With the EU’s new MEPs now firmly in place in Brussels, there is a lot to discuss when it comes to what the future of the EU will be. Following the recent Sibiu Summit Declaration, Jo Caruana talks to three experts to discover what that future could look like, and what the Union’s priorities should be.
It was a few weeks ago, on 9th May 2019, that EU leaders got together in Sibiu in Romania to reaffirm their belief that ‘united we are stronger in this increasingly unsettled and challenging world’.
In a declaration, those leaders said that they recognise their responsibility when it comes to making the Union stronger and its citizens’ futures brighter, while recognising the European perspective of other states on the continent. They then committed to defending Europe, staying united, delivering where it matters most, looking for joint solutions, and safeguarding the future for the next generations of Europeans.
Since then, though, one of the toughest European Parliament elections ever took place, with record numbers of people going out to vote – some in favour of tougher migration laws, others in favour of stringent environmental regulation, and others still pushing the rise of populism. Either way, it turned out to be one of the most divisive and monumental events in the EP’s history, and the effects will now start to be seen.
One of the people eagerly looking on was Pierre Goguet, President of CCI France, Vice-President of EUROCHAMBRES and co-Chair of its Future of Europe Committee. Following the Sibiu Summit and the results of the EP election, he explains that the Future of Europe debate was, in part, a response to the UK’s 2016 referendum on EU membership, which prompted considerable reflection on the EU’s strengths and weaknesses.
“Interestingly, the complex negotiations on the UK’s withdrawal have galvanised support for the EU across many member states,” he explains. “Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the Future of Europe discussions lost momentum and why the expected grand finale at the informal European Council summit on 9th May proved to be an anti-climax.”
“Our challenge is to work with national
governments, the new EP and the next Commission
to ensure that Europe changes for the better.”
He also underlines the foundations on which the bloc is built. “Our message, throughout, has been consistent: the future of the EU must be built around an effective single market. Ensuring that the four freedoms are meaningful and tangible to our entrepreneurs and citizens must be a priority, with accompanying measures to reinforce the coordination of our economies and an ambitious plan to enhance competitiveness.”
Mr Gouget also believes that, despite recent upheavals, the EU should carry on with business as usual – in some respects. “Even after crises like the financial crash, and significant developments, such as the accession of Malta and nine other countries in 2004, the process of EU integration has always been incremental,” he says. “I believe that this will remain the case: there is no silver bullet, so in that sense, yes, the EU should carry on with business as usual,” he asserts.
However, he stresses the need to adapt. “But, at the same time, the results of the EP elections and the emergence of new forces across the political spectrum show that some change is inevitable. EUROCHAMBRES embraces change and, indeed, our members – Europe’s small, medium and large enterprises – are important drivers of change. Our challenge is to work with national governments, the new EP and the next Commission to ensure that Europe changes for the better.”
As Malta’s Minister of European Affairs and Equality, Helena Dalli has also watched developments unfold with interest, as she admits the outcome of the Brexit referendum was an important wake-up call for the EU. “Since then, it has not been business as usual,” she says. “On the contrary, this was painful and distracting for the Union, and there is a feeling that the time and effort invested in it could have been better spent elsewhere.”
But, she continues, the upheaval has had its positives. “Nevertheless, we are wiser because of this process in that it has helped us to better appreciate the benefits of EU membership. It has helped us realise what the Union means to our citizens, businesses and economies. There were positives of membership that have been taken for granted by many – especially the younger generation who have lived their lives on a continent that had no borders to trade and who enjoy the benefits of the EU’s free movement of people, as well as the longest period of peace in two millennia.”
Now, Dr Dalli says, lessons have been learnt. “The outcome of the recent EP elections, particularly given the highest turnout in 20 years, shows that citizens realise that European solutions are needed for European problems, even in an age of fragmented politics where the centre mainstream parties no longer dominate. The results will also help us forge alliances that will address problems like migration, climate change and social exclusion,” she says. “These are things that have a direct impact on citizens’ lives and the only way the EU can reconnect with its citizens is by taking action and proving its added value to each individual’s well-being.”
The EU should continue to focus
on an ambitious trade agenda to
provide market access to businesses,
SIMON DE CESARE
Echoing the shock felt by Brexit and the threat of populism within the EP, Simon De Cesare, President of the Malta Business Bureau, highlights how easy it is to dismantle a European project that took decades to build. “They showed how European achievements, such as free movement, a common currency and the end of roaming charges, can be taken for granted,” he says.
“Now the impact of electing more populists to the EP has – to a certain extent – been contained. But this does not mean the battle is over. Some member states, including Italy, Hungary and, until recently, Austria, already have populist parties in their respective national governments. In other countries, such as France, far-right parties achieved enormous success in the European elections. The populist threat should be kept in check, and, for this, the EU should reorganise its business to ensure long-term political stability and economic prosperity.”
And, with the future of business also very much on the minds of those considering the future of Europe as a whole, Mr De Cesare explains that the EU priorities for Maltese businesses are to work towards further deepening the single market – effectively removing barriers for companies that are still significant in certain areas, particularly in the free movement of services and capital.
“The EU should continue to focus on an ambitious trade agenda to provide market access to businesses, especially SMEs,” he says. “It should invest strongly in economic sectors that bring added value, such as tourism, where a new strategy with a vision for 2030 is urgently required. Competitiveness should be kept at the centre of the EU’s social policy, particularly as forecasts indicate that the world economy is heading towards a period of slower growth. It should also continue to look at facilitating the transition of industrial production towards sustainable models with international synergies to keep up the fight against climate change.”
As for her priorities for the future of Europe, Dr Dalli says there are three key ones. “Firstly, the Union must be a globally-competitive player and a leader on sustainability issues,” she says. “To achieve this, it must foster digital transformation, internally removing the remaining obstacles in the single market, and investing in a workforce that is ready for the digital age. In doing so, member state specificities need to be taken into account and one-size-fits-all approaches need to be avoided. The Union also needs to create an environment that is conducive to growth and where SMEs and micro enterprises – the backbone of our economies – can prosper. Beyond that, the transition to a low carbon and carbon-neutral economy should remain a priority. The EU must be a leader in this area.”
“Citizens realise that European solutions are needed for
European problems, even in an age of fragmented politics.”
Secondly, Dr Dalli stresses that the Union does not operate and exist in a vacuum. On the contrary, its geopolitical environment remains volatile and presents a number of challenges that vary in nature and depend on the stability of its immediate neighbourhood both to the south and to the east of the bloc. “The Union must, therefore, continue to engage with strategic partners on a number of issues,” she says. “We must continue to promote stability, peace, prosperity and democracy.”
And, this is linked to migration, she says. “This brings me to my third point – migration deserves to be managed in a pragmatic and comprehensive manner. It is not just a matter of prevention and strengthening borders, but a matter of saving lives at sea. Internally, we need to agree on a way forward on a balance of solidarity and responsibility. These are issues that are playing in the hands of populists and the longer we take to reach a consensus on them, the longer it will take for people to be convinced that the EU is truly effective,” she notes.
Similarly, Mr Gouget also underlines his priorities for the future of business in Europe, but stresses that the Union faces major challenges in relation to migration, demography, security, climate change and scarce natural resources.
“These are challenges on a global scale, so EU member states need to join forces in responding effectively to them,” he says. “The EU must lead a global pursuit of fair and open markets. This starts at home with progress on removing the remaining barriers between member states. A solid single market provides a firm platform from which to counteract the growing risk of protectionism elsewhere in the world.”
Finally, Mr Gouget highlights how Jean-Claude Juncker stated that the EU should be ‘big on the big things, small on the small things’ when he became Commission President back in 2014, and stresses that this must remain the mantra between 2019 and 2024, but that it should also be better reflected in policy measures and delivery.
“The single market and the eurozone must be central to the closer coordination of national economies. This will enhance the EU’s international strength. Challenges, such as sustainability, digital and industrial transformation and skills mismatches, must be addressed effectively and in a coordinated manner,” he says.
And, finally, the strength of the single market is built on the solid foundations of a business climate conducive to investment. “A business-friendly environment also needs an investment policy focused on tangible and – increasingly – intangible infrastructure. This must be reinforced to provide a strong backbone for the single market. Let’s ensure that European businesses – 99 per cent of which are SMEs – have the right tools and conditions to develop and drive the creation of growth and jobs. As our motto for the European elections said, let’s move forward together!” he concludes.