On Wednesday, European Commission president Jean Claude Juncker will be delivering his State of the Union address at the European Parliament. This comes at a time when the EU is facing important challenges on various fronts. At the same time, the EU is also characterised by achievements, which we sometimes take for granted.
In the past decade, the global financial crisis led to a deterioration of living conditions for many persons across the bloc. But the worst of this seems to have passed and recent trends have shown economic improvement in various countries, for example through lower unemployment rates. However, even when statistics show positive trends, the everyday hardships experienced by many individuals should not be ignored. Proper social analysis should focus on both quantitative and qualitative factors.
The EU has done and should do more to foster social policy that integrates economic prosperity with social well-being. Social investment through lifelong learning, empowerment of citizens and human capital should be developed further so that individuals may be equipped to encounter the risks and opportunities in their everyday life.
The European economic model should also seek to balance the bloc’s role as a centre of global trade with its high social, economic and environmental standards. Jobs can be brought back to the EU if investment in sectors like energy is given more importance: this is also valuable from a geo-political standpoint.
As regards the latter, it is becoming clearer that the EU requires a coherent foreign policy and a common security strategy if it wants to have a strong voice at global level. The EU’s security dependence on the USA is currently in doubt and a divided Europe can work at its own expense and to the benefit of other global powers.
At the same time, however, I believe that the European Union should give more leeway to national, regional and local realities within an EU general framework. A good example of this is the EU climate change policy, which has a single EU-target but different national targets in view of realities in each member state. Hence, EU member states are sharing sovereignty by having a stronger global voice which however respects national realities.
A major political reality across the EU is the rise of populist and Eurosceptic parties and sentiments which are proposing quick-fix solutions to people’s concerns on issues such as migration. When EU-wide consensus is lacking the EU should promote coalitions of willing countries and organisations that are ready to assist each other. As things stand, this is perhaps the best viable way forward: otherwise, we risk institutional paralysis. I also believe that there should be more investment in social integration and solidarity programmes across the bloc.
The current migration challenge also reminds us that the same Europe which has a strong legacy of freedom, human rights and rule of law is the same Europe which experienced totalitarianism and in many instances practised colonialism. Besides, the term migration itself needs to be put into the perspective of the myriad of identities and allegiances in a diverse bloc. Can people simply be labelled as being insiders and outsiders?
Another challenge which the EU is facing concerns rule of law. Again, there are clear conflicts between liberal and illiberal democrats and an easy solution does not seem to be available. This takes us to the role of the European Commission to uphold basic EU checks and balances and the choices facing the European electorate in national and European elections. Illiberals are often making more passionate arguments and, thus, winning the communications battle.
In this regard, a European sense of belonging should be fostered by pro-EU institutions, political parties and civil society. This also means that people’s representatives in the European Parliament should be closer to the people by listening to their everyday concerns and realities in their respective constituencies and focusing less on rhetoric, which people do not associate with.
If we want to defend and improve EU achievements such as peace, solidarity and sustainability we must make sure that European individuals, groups and societies have a sense of belonging and engagement with EU institutions.