-right and populist agenda on the continent.
So how can the EU regain its trust?
First and foremost, it must re-focus on its original objectives, that of eliminating barriers between nations. The liberty to buy from around the continent with no additional tax or currency exchange losses, the ease of travelling in another member state, the facility in enrolling into a University course abroad are certainly among the most popular EU-related initiatives. However, despite significant achievements in this regard, several sectors face obstacles for a truly open market to happen. Just think about the lack of liberalisation in the energy sector or insurance services.
Secondly, the connection between citizens and the EU needs to be restored. The solution to this lies at two ends of policymking. The EU project is more often than not seen as distant and elitist, therefore the democractic legitimacy of European institutions has to be strengthened. The EU is seen as more distant and more elitist than ever before. Here, the responsibility lies as much as in Brussels as in the national capitals.
The former, should probably resist the temptation to continue seeking further of transfer of powers to itself. Rather, it should seek to make work what is available now, while actually involving national parliaments even further. However, national politicians, especially those who really understand the difference the EU makes in our lives, should stop pointing their finger Brussels for failures and claiming successes as their own. National leaders should also seek to respect the will of the people where Europe is involved. How can we convince citizens on the EU’s democractic credentials, when none of the European-wide political parties’ candidates eventually made it as President of the Commission? Simply put, neither EU nor national leaders shoudl do not make promises which cannot work.
Thirdly, strong decisive action on migration is at this point in time becomes paramount. Europe needs to show its citien that it has control who is accessing it through its borders, and that flows will be managed in a fair and equirable manner. However, migration does not stop at agreeing on a fair sharing of this “burden” – an unfortunate term if any, but rather to the implementation of crucial social, cultural and work-related integration.
The pandemic has given the right opportunity for such restart.
Strong action is required. European nations will need to rise from economic ashes for yet another time. This is yet another opportunity, for European leaders to defend and put forward this successful European project.
And this has start from us. We often tend to ask, what Europe can do for me, and perhaps its time to think what we can do for ‘Europe’.
Jesmond Saliba, Keith Zahra
CiConsulta EU Affairs