There is currently an ongoing reflection on the Future of Europe. The European Commission published a White Paper on the subject matter last March. An open dialogue is taking place at national and regional level, including parliaments, across the EU. The outcomes of this consultation will lead to more streamlined proposals and a political direction by the European Council in December.
Over the past decade the EU was unknowingly on track – or most would say in denial – towards a slow and natural death. The economic crisis saw the process of European economic and social convergence reversed. Private investment fell drastically and unemployment escalated sharply. Public spending was limited to contain increasing public debt. Europe was in recession and turned to politics of austerity, hurting many citizens in the process, who lost their jobs and their decent standard of living.
The migration crisis took many by surprise, particularly communities in Member States that saw it as a threat to their way of life. The economic challenges and high unemployment in the European labour market made one wonder how addressing the challenges of European citizens while integrating migrants into the labour market and society can be reconciled. The EU’s response was slow, desperate and inefficient.
These experiences saw the rise of populist movements with radical and disruptive political ambitions, and a culmination to the Brexit vote that for the first time in the EU’s history will see a Member State break away from the Union. Prompted by these developments, the European institutions and pro-European political parties finally acknowledged that the EU’s slow path to extinction was not only real, but also at risk of acceleration.
There was a common understanding that the EU was in desperate need of real structural reforms. The somewhat positive results of moderate and pro-EU parties in the Austrian, Dutch and French elections earlier this year softened the emergency, but surely did not make the problem go away. The radical vote does not represent a majority but is still a force to be reckoned with.
The immediate response of the EU to the last crisis was bold through the adoption of various legislation aimed at strengthening economic governance and supervision in the euro-area. But more work is required particularly the urgent completion of the Banking Union and solid progress in building a Capital Markets Union, particularly now as the EU’s leading financial centre is leaving the bloc.
On the social front, Europe cannot ignore the demographic challenges it will be faced with in the medium to long-term future because of an ageing population, rapid urbanisation and the digitalisation of labour markets. The EU needs to further promote solutions, yet in full respect of member states’ traditions and systems developed over decades.
The European Semester process needs strengthening. And considering a reduced EU budget after the UK withdrawal, more optimal use of EU funding needs to be made through targeted investments among others in youth training and life-long learning. The EU should intervene less, however, in areas that would negatively impact competitiveness and where decisions are best made at company level or through social partner dialogue.
This brings me to the way forward. Clearly in today’s world, a scenario where the EU project rolls back to be nothing but a single market is not realistic. Deeper integration is required to enable us to be stronger and competitive on a global level. This process, however, needs to take into account the current intrinsic differences in the level of development, and permanent big-small and centre-periphery disparities of Member States. Time is of the essence and we need to act now through implementation of structural reforms when they are affordable rather than too painful, and designed to avoid crises of the future not react to them.
Europe remains one of the best places in which to live, work and do business in the world; but the EU process needs to be reaffirmed and reinforced to continue guaranteeing our success and future prosperity.
This can be achieved through a clear political direction and popular legitimacy. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but there is a shared need to act to work towards economic and social convergence in the EU, which will address inequalities and poverty. Social fairness is a key factor for broadening a bottom-up support and legitimacy to the EU.
We also need a Union functioning through democratic and transparent institutions; and with economic competitiveness at the centre of its political vision, as the key for growth, investment and the creation of jobs.
The future is Europe.
Daniel Debono is the EU affairs manager and head of the Brussels operations of the Malta Business Bureau.
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