At CEPS Lab, politicians and leaders gathered to debate the future of Europe post-Brexit. What they found was a host of new challengesby Marie Le Conte / March 1, 2018 / Leave a comment
There is a fine line between competence and complacency, and it is not always clear when Jean-Claude Juncker crosses it.
The president of the EU Commission was the star guest of CEPS Labs, a conference on the future of Europe which took place in Brussels last week, and while his speech was largely uncontroversial, his contempt for the audience afterwards was barely concealed.
He frequently gave one-word answers to questions. Occasionally, he told audience members with earnest queries that they were simply wrong.
One of the cherries on the arrogant cake came in response to a question on—what else?—Brexit.
Mete Coban, a fresh faced 25-year old Brit, stood up and asked: “given young people overwhelmingly voted to remain and want to maintain close relationship with EU, what message would you send to them?”
Irascible, Juncker shot back: “It would have been better for the British and for the Europeans if they had taken another decision.” Next.
Yet on this point at least, his visible annoyance felt partly justified: the conference was about what the continent should do next, and for most in the bubble, the UK has little to do with it.
So, what now? A comparison between the conference’s recent titles shows that this year, there was at least an optimistic theme.
In 2014, the Centre for European Policy Studies launched the event and used “Does Europe Matter?” as a tagline. 2015’s slogan was the equally reluctant “More or less Europe?”
2016 was hardly more positive, asking “An EU fit for purpose?”, but last year’s started cautiously putting its head back above the parapet, with “Reconstructing Europe”.
In this context, 2018’s “Europe Back On Track” suggests at least an attempt at optimism: in spite of Juncker’s dismissiveness, Brexit was seen as one of the disasters the EU could now leave behind.
The rise of the EU
It started off well: in the first session of the two-day conference, CEO of—among other things—polling company Kantar Michelle Harrison told the audience exactly what they wanted to hear, in the form of research her team had conducted on the EU.
“The latest figures from last year show that the level of positivity has moved back to 57 per cent so overall that’s a fantastically positive result—in 2011, only 40 per cent of people were positive about the European project,” she said.
So far, so good—but her conclusion was more cautious.
“Things are improving compared to 2011,” she said, but added: “we tend to see a majority positive, but not majorities getting over 50 per cent.”
Globalisation also proved to be a particular concern, as EU citizens are roughly split in half on whether they see the phenomenon as a threat. (The ones who do are more likely to turn to populist fringe parties, while the ones who don’t also tend to favour more EU integration.)
Still, after years spent panicking about the euro crisis, Greece, refugees and everything else, Eurocrats seemed relieved to finally get some breathing space.
Juncker’s plenary echoed this sentiment: “It wasn’t so long ago that our Union was in danger of sleepwalking from one crisis to another without waking up—this was, in fact, the alarm call we needed”, he proudly announced.
“Since then, we have slowly turned the page from this so-called polycrisis and we have been able to do so by being united and by delivering on things that matter.”
A day later, Lilyana Pavlova, the Bulgarian Minister for EU Presidency echoed his tone.
“After the UK’s decision to leave, most of us realised what Europe is, and how valuable Europe is, and how important Europe is to all of us, and we are more pro-European now”.
The message, then, was clear: after nearly a decade in the troubled shadows, the European Union can start enjoying its newfound place in the sun, and start looking at what it wants to do, as opposed to what it must.
How to fix a fragile union
This raises several issues. First, this peace is a fragile one: far-right populist parties are still polling worryingly high in some corners of the continent, inequality keeps growing between the member states, and there are unavoidable concerns about the way democracy is being mistreated by Poland and Hungary.
Secondly, no-one can really agree on the direction of travel: steadying the ship is an important step, but with so many people with competing desires and agendas at the helm, charting a route forward could be a fraught process.
At smaller, off-the-record sessions the optimism of the headline acts was tempered by a lack of consensus over everything from the future of defence to which countries should join the Eurozone next—without mentioning the banking union, qualified majority voting and other wonkish concerns.
Thirdly, complacency can be deadly. Richard Youngs, professor of international relations and author of Europe Reset, explained: “There is a slight danger that today—because things are so positive—advances in integration can be taken without reforms in democratic consent and participation.”
This, he warned, “could be stirring up more trouble for itself over the longer term.”
Continuing to expand an edifice without making sure its foundations are solid is a risky endeavour, as Dutch Labour party politician and former Eurogroup head Jeroen Dijsselbloem reminded the audience.
“Europe is back in the sense that there’s a lot of positive dynamics economically and politically,” he said, but added: “we have still a lot of damage in our member states to repair—economic damage, political damage, social damage, but also confidence in what the EU may do.”
“For a very long time, Europe was for many of our citizens a good thing. Sometimes they weren’t even aware of the positive effects of Europe, it was just a given that Europe contributes to security and to wealth and prosperity.”
“Both of these elements of trust,” he warned, “have been damaged in the last ten years.”
So, how does one fix a fragile union?
One obvious step is for politicians to stop scapegoating the EU. Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders had warned that this has become a habit—and it’s “just the populist parties, it’s most parties.”
“Shame on you!”
This echoed back to one of Juncker’s bitter jokes, who’d said the day before: “Employment is at an all-time high and unemployment at a nine-year low—9 million jobs have been created.”
“Nobody is saying that the commission is the explanation for this explosion in the European labour market.”
“Of course, if we had lost 9 million jobs, the commission would have probably been responsible.”
Yet if Juncker was quick to point out EU-blaming had become a beloved national sport in member states, he offered few solutions.
When asked why people aren’t celebrating the EU’s achievements, he responded: “We have to change our communication policy, although I don’t know how because we are publishing thousands of pages a week already.”
Still, in a final show of defiance against an audience who dared not to be as evangelical about the European project as he is, Juncker glared when the moderator asked how many in the room didn’t think Europe was ‘back on track’ and roughly half the audience raised their hands.
“Shame on you!” he hissed. People laughed in surprised disbelief, but this might well have been the moment that defined the conference: celebrating an escape from the frying pan is one thing. Making sure there is no subsequent jump into the fire is quite another.