Year 2017 rediscovered optimism in the European Union. Unity and stability made a comeback and the new vision for the future of Europe started a transition beyond the unfortunate Brexit. The elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany tamed the rise of a populism that, however, still remains a major influence and a force in expansion, especially since the formation of the new Austrian coalition government.
Yet, the new Eurobarometer shows the slow recovery of trust that has been shattered by years of political disputes and rifts. Moreover, for the first time since the economic and financial crisis, in 2007, Europeans have a positive opinion of the current state of the European economy (48%), which is higher than negative (39%). Support for the single European currency is highest since 2004 and 57% of Europeans are generally optimistic about the future.
Winds of change and recovery are blowing but there cannot be progress and restoration of that political consensus on the EU project without public trust. The first step in reforming the 27-state EU is political will and 2018 will be the year of European reform. But without results-oriented Europe and without the political will needed to implement these changes, EU transformation – not only rhetorical but in terms of perception – will make no impression. The options are already on the table. To answer the calls for reforms, Europe will need to address democratic representation, strengthen economic power and solidarity, address migratory pressures and focus on the Europe of values.
The European Union needs to strengthen its political legitimacy. EU Commission President Juncker proposed to strengthen the democratic legitimacy of the European institutions and an increased role for national parliaments in the democratic control of EU decisions. The idea of achieving “one captain … steering the ship” in Mr. Juncker’s words, is far from being realized, even though the proposal of uniting the presidencies of the Council and Commission dates back to the era of Jean-Luc Dehaene when it was number 2 on the European convention for the future of the bloc.
Another important area of focus us a union of rights, which is fundamentally an issue of values. But the union of values suffered a major blow as a result of the migrant crisis. In August 2015, Angela Merkel said: “If Europe fails on the question of refugees, if this close link with universal civil rights is broken, then it won’t be the Europe we wished for”. But the EU has not only failed at this, it has also failed to fulfill its own commitments to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU such as the right to physical integrity; protection from inhuman or degrading treatment; the right to asylum and protection from being removed, expelled or extradited to a state where there is a serious risk of being subjected to the death penalty, torture or other inhuman or degrading treatment.
Addressing migration will be also a vital part of the EU’s reform and reconstruction. More than 2,200 migrants died in the Mediterranean in 2017 attempting to reach European shores and the member states did not meet the commitments to relocate refugees despite the dire humanitarian situation in the refugee camps. The EU continues to fail to comply with its international obligations on asylum and refugees that are based on a fundamental principle that views asylum as a right. The twenty-seven member states must build their internal EU reform around the migration issue as well and guarantee safer regular routes towards Europe, such as humanitarian visas and opening up legal routes for the arrival of migrants and advancing on the reform of the Dublin Convention.
‘Reforming the European Union in 2018: Five Proposals with Some Wishful Thinking’ – Op-Ed by Carme Colomina – Barcelona Centre for International Affairs / CIDOB.
(The Op-Ed can be downloaded here)