European Parliament elections and the subsequent renewal of the European Commission induce an evaluation of the future avenues available for European action over the next five years.

This can be achieved by discussing whether policies already on the runway will fly or not. Alternatively, one could consider the fissures and lines of fusion within the EU to determine how the next five years could shape up... I shall adopt that approach.

The EU is still in the process of absorbing the huge changes it triggered during the 1990s. Firstly, the union expanded to cover all territory up to and around the Russian frontier.

 Meanwhile, the rules by which the union was constituted were deepened. A common monetary zone was set up. The free movement of people was made really free by establishing the Schengen area.

The understanding was that economic management would be firmly tied to (‘neo’-liberal) free trade principles.

For as long as economic performance remained satisfactory, the eurozone and Schengen arrangements were a big success. When the financial crisis of 2008 struck, collapse seemed imminent. The euro was rescued only because it was a political project that could not be allowed to fail.

With the rise of terrorism and the growing swell of immigration from south and east, Schengen had to be curtailed. The successive crises and their aftermath exposed the inbuilt contradictions of the processes by which the EU had been enlarged and deepened.

Even when success was in the air, divergences in economic structure and welfare had increased between the different parts of the union. East and southern Europe failed to keep up with the member states in and around Europe’s golden triangle.

The EU struggled to cope with the 2008 crisis and its aftermath. The eurozone was kept intact. Again growth ensued.

Macron’s so-called ‘renaissance’ has received a tepid response. Its federalist overtones stimulate knee-jerk reservations

This, however, was achieved at tremendous social cost. High rates of unemployment persist especially for young people. Burdens on pensioners and lower income earners increased. Precarious employment conditions have become the rule for many workers.

Meanwhile, internal divergences strengthened during the crisis and remain strong.

They were a main reason why the immigration issue became so explosive. It reinforced tensions and divergences while making additional calls on resources. On the back of this rode so-called “populist” and “extremist” parties. They thrived on the concept of a Europe of the nations, borrowed from the Gaullist worldview and distorted into a xenophobic narrative.

Fenced into a pro-European coalition with the centre right, centre left parties consisting mostly of social democrats helped to “save” the euro, but  saw their electoral support bleeding into the “hard” left and the populist right. The centre-right itself came under increasing pressure from the extreme right.

How will this shape up in the next five years? Many consider that two fundamentally different options will play out. One is promoted by French President Emmanuel Macron: to survive, the EU must deepen further its structures towards, basically, a federal construct. This would apply to the eurozone, Schengen, social, taxation and foreign policies plus defence. And Europe has to be sold to electorates as an entity which protects people and their interests.

Unless this happens, the claim goes, the EU will falter and fall to the populists. Yet, Macron’s so-called “renaissance” has received a tepid response. Its federalist overtones stimulate knee-jerk reservations. The revolt of the yellow jacket movement in France has dented its credibility.

By contrast, the populist option emphasises the need for national sovereignties to assert themselves strongly again. Retreat from the EU no longer is on the populist agenda, except at a possible second stage. Instead, populists aim to reassign to national governments many areas for which the EU has become responsible, while reaffirming protectionism and rejecting immigration. However, Brexit has dented their credibility.

Where should Malta stand between these two choices? Curiously, both emphasise protection and seem to signal a deep critique of the (neo-)liberal model that has been followed by the EU since the early 1980s, under British influence.

Perhaps we should side with neither.

For actually, there is a third unfashionable option: consolidation. It would emphasise the need first and foremost to eliminate the divergences between and within member states. And the EU’s social credentials need to be given a new vitality. Before new policy frontiers are opened, such as on defence, first make sure that existing policies are functioning effectively and fairly.

This is what should define Malta’s outlook on Europe for the next five years.

Alfred Sant is a Labour Party MEP.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece


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