A new year is a time when we hope for new beginnings, not only for ourselves, but also for our societies, cities and nations. The European Union is no exception.
‘A Union that strives for more’ is the title of the proposed agenda for the European Commission over the next five years. The agenda is ambitious and confident, in part because it was published following the last Eurobarometer survey, which indicated that 61% of EU citizens were in favour of their country’s membership—the highest rating in ten years. The agenda contains several guidelines for the transformation of the EU, including: the already proposed European Green Deal, an ‘economy that works for people’, a ‘transition strategy to make Europe fit for the digital age’ and ‘a new push for European democracy.’ To achieve these ambitious goals and include EU citizens in the process, the Commission has also introduced the Conference on the Future of Europe to run for two years.
This strategy is intended to be the fire that will drive the EU forward. However, fire is a good servant but a terrible master. These statements about the future of the EU are noble and visionary, but the EU is predicated on good institutional relationships between member states—and unfortunately the quality of these relationships is not factored into these ambitious plans for the future. This is the long-term challenge for the EU. Although the Eurobarometer results point to increasing support for the EU, further analysis suggests uncertainty and ambivalence. For example:
- 50% generally perceive that the EU is moving in the wrong direction, up by 14% in 4 years.
- 27% of respondents believe that the EU is ‘neither a good thing nor a bad thing’, an increasing number in 19 countries.
The founding father of the EU, Robert Schuman, understood that, ‘statesmen can propose far-reaching plans, but they cannot put them into effect without far-reaching changes in the hearts of people.’ How can the EU address the decreasing trust in its leadership from the people who are most affected by its ambitious policies and vision for the future?
In any relationship, when one party feels misled or frustrated as a result of unfulfilled promises, the first thing to do before moving to the next project is to be honest and admit failings. Only then will they be able to listen and accept something new. For example, although the EU recently experienced a significant departure from one of its most important member states (the UK), there has been no proper reflection on this from its leaders. Likewise, there has been no attempt to understand why the number of Eurosceptic MEPs increased in the last election; rather, the Commission’s vision describes an even closer union. Trust is the currency of relationship, and trust has been eroded through years of ideologically motivated decisions and a political culture that works against honesty.
How then can the leaders of the EU expect not only the national leaders, but also the citizens of each state, to engage with the Commission’s proposals, if people do not first experience the healing power of honesty and truth from their leaders and genuine repentance from those years of ideologically motivated decisions? To reimagine the EU, its leaders must first take responsibility for the political decisions that have undermined trust in their leadership, and the institution of the EU as a whole. Genuine listening must accompany this honesty—especially to the voices of ordinary citizens.
Sallux and Jubilee Centre’s sister organisation Relational Research have been working on concrete proposals for improving the relationships between member states and EU leaders. Called ‘Confederal Europe’, it proposes a political and societal vision for stakeholder nations based on a new model, a covenant of nations. This would significantly reduce tensions and disparity in the EU’s current structure and institutions:
- The entire project is based on voluntary consent – that is, it works within the bounds of recognized commonality
- Parties are independent and have parity without being required to be equal in size or economic influence
- Mutual respect and support, and the protection of national sovereignty, are named as preconditions
- On this basis, existing relations within the wider European framework can be further developed, making it possible for countries such as Norway and Switzerland to participate more fully in the European project
- A covenant can be witnessed by God (respecting the strong, shared Christian heritage of European nations) and by past and future generations (respecting the 24% of EU citizens with no religious faith)
From Confederal Europe: A Political and Societal view for Stakeholder Nations by David John Lee, Dr Michael Schluter and Dr Paul Mills (Sallux, 2019)
The Confederal Europe idea offers just one possible vision for the EU. However, any vision requires mutual agreement between EU citizens and politicians—which is hard unless EU leaders recognise and take responsibility for decisions that have led to the current situation. And perhaps this principle applies not only to the EU, but also to the UK, that great member state whose exit we continue to feel.
Gabriela is originally from Slovakia and has spent the last five years working in Brussels as the Head of Cabinet for an MEP. She’s a board member of Sallux, the political foundation for the European Christian Political Movement (ECPM) and is currently a guest researcher at Jubilee Centre.