Whether you are a supporter of more or less Europe, one thing is clear: citizens want change. Debates about which way forward have become highly polarized between defenses of the liberal, values-based order on the one hand, and emergent nationalist populism on the other. Indeed, both Hungary’s Viktor Orban and France’s Emmanuel Macron agree it is “high time we speak seriously about Europe’s future”, but their respective visions for that future could not be more different.
As Europeans prepare to go to the polls for the parliamentary elections at the end of this month, they must determine which of the many new ideas, proposals and manifestos that have been put forward can best remedy the European Union´s challenges and unlock the potential of the region´s strengths. In advance of the elections – in which Britain must now participate given the latest Brexit extension – and in which all Europeans can exercise their right to determine the region’s future, it is important to survey the landscape of proposed reform initiatives, which revolve around five major themes, and consider their stakes and stakeholders.
1. Fix the democratic deficit once and for all
Eurosceptics have long pointed to the EU’s “democratic deficit” as a flaw in the design of regional governance – this despite the fact that most heads of EU institutions are, with varying degrees of representation, democratically elected. But the current structure of representative democracy guarantees few accountability mechanisms once officials take office, exacerbating the resentment of those Europeans disaffected by globalization. Furthermore, as recent investigations on both sides of the Atlantic have revealed, foreign interests have increasingly influenced the democratic process, especially through social media. Proposals for political reform within the EU have focused on safeguarding the essential freedom of democracy by three means: first, by ensuring the accountability of officials to the public; second, by banning foreign funding in any European campaigns; and third, as Emmanuel Macron outlined in his Plan for a “European Renaissance” to create a European Agency for the Protection of Democracies to “provide each EU member state with European experts to protect their election processes against cyberattacks and manipulation”
Perhaps the most important political movements are those in favor of creating transnational party groups in the European Parliament, organized by interest rather than national origin. While such efforts have long been part of EU reform discourse, the possible opening of 73 parliamentary seats after Britain’s exit from the Union and the reorganization of the body’s demographics have intensified support for structural reform on both the right and the left. Perhaps the best example of this is the “Movement for a Europe of Nations and Freedom”, created by the new alliance of France’s Marine Le Pen, Italy’s Matteo Salvini and rising populist leaders on the right, which supports a “new framework for cooperation” built around a “European Alliance of Nations”. Parties on the left have responded to this move by endorsing interest coalitions with pro-European agendas, and have even presented a joint list of Commission presidential candidates for the Spitzenkandidat process. “Team Europe” includes La République en Marche! (LREM) and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE).
2. Get serious about inequality
Globalization resulted in dramatic structural changes to the macroeconomy, particularly in the worldwide spatial division of labor. Deindustrialization, the rise of the service economy and rapid digitization hit working-class Europeans the hardest, many of whom feel like they have been left behind in a competitive system without sufficient support. While the vast majority of social welfare occurs on a national level, the EU also needs to address the problem of inequality as a bloc: not just between member states, but also within them.
Citing widespread socioeconomic inequality as the central threat to Europe at present, a group of scholars including Stéphanie Hennette, Thomas Piketty, Guillaume Sacriste, and Antoine Vauchez have offered a concrete proposal for How to Democratize Europe as a means of “saving Europe from itself” and avoiding another [insert country name here]—exit. They advocate for a democratic solution through the “creation of a new European parliament with substantial budgetary and legislative power to solve the crisis of governance in the Eurozone and promote social and fiscal justice and public investment”. Through this reform, they argue, the main beneficiaries of globalization, which they name as multinational corporations and the super-rich, will be asked to contribute fairly to the financing of public goods that support the average citizen. At the time of this writing, this group’s online Treaty for the Democratization of Europe (T-Dem) has garnered 114,968 signatures – not an insignificant number, but far below the threshold that would clearly indicate that even very well-informed European citizens know and support the movement.
In his reform plan, Emmanuel Macron also proposed an EU-wide social program to mitigate inequality: the creation of a social safety net through a European minimum wage, appropriate for each country. This initiative could fundamentally challenge the perception of the EU as a neoliberal, market-driven system. But critics of the plan have raised eyebrows about its feasibility in much the same way that they have shaken their heads at even bolder proposals for a universal basic income (UBI) across the region. Indeed, achieving member state consensus sufficient enough to implement such an ambitious plan seems unlikely, although it is also one of the few reforms around which both liberals and populists agree.
3. Come up with a workable plan for managing immigration
Such suggestions about creating a Europe-wide social safety net raise questions about beneficiary eligibility, and, as a result, rekindle the immigration debates that have embroiled the region for nearly a decade. In fact, immigration remains the principal bone of contention between pro-European and Eurosceptic groups. That Angela Merkel’s open door immigration policy invited the arrival of millions of migrants to neighboring shores on the Mediterranean and to the Visegrad group of countries in eastern Europe reveals the challenges of the Schengen agreement in its current form, especially given the lack of solidarity among member states.
Shortly after the crisis began in 2015, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker described Schengen as the EU’s “comatose patient”, a diagnosis that has changed little in the intervening years. Several reform programs have called either for the abolition of the principle of free movement, or, as Belgian prime minister Charles Michel first proposed in 2018 and Macron recently revived, a “complete refoundation of the zone around just a small group of member states.” Of all issues the Union faces, this one seems the most volatile, equally capable of inspiring real structural reform or of destroying the bloc completely.
4. Tap into 4IR technologies to accelerate green economic growth
Other ways to remedy inequality and provide stability and prosperity for not only European citizens, but also migrants and refugees is through the acceleration of economic growth. But Europe has lagged behind the regions with which it competes; in recent years, the United States, China and Japan have posted 3-4% growth, while Europe, which climbed very slowly out of the 2007-2008 crisis, has experienced just 1-1.5% growth during the same period. In start-ups and small business ventures and in new innovations and technologies, North America and Asia are driving progress, while Europe has been struggling to keep up.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution demands that the region adopt a new approach to competition, especially with regard to the Digital Single Market, which the European Commission prioritized through a new directive in 2015, yet which remains incomplete. Furthermore, where Europe has paved the way for its rivals throughout the 20th and 21st centuries is in developing what Samuel Brittan called “capitalism with a human face,” and it is in this effort that the region can continue to lead, ensuring that growth is cultivated sustainably, both for its citizens and for the environment. Proposals in this vein include the setting up of a European Climate Bank “to finance the ecological transition”, as well as a European Innovation Council to “spearhead new technological breakthroughs”. Moreover, the Directorate-Generals working on innovation, small business, social affairs and entrepreneurship have all developed concrete proposals in this regard.. While such proposals have few detractors, they also have not yet earned support widespread enough to bring them to fruition. That sustainable, humane growth remains a priority, though, reminds us that the Union is so much more than a simple free-trade zone.
5. Send a message that Europe is united in defense
Few issues bring right and left together like the threat of foreign conflict. Increasingly complex cybersecurity threats and new pressures on the delicate web of international relations have brought security and defense to the fore once again. The Franco-German alliance has long called for the federalization of defense by creating a “true European army”, especially as a way to achieve some independence from NATO, which has been dominated by the US since its formation in the late 1940s. Indeed, America’s recent nationalist turn under President Donald Trump, and his “America first” policy do seem to further support the argument that Europeans must fill the resulting defensive vacuum with their own joint force, capable of responding to threats in ways that single nations – especially the smaller member states – cannot manage alone. Leaders from the Commission have explained that a European army would not be convened offensively, but would rather “send a message” to aggressor states, a strategy particularly important for Europe with regard to Russian involvement in the Ukraine. Critics on the right, who see security as an inherently national concern, have been quick to raise questions about the leadership and financing of a joint force, highlighting yet another challenge inherent in multi-stakeholder governance: that consensus-building, especially among polarized parties on contentious issues, can be very difficult.
A crossroads for the future
A few things become abundantly clear through this survey of EU reform proposals: first, that these reforms are all aimed either at correcting flaws in the Union’s design or at finally completing its original, but unrealized promises; second, that the bloc is truly at a crossroads, with the parliamentary elections serving as a fulcrum for change; and third, that it is rather easy to pitch revolutionary ideas, but much more difficult to implement them. If anything is certain, it is that Europeans, reminded of the unparalleled achievements in peace, human rights, and economic stability afforded them by the EU, must now exercise their right to determine the region’s future.