Europe is in dire need of reinvention but has never been quite so enfeebled to pursue it. The EU member states are drifting away from each other. The gap between European elites and citizens is widening, and the policy agenda is made of a disjointed collection of initiatives. Combine this with the difficult upcoming electoral cycle and scarce popularity of the governments in office, the challenge of thinking long and deep when under pressure for the immediate quick fix is glaring.
The British vote to exit the EU pushed European leaders towards the recognition that something needs to be done. That “something” will be discussed in Bratislava this Friday. However, a sober assessment of the proposals circulating in the run up to the summit do not show much innovative thinking, with security, economic growth, and tackling youth unemployment yet again on the cards.
Some suggestions are in blatant contradiction with each other, while other rehashed proposals, such as a “common defence,” seem stillborn in light of twenty years of snail pace progress in the field. Yet, some concrete initiatives may still emerge. The European Commission President made a number of proposals in his State of the Union speech in the European Parliament on September 14, from moving to 5G in mobile communications to a European Travel Information System. The list is longer, but experience shows that these plans do not win the hearts and minds of Europeans, especially since the majority of which is not even listening.
The insistence on finding new ideas and deliverables for a disenchanted audience captures the end of the problem, like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. The debate in the European Parliament following the Commission President’s speech revealed not just how divergent the interpretations of the causes of the crises are, but also how little the representatives of Europeans know of their constituencies.
Something different would be needed. Politicians have been listening to the loudest voices, not to citizens at large. A better understanding of the socio-economic and political malaise in most advanced democracies would be a good starting point. This could be done through far more pluralist and open exchanges with sectors closer to citizens – civil society organisations, private sector, local institutions, education establishments. These types of consultations can be a heuristic tool to understand dynamics at play in society as well as a basis through which renew and rethink leadership in Europe.
Going back to the sober assessment: can Bratislava deliver any optimism for Europe’s future? One positive development could be that, after much kindergarten quarrelling displayed during the past year, European leaders seem to recognise that it is time to take responsibility. The window is narrow as some may be out of a job in the coming months. The run up to Bratislava saw much diplomatic activity, some of which went beyond the usual pre-summit meeting configurations. Angela Merkel, to whom nearly all other EU member states turn for guidance, has made a point of meeting all leaders. Italy’s Prime Minister seized the opportunity to invite France and Germany to the island of Ventotene, where Europe was thought up during the war — challenging the leadership of the Franco-German axis. The Visegrad 4 have made some proposals. Other formations have also gathered, such as the South Mediterranean EU members. Clusters of interests, including in the non-governmental and society sectors, are becoming more apparent and vocal.
It is significant that different constellations of leaders will meet, breaking the traditional models driving of integration. In a diverse and complex EU, the old ways of building consensus have not been working: many meetings, few items approved, and even fewer implemented. Rethinking ways of doing policy, moving out of binary thinking about EU institutions versus member states or core versus periphery groups, can inject some fresh air in a decision-making process which has become dysfunctional through crises. If broader representations of society were involved, the basis for creating new alliances of citizens, institutions, civil society organisations, political parties, interest groups could be shaped.
If Bratislava can set the ball in motion with some first, tentative steps that may lead toward a new social and political contract underpinning the European construction, it should be welcomed even if the immediate results of the meeting will be a poor show. After all, compromise and small steps is what the EU has been good at, thus far.