What are Europe's strategic options? New Pact for Europe debate with Herman Van Rompuy


On 1 July, the New Pact for Europe consortium organized a debate in Brussels on “What are Europe’s strategic options?”.

This and other questions were debated at this event starting with a keynote speech by European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, followed by a Q&A session and a panel debate including Poul Skytte Christoffersen, Denmark’s Ambassador to Belgium, Giovanni Grevi, Director of FRIDE, Paweł Świeboda, President of demosEUROPA – Centre for European Strategy, and Janis A. Emmanouilidis, Director of Studies at the European Policy Centre. The debate was chaired by Jacki Davis, EPC Senior Adviser.

You can watch the whole video recording of the event below.

Van Rompuy was addressing the strategic options for Europe’s future presented in the first report of the New Pact for Europe project, supported by an international consortium of 11 major European foundations, brought together by the Belgian King Baudouin Foundation and the German Bertelsmann Stiftung and operated by the European Policy Centre.

The meeting was held at a critical crossroads. The new European Parliament formally took office 1 July. The European Union is poised to enter a new five-year cycle, as charted by the European Council at its 26-27 June meeting in Ypres and Brussels where leaders agreed upon a strategic agenda.

Van Rompuy told participants that the growing and widespread distrust of European citizens towards European institutions “must ring an alarm bell”. A similar weaker lack of confidence and trust in national institutions signals a “wider crisis of politics” that begs deeper questions.

“It is a question of society, culture, of the relationship of citizens with public authorities in all of their dimensions,” he said.

A loud wake up call

The project partners believe that Europe needs a ‘new pact’ to overcome the complex financial, economic, demographic, social and political challenges it is facing. In the wake of the recent European elections, national and EU politicians are faced with a populace increasingly dispirited by what many call the growing ‘democratic deficit’. What was once ambient noise has turned into a very loud wake up call that is resonating across the continent.

The first ‘New Pact for Europe’ report outlines five strategic options for Europe’s future:

1.    Going back to the basics;
2.    Consolidating past achievements;
3.    Moving ahead ambitiously;
4.    Leaping forward; and
5.    Changing the ‘more or less Europe’ logic.

Van Rompuy described options 1 and 4 as “highly improbable”. Undoing the EU, retrenching behind national borders and pretending this will restore lost sovereignty and improve welfare is an “empty promise”, he said. The polar opposite, a ‘federal jump’, may be supported by a minority, but does not have sufficient support among the public at large and could risk alienating the majority in the middle ground.

Van Rompuy acknowledged that building Europe is a frustrating exercise – “small steps each seem too small and too slow” to address the challenges ahead. “This method, unspectacular but powerful, will continue to be the European method for time to come, for better or for worse,” he added.

Delivering results is a balancing act. The Union must be seen as benefiting businesses, but also employees; not only the “movers”, but also the “stayers”; not only those with diplomas and language skills, but all citizens, he added.

Van Rompuy observed that current public disenchantment with the European project is because the Union is experienced by people as “a space and hardly ever as a place”. A place brings protection, stability and belonging. A space opens up movement and possibilities and is about direction, speed and time.

Europe’s focus has been on space – removing borders, opening opportunities. But Europe is now perceived by many as an “unwelcome intruder”, the friend of freedom and space is seen as threat to protection and place, he said. “We must get the balance right. It is essential for the Union to also be on the protecting side.”

According to Van Rompuy, people expect two things from the EU. The Union should step in to resolve problems individual countries cannot fight alone, such as global and cross-border issues. But when national authorities are best placed to provide care, people expect the Union to tread lightly.

“The citizen’s message to the Union is clear. The Union must be stronger outside and more caring inside. One of the main challenges ahead is to regain people’s confidence in our Union,” he said.

Delivering results

“This looking ahead exercise comes at a very specific moment. Not only at the start of a new five-year cycle, but also as our countries are finally emerging from the worst economic crisis in a generation, and as public disenchantment with politics has spread,” Van Rompuy added. “Leaders are all keenly aware of this double dimension and are eager to show that together, as a Union, we can deliver results for people.”

Poul Skytte Christoffersen, Ambassador of Denmark to Belgium, observed that the European Council has already moved ahead in the direction proposed by option 2 – consolidating past achievements by giving reforms the time to work and focusing on delivery. “If we look at the conclusions of the European Council for the strategic agenda for the next five years, it is option 2. For once we have a common agenda for the European institutions.”

Van Rompuy outlined the strategic agenda agreed by the heads of state and government at the European Council in June:
•    Stronger economies with more jobs;
•    Enabling societies’ to empower and protect all citizens;
•    A secure energy and climate future;
•    A trusted area of fundamental freedoms; and
•    Effective joint action in the world.

Championing Europe

Speakers agreed that it is time for national champions to step up and support the European project. Giovanni Grevi, Director of FRIDE, observed that it is time for more ownership and leadership. About 57% of Europeans did not vote in the recent elections. “Pro European politicians need to conquer the ‘swing markets’ to explain the merits of European integration,” he said. “There is a growing sense that scapegoating Europe pays diminishing returns for national politicians.”

Pawel Swieboda, President of demosEUROPA – Centre for European Strategy, said national politicians need to see themselves as champions of flagship European projects. “They will discover that the European context gives them an advantage in domestic political issues.’”

Janis A. Emmanouilidis, Director of Studies, EPC, agreed that going in reverse, as outlined in option 1, “is not the right thing to do”. Pressure needs to be brought to bear on European institutions by having honest debates and reaching out to citizens. The recent European elections and the citizens who did not vote, gave the Union a “yellow card”, which is not about European integration, but rather about how the Union is operating.

Both Emmanouilidis and Van Rompuy pointed to the dangers of ‘reform fatigue’. Van Rompuy cautioned that the work to build an economic union is unfinished – and it will remain unfinished unless there is pressure from institutions, politicians and citizens.

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