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The EU has to face up to some hard truths

25 June 2021

Covid and Brexit have revealed fissures in the bloc which cannot be ignored, argues Alexander Faludy

EARLIER this month, early in “Ordinary Time”, MEPs gathered in Strasbourg for the European Parliament’s first plenary session in the city for 15 months.

For romantics, the legislature’s monthly journey from its de facto home in Brussels to its legal one (217 miles south) is a pilgrimage, symbolising a commitment to breaking down historical borders. For sceptics, it is a “travelling circus”, typifying a tendency towards wasteful duplication of resources.

Either way, the latest session suggests that the EU is now a different beast from the one that it was before the pandemic. Remaining public-health protocols applied, with varying force, across the Continent meant that only half the MEPs attended in person (more than 80 per cent would be typical normally).

The Strasbourg sessions may, in time, recover their old bounce. It cannot, however, be a matter of return to “business as usual” for EU lawmakers, officials, and national leaders.

DEALING (and not dealing) with the pandemic has revealed fissures in the EU’s life, which have been long suppressed by the priority of dealing with Brexit. Controversy over vaccine rollout and the economic recovery package have served as magnifiers for pre-existing difficulties in institutional governance and budgetary controls.

This month, the (pro-EU) European Council on Foreign Relations think tank released a report, Crisis of Confidence, based on comprehensive polling across member states in April and May of this year. The authors conclude, reluctantly: “There is no hiding the fact that EU institutions have missed an opportunity to prove their value to European voters. . . for the EU, the crisis was existential.”

Survey results were paradoxical: respondents voiced both strong commitment to ideals underpinning the “European Project” (such as solidarity and upholding human rights) and profound dissatisfaction with the ability of EU institutions to deliver on those ideals. Worryingly, the report noted: “Disappointment with EU institutions has come out of the periphery and gone mainstream.” Confidence in EU governance slid by 11 percentage points in Germany (the bloc’s economic anchor) in 12 months, and, across the Continent, now extends from traditionally anti-EU voters to centrists and Europhiles.

Usually sympathetic respondents were disconcerted not only by a poor pandemic response, but also by EU leaders’ weakness, even lack of interest, in addressing the burgeoning rule-of-law crisis in central and southern member-states (Comment, 5 October 2018). Thirty per cent of respondents had lower levels of confidence in the EU’s commitment to democracy, human rights, and legal order than a year ago.

FIXING these problems is essential if the EU’s life is to be secured, in any recognisable form, beyond the next decade.

To speak thus is not to indulge in hyperbole. Last September, the cautious Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, speculated publicly about the possibility of a creative use of Article 50 procedures to “collapse” the EU in its current form, and reconstitute it as a smaller and more coherent union of states, without peripheral “troublemakers” such as Hungary and Poland. If other rich Northern European countries start to think (and speak) likewise, the EU as we know it will be visibly imperilled.

Unfortunately, solving these problems is complicated by the EU’s internal structures and present external conditions.

The Commission — the bloc’s executive arm — is effectively a permanent rainbow “Grand Coalition”. Thus, there is little incentive for member governments or parliamentary Euro-parties to rock the boat by offering robust “loyal opposition”: doing so has a tendency to risk embarrassment to allies and friends from one’s own political family. The President of the European Commission, Dr Ursula von der Leyen, is a Christian Democrat, but her administration includes Socialists, Greens, and Liberals — the parties whose parliamentary votes would be needed to dislodge her. The EU’s model of hyper-consensus politics here works towards the protection of failure.

A separate problem arises from a wider context. The Commission’s Vice-President, Frans Timmermans, a Dutch Social Democrat, once drew a distinction between being “Eurosceptic” and “Europhobic”. The former, he argued, involved a healthy questioning of EU institutions, which was to be encouraged. The latter involved an irrational antipathy, a tendency to be challenged. Brexit, he maintained, rested on the tendency of too many UK politicians to conflate the two.

Unfortunately, post-Brexit, this tendency is now reverse-replicated in Brussels. Constructive challenge to the shape of EU institutions is too readily perceived as playing into the hands of “Europhobes” intent on dismantling the EU per se. Inattention to criticism, however, risks reinforcing the problems that Europhobes seek to leverage rather than resolve.

The Europe Day statement published last month by the Conference of European Churches said: “A broad, open and inclusive discussion about the future of Europe is a much needed first step to renew trust in and reinvigorate commitment to the European Union as a true community of values.”

Those who truly want the EU to thrive might do well to follow suit, by cultivating the Christian praxis of “Speak the truth in love.”

The Revd Alexander Faludy is a freelance journalist. He lives in Budapest and Cambridge.

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