So far, so predictable. As expected, voter turn-out in the European Parliament elections was modest, Far Right and populist parties made big gains, Jean Claude Juncker, the former Luxembourg prime minister, whose European People’s Party (EPP) has the largest number of seats in the new assembly wants to be the next president of the European Commission – and EU leaders are undecided on what to do next.
They should not be. The “wake up call” delivered by voters demands urgent responses and a complete reassessment of EU priorities.
The attention must move from austerity to growth and jobs. The EU must do better at communicating with people. The populist rhetoric of the Far Right parties must be countered with a new, more assertive agenda for building a competitive, secure and credible Europe which is responsive to its citizens’ concerns but still able to play an important role in its neighborhood and on the global stage.
And of course, EU leaders must reach a quick decision on nominating a new European Commission president, capable of enacting and implementing a fresh and ambitious agenda for Europe.
This is not the moment for protracted squabbling on the way ahead – either on policies to follow or people to nominate. The first post-election meeting of EU leaders held on Tuesday was not a good start, however.
Instead of cool-headed assessments and a focus on overhauling policies, the gathering heard the expected spate of complaints and recriminations about Europe having lost its way.
With the Front National in the lead at home, French President François Hollande lamented that the EU project had become “remote and incomprehensible”, reflecting a “distrust in Europe and a fear of decline”. British Prime Minister David Cameron noted peoples’ deep disillusionment and desire for change as the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) came first in the domestic vote.
Criticism is good but this is the time for leaders to look ahead – and to take responsibility for the current state of Europe.
The meeting on Tuesday also showed that a quick decision on a new European Commission president – and the other top EU jobs up for grabs – also seems unlikely.
EU leaders have traditionally named the Commission head on their own, but under the Lisbon Treaty, they now have “to take account” of the European election results. But many have made clear that while Juncker may be the European Parliament’s favourite son, he does not have an “automatic” right to become the next Commission chief. Significantly, however, the Parliament must ultimately approve the next head of the EU executive.
Causing alarm – and possibly triggering a long, difficult and damaging Council/Parliament battle – German Chancellor Angela Merkel recognized that while “the EPP is the strongest political force and Jean-Claude Juncker is our top candidate” the net should be cast wider to include other “suitable persons”.
The spotlight now falls on European Council President Herman Van Rompuy who will consult European Parliament political groups and EU heads of government on the nomination of the Commission president. The EU summit on June 26-27 may take a final decision.
European citizens need more – and better. EU leaders should start setting a new “action agenda” for the next five years. Key questions that need urgent responses include:
– Is the EU ready to put growth and jobs at the centre of its policies and actions, replacing the focus on austerity?
– Will there be a new push towards a full EU banking union, with centralised supervision?
– Can there be a rebalancing of powers between EU and national authorities?
– Can the EU continue to play an important global role despite the “little Europe”, anti-globalisation and anti-trade and protectionist manifestos of the Far Right and populist parties?
– How best can the EU reconcile its skills shortages and economic need for immigration with the tough anti-foreigner and xenophobic message of the Far Right groups?
– Will the EU be able to pursue a common energy policy and reduce reliance on Russian oil and gas – and develop a sensible policy towards Russia given the pro-Moscow stance taken by many of the winning populist parties?
– Can a better job be done on developing a credible, positive and relevant narrative for Europe to counter the simplistic and toxic anti-EU message of the populist and anti-European parties?
For all the publicity given to the populists’ surge in the polls, it is true that the pro-European centre-right and centre-left parties will still dominate the Parliament and set the agenda for Europe.
It is also possibly true that the Far Right groups will be too fragmented and quarrelsome to dominate the European conversation.
But while such arguments are valid, they miss the point: EU politicians have done a very poor job of engaging with citizens and listening seriously to their fears and concerns. No effort has been made to develop a strong counter-narrative to the anti-European message of the Far Right. This is the time to do so.
Change is always difficult and painful. But it can no longer be avoided.