Times of crisis generally generate uncertainty and fear. People and states tend to fall back on what they know and can control. They seek to refocus at home when they are failing abroad. Though there exists much misunderstanding between EU institutions and the many people living under its banner, the EU’s tentative foreign policy certainly does not contribute in giving confidence to Europeans, and probably encourages them to turn their back on Europe even more.
The EU remains a blurry entity in many European countries – one currently experiencing rough seas. For many, the European supranational framework is a costly set of institutions filled with technocrats poorly informed of on-the-ground realities – a system that threatens people’s way of living more than it protects it. This is because the EU has largely failed at communicating with the people living within its boundaries. With so many other priorities on the agenda, it is unclear why the EU is heard more about topics falling out of the EU than within its boundaries. If the EU seeks to be a loose arrangement amongst countries that disagree on most issues, centrifugal forces will continue to affect it and it probably will not resist the test of time.
I was astonished by EP President Martin Schulz’s comments during his visit in Israel. According to him, "(w)e can discuss until Christmas the legality or illegality of the settlements . . . what we need is not a debate about legality, but practical solutions." Such comments are clearly one sided and disregard International Law. Israel’s aggressive colonising of the West Bank is and will remain a scandal that friends or foes of Israel should not accept. It is an absolute necessity to put as much pressure on Israel to stop allowing new constructions. In fact, unless we want to throw International Law into the sea, settlements will also need to be dismantled. The debate on Israel’s policy in Palestine goes far beyond legality: it is about freedom and Human Rights. Why am I referring to this issue here? That is simply because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should not be a tribune for MEPs. Their role is primarily in Europe, not in the Middle East.
If the EU has not been successful in communicating internally, how can it be credible externally? Current sentiment of a failing Europe can in fact be traced to public apathy. Euro-skepticism, as some have coined it, is the logical consequence of people feeling disconnected from the EU. But that is symptomatic of a narrow view of the EU, which fails to gauge the fundamental advantages enshrined in the free market of goods and labour under common social and legal umbrellas. It is because people are not informed about the EU’s positive role that they increasingly doubt its capabilities. If the EU were coherent, it would not overstep its mandate to comment on thorny issues that spur controversy not only out, but also in the EU, and would taper the enlargement agenda.
Unfortunately, pessimists about Europe as an economic and monetary union, and on the potentiality for a political union in the future, may be correct in that the EU is inefficient at communicating with the average citizen and inaudible in its foreign policy discourse. The latter is a highly visible area where countries diverge. The EU is not cohesive on the foreign policy front, but there is no reason why it should be in 2014. The EU is composed of sovereign states with different interests and different challenges.
Accordingly, they should not have to comply with a single view on the policy they lead abroad. The EU and its organs must focus on rebuilding a strong market with healthy actors. It must regulate the financial industry, apply strict criteria to member states if they are to remain within, continue protecting and supporting its members, encourage freedom and development abroad, but it should not go one bridge too far. Neither is now the time to consider enlargement, nor is to become politically engaged abroad.
The next European legislature will take office at a crucial point in time. The future of the EU and the European ‘vivre ensemble’ project will be on the table for negotiation. It is therefore more important than ever to consider the European project carefully. Most Europeans generally demonstrate little interest in EP elections, which is why it is essential that on this occasion in particular they take vote; vote for people who will be given the powers to shape tomorrow’s politics and society. Echoing one of my previous columns, people need to take control of their destiny. Democracy comes with the duty of making informed decisions about the way forward. We should not be asking for what Europe cannot offer, such as a foreign policy discourse resistant to high seas.
What we can expect, however, is for European legislators and executives to focus on building Europe within and to give us reasons to follow and support them in that enterprise.