This year’s European Parliament election has spurred months of nail biting. Will the pro-European center hold? Will the body be too fractured to function? Will a vocal contingent of nationalist-populists disrupt every sitting?
While important, discussion of these questions has missed the forest for the trees. Now that the election is finally here, Europe can stop obsessing about its possible outcome and focus on the real challenges ahead.
The first challenge is the coming economic downturn. A decade after the financial crisis upended Europe’s economy, throwing its politics and social model into disarray, average annual growth remains a sluggish 1.5%. And there are strong signals that worse is to come: debt levels are rising fast and the European Central Bank has re-launched stimulus measures to stave off recession.
Unlike the crisis of ten years ago, the damage caused by the coming slowdown will not be concentrated in southern Europe; it will hurt the eurozone as a whole, including almighty Germany. The European Union barely survived the first crisis. A recession that hits the EU core would amount to a serious, even existential, threat.
One would think that ten years were enough to take steps to prevent history from repeating itself. But initiatives like the creation of a banking union and the completion of the single market have not been realized, because Europe’s leaders have insisted on discussing issues at the margins, rather than implementing difficult reforms. It is as if they haven’t noticed the lowering clouds on the economic horizon.
It is time to look up. The new European Parliament must urgently do what it takes to buttress the EU. But the impetus for such action must come, first and foremost, from the EU’s largest and most influential members – in particular, Germany and France.
The second core challenge that Europe faces is the fracturing of liberal democracy. This is not strictly a European phenomenon: it can be seen throughout the liberal democratic world, not least in the United States. But growing support for populist appeals to emotion, nostalgia, and resentment have been particularly pointed in a Europe still feeling the effects of the last financial crisis and facing growing questions over the viability of its social model.
So far, efforts to resist the populists have been underwhelming and sometimes misguided. Some, such as Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, have made the mistake of mimicking their message and approach. Others, such as French President Emmanuel Macron, have peddled largely hollow visions of hope, with mixed results. Then there were the poorly conceived efforts to connect the EU to the people, exemplified by the series of chaotic televised debates that have marked this year’s campaign for the European Commission presidency.
If they are truly to counteract the populist trend and reinvigorate support for liberal democratic principles, the leaders of the EU and its member states must do a better job of reconnecting with citizens. Finding a better approach will require a broader, more nuanced perspective and strong political will. Part of this entails constructing a compelling narrative for the European project and much of it, frankly, involves delivering results.
This is all the more important, given a third key challenge confronting Europe: the growing divide between the EU’s liberal and illiberal governments. In the last five years, a crack has grown into a chasm, as Hungary and Poland have suppressed independent media, attacked NGOs, and undermined judicial independence. This has driven EU leaders to take the unprecedented step of triggering Article 7 sanctions procedures against Poland and Hungary for eroding democracy and failing to adhere to fundamental EU norms.
But, though majorities in the European Parliament backed these measures, support has been less than enthusiastic, leaving the EU institution-driven process toothless. Yet again, a lack of common purpose is undercutting the EU’s ability to do what is needed – in this case, bring illiberal governments to heel.
The final challenge the EU faces is structural. This includes, of course, Brexit, which – no matter what form it ultimately takes – will profoundly reshape the EU. But the more fundamental issue is that the EU continues to pretend that it is a transnational construction, even as decision-making is largely – and increasingly – conducted at the intergovernmental level. To address the manifold problems it faces, the EU must recognize that member states are steering the boat, and adjust accordingly.
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None of the challenges the EU faces comes as a surprise. Yet its leaders have so far utterly failed to address them, let alone build broader resilience into the system. Instead, they have allowed institutional power rivalries to divert their focus from genuine problem-solving. The EU’s push to bolster its defense capabilities is a prime example, with as much energy being devoted to who will control programs and manage funding as to developing the programs themselves. This lack of focus on real issues could well bring about the downfall of the EU.
Europeans have begun to recognize this. In 11 of 14 countries recently surveyed by YouGov and the European Council on Foreign Relations, the majority of respondents reported anticipating a possible EU collapse within the next 10-20 years. For a project that once seemed like a beacon of hope for values-based global cooperation, this is a devastating reversal.
Whatever the next European Parliament’s composition, the imperative for Europe is the same. EU institutions must trade ambition for humility, focusing their attention not on their own power or status, but rather on upgrading and fortifying the project for which they claim to stand. If they fail, the road ahead will only become more perilous.