New Vision for Europe: Where Should EU Be Heading?

Oliver Cole via Unsplash // CC

Both euro-optimists and euro-critics agree that the European Union is facing critical challenges these days, it is not strong enough and the bloc must implement significant changes to fulfil its original aims and secure peace and progress for its citizens.

For the EU to continue to provide peace, stability and prosperity for its citizens, a brave new vision is necessary for the European project. However, they imagine Europe’s future in fundamentally different ways.

Budapest City Hall, Political Capital Institute and CEU Democracy Institute, the organizers of the inaugural Budapest Forum – Building Sustainable Democracies, in partnership with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom have invited prominent politicians from the western and eastern part of Europe to discuss whether a compelling new vision for the European Union is possible that brings together the majority of its citizens and political forces. The event was the Budapest Forum’s contribution to the Conference on the Future of Europe.

Participants: Katalin Cseh, MEP, Momentum, Vice President of Renew Europe; Claudia Gamon, MEP of NEOS, Renew Europe; Ivan Vejvoda, Acting Rector of IWM

Ivan Vejvoda does not see Europe getting weaker in the future, but the EU should grow up to the challenges we are facing. Climate change, migration and pandemics are here to stay, and the sovereigntists are delusional if they believe that nation-states can deal with these issues alone.

Katalin Cseh also emphasized that Europe’s history showed us that crises make us stronger, and we have already reached several milestones that were unimaginable a few years ago. She pointed to the European Resilience Fund, euro bonds, and the levy on digital companies, all of which were unrealistic a couple of years ago.

Claudia Gamon agreed that the pandemic had been a catalyst for change and that change can happen relatively quickly when it is urgently needed. We can see change on the European level, but the time it takes for European law to have an effect and get noticed by the public is usually quite long.

Three key areas were identified by the panelists which are crucial if Europe wants to be efficient in the face of the challenges:

The first is the question of unanimity in decision-making. The panelists believe that progress should be made in decision-making by transitioning to qualified majority. Katalin Cseh mentioned the example of the common foreign and defense policy, where a couple of autocratic ‘trojan-horse’ actors can make it difficult for Europe to stand up against China and Russia in the global great-power competition.

Claudia Gamon also believes that if we do not use this next decade to create a faster and more efficient decision-making process then we will lose our chance to be at the heart of the green and digital transformation. Europe could and should be the center for the green economy as Silicon Valley was the center for the digital revolution. Institutional changes are needed for this, but contrary to the last 40-years of integration, we need a bottom-up approach and involve the citizenry in this reform, or it will not work.

The second issue is the rule of law. Ivan Vejvoda said that Europe was created to prevent the evils of history to ever come back, but it can happen if the people become used to the benefits of the European project: open borders, common currency, social rights. We realized after Trump and Brexit that we can slide back into repeating history’s mistakes. Democracy is reinvented every day, it’s not a given, but a fragile flow that can disappear. That is why the rule-of-law issues have wider ramifications.

Gamon agrees that the rule-of-law is not a standalone issue because it influences the quality of decisions in all other fields from taxes to climate change. Although she is an optimist, Europe is not performing well on foreign policy, climate change, or competitiveness.

Katalin Cseh said that although the new is rule-of-law-mechanism is a good step forward, we need to address a wide range of issues in order to maintain and restore the values of Europe. She thinks that if these issues are not tackled, the whole project could fail. This kind of destructive behavior is not only the problem of these countries but of the whole community.

The third is the so-called “technitization” of politics. Ivan Vejvoda says that we talk more about governance instead of democracy and this way people become disenchanted with and distant from politics. People need to feel they are protected, and they have a chance otherwise it creates a way for “snake-oil” type of solutions. Populists and nationalist politicians are exploiting this feeling in the electorate. Even if Orban is defeated in the next election, other actors – throughout Europe – could seize the opportunities left open by these issues.

The Solutions

Involving the Citizenry

The panelist agreed that there is only one way to move forward: involve the citizenry. This is why the Conference on the Future of Europe is so crucial, but other than the European Parliament, very few institutions want this Conference to be a success.

From the start, the Council wanted to derail the conference, while only the Parliament and especially the Renew Europe group wanted to make it happen, according to Claudia Gamon. It took a lot of time and effort to push it through and the process is far from optimal. The turnout is low and this way far-right and Eurosceptic groups can take advantage of the process by disrupting it and make their agenda more appealing.

According to MEPs, politicians need to encourage participation and do not let the conference be just a listening exercise; they need to fight for the reforms. They think the process needs substantive debates about real issues and needs to be provocative in order to create a real public discussion.

Enlargement Equals Credibility

Ivan Vejvoda highlighted that the question of enlargement is about the credibility of the European project. After the Thessaloniki summit of 2003, when these countries were invited to join, not much progress had been done. Even if these countries would meet the Copenhagen criteriums, it would take another 8-10 years for them to accede.

Responding to criticism over the democracy deficit of these countries, he said that one cannot generalize that all these countries have the same problems regarding democracy and rule-of-law, but he is confident that Europe can address these issues before the next enlargement.

Ivan believes that leaving out the Balkans from the Conference on the Future of Europe was also a big mistake. The European Union must credibly continue its “open-door policy” and pave the way for these countries to join if they meet the criteria.

Enlargement is one of the strongest geopolitical areas where Europe can exert influence, according to Katalin Cseh. But first, we need to put our own house in order, in her opinion. We need to prevent member states – old and new – from backsliding and violating the values of Europe. We need a good and well-functioning conditionality mechanism, a European public prosecutor’s office, more say in media freedom, and judicial independence.

This is needed to create a solid, well-functioning framework to provide the same rights and benefits for every citizen and the same obligations for every member state in exchange for membership, said Cseh.

A Social Europe Is a Successful One

The panelist agreed that we cannot create a successful Europe with the current level of inequalities inside and between countries because social tensions can tear communities apart. Ivan added that we should not forget the whole modern democratic tradition that we stand on is of the enlightenment and modern political revolutions. A strong social Europe is fundamental in countering populist right-wing forces.

The EU has municipalities bigger than countries and sometimes differences are larger inside a city than in some countries, so the EU needs a more direct funding mechanism to make the regions and cities less reliant on the central governments. The EU has to acknowledge the divide and differences between rural and urban areas and fund programs accordingly. Policies should encourage cross-border regional cooperation too.

Claudia Gamon believes in the idea of the United States of Europe, but she also believes in subsidiarity and that policies should be done at the most appropriate level, that includes social policy. She believes in stronger European competencies regarding social policies, but we also need to hear the citizenry’s opinion and act accordingly. It is our joint interest to create a Europe where everybody can live a safe, prosperous, and socially protected life wherever they live in the Union.

Leading by Example

Ivan Vejvoda presented Emmanuel Macron’s example who won the French election with a pro-European and optimistic ticket. Other politicians should follow that example. Katalin Cseh said that only Hungarians have the chance and the responsibility to stop illiberal tendencies in Hungary.

We need to become the drivers of integration instead of the blockers of it – she said. European integration has always been a struggle, according to Cseh, and moving forward is difficult. There are different interests, perceptions between and inside countries, but she thinks this diversity makes Europe beautiful.

Written by:

Rudolf Berkes – Analyst at the Political Capital. He graduated as an International Security and Defense Policy Officer at the University of Public Service and he is currently studying International Relations at Eötvös Lóránd University. He gained professional experience at the Danube Institute and the International Center for Development and Democratic Transition. His research area includes geopolitics, geostrategy and the effects of emerging disruptive technologies – such as artificial intelligence – on society, world politics and security

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