Friday 22. October 2021

Europe’s unmet challenges

Orlando Henao, the former European Commission official dealing with cooperation policy, highlights the urgent need for the European project to examine and respond to the preoccupations and needs of European citizens.

The European institutions are often criticised for their failure to communicate, but the member states themselves also have a certain responsibility, since their communication is often centred on their own interests and is subject to Eurosceptic economic interests. The European Parliament has just introduced the website “What Europe Does For Me”, but this does not cover information on Europe’s functioning and decision-making mechanisms.


Confusion between community and intergovernmental approaches


“It’s Europe!” – this cry is constantly heard in response to issues throughout Community institutions and member states. The word “Europe” is often used as an outlet for frustrations that have no real connection with the European project.


This fundamental misunderstanding of the European reality, at times exploited by a large section of public opinion, is a real problem. Numerous opinion polls and views obtained from the general public are proof of this. The European integration model and -process contain numerous omissions, but, subject to the proviso that it is willing to be questioned, it remains the only alternative to the numerous challenges that we face and will continue to do so.


Weakening of the multilateral system


Despite these insufficiencies, to date Europe is making a contribution  global government. It acts as an absolutely essential break on uncontrolled globalisation. At the same time, we are witnessing an offensive by certain forces and pressure groups in favour of bi/unilateralism with the intention, among others, of weakening Europe and its system of democracy based on the defence of its underlying values. Nevertheless, in all cases of international political challenges, the European response is preferable to the national response because it is the only one that is equal to these challenges.


In an economic context, recent events have shown the importance of harmonising tax systems, or at least a convergence or coordination of taxation, to provide a system that is both fairer and more supportive of growth and development. The response should be partly European.


Concerning climate change, the environment and energy, recent events have demonstrated the necessity of a global response, and the involvement of Europe is fundamental to this. As for the issue of migration, the demographic challenge (on the one hand, an African population of 2.5 billion by 2050, the majority of whom are young, and on the other hand, stagnation or recession in Europe) compels us to deal with this question at a European level in the medium term, while remaining aware that Europe as a “Trumpian fortress” is utopian.


In the areas of new technologies, the control of GAFA (the Big Four tech companies), AI (artificial intelligence) and research, Europe is already falling behind. Without a very rapid reaction, it risks seeing its position weakened, with all the consequences that will bring for employment and its global positioning.


With regard to diplomacy and defence, the developments in the American position, along with the new Russian and Chinese strategies, should be a warning to us. They underline the importance of pursuing and reinforcing European diplomacy and the implementation of a European defence plan (for which certain embryonic foundations are already in place). Media communication tends to focus on a European diplomacy that is concentrated on the Franco-German axis, but this ignores the significance of the European diplomatic work in coordinating the positions of the member states, taking initiatives, organising European military/civil missions in security matters, coordinating European police forces and intelligence and thus the fight against terrorism.


Agriculture and business


With regard to agriculture and business in Europe, it is important to remember that the European Union is the primary commercial power.  The member states have accepted the transfer of a part of their sovereignty, handing over this area of competence to the Commission. This ‘common ground’ is reflected in greater efficiency. Some people see the trade and free market agreements that have been negotiated as symptoms of rampant liberalism. The debate is ongoing, but there is no doubt that these commercial accords, with their complex components, are necessary. It is important that Europe is able to negotiate and defend European interests in the context of fighting between commercial powers.


Agriculture, which has always been a pillar of the financing of European policy, should also be reformed and adapted to deal with the new ecological considerations, the desertification of rural areas and the negative effects of industrial agriculture.  The common fisheries policy needs to be reinforced and modified, along with monitoring of the management of fish stocks and fishing methods.


Remaining challenges


Social matters in Europe remain largely the domain of the member states. However, they show strong disparities in social policies. There is still much to be done and a new European impetus appears fundamental. Priority should be given to questions of unemployment, the minimum wage, increases in poverty levels, social dialogue, redistribution of wealth. Without denying the quality of our healthcare systems, our education systems (especially Erasmus), the recognition of diplomas and the freedom to practice throughout Europe, these benefits do not address those who are left behind, of whom there are unfortunately still too many.


We also see the dilution of our democratic model and the erosion of confidence in our political elites. It should be recalled that, at European level, the Treaty of Lisbon (2007) provides that 2 million signatures from a certain number of EU member states may lead the European Commission to prepare and propose a draft law. Lisbon also provides mechanisms for consultation with the civil society, although the latter is very inadequately informed of the possibilities the Treaty opens up for it. There is still much to be done on the issues of human rights and fundamental liberties, the role of the Court of Justice, consumer protection and many more.


Orlando Henao


The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of COMECE and the Jesuit European Social Centre.

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Note: The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Jesuit European Office and COMECE.