How to reinvent the EU in an age of populism

How to reinvent the EU in the age of populism

ADRIAN TAYLOR

The European Union needs to act fast to meet a coming onslaught of Farage, Trump, Putin and Johnson. Luckily there are a lot of things that can be done to give the citizens of Europe a new – positive – vision of the future of Europe, and to reduce the interest of outsiders in destroying the EU.

Show that the EU has ‘got the message’

Firstly, the EU must demonstrate that it is no longer going to carry on with “business as usual”. As surveys show, when asked whether “in principle” European integration is a good idea, a large majority of EU citizens are still convinced of the necessity of the EU.

However, when asked about the practice of how the EU is working today, they are very negative in their views.

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The EU needs to win over the Trump administration from its Farage-influenced view of the world. (Photo: Reuters)

Hence it is important to demonstrate – first by symbolic acts – that a new chapter has opened, and that the EU is now going to change direction. These changes must be achievable immediately and hence without treaty modifications. They must then be followed by changes in practice. Fortunately, a lot can be done.

The Brussels brand must die

“Brussels” is everywhere associated with “bureaucracy” and “centralisation”. To eliminate this perception, every month the College of Commissioners should spend a working week in another member state, starting with Dublin (to talk about the consequences of Brexit on the island).

Commissioners should not meet ministers there. Rather they should appear before national parliaments, encounter civil society and talk to journalists.

The college should then hold its weekly meeting on the spot, and in that meeting, discuss the messages they heard. Every effort should be made to show that the commission is breaking out of the Brussels bubble.

Costs should be kept down by allowing only commissioners plus one cabinet member to travel, holding college meetings in the Commission’s representation offices in member states capitals, and avoiding ornate banquets/security.

Break the link between ‘Europe’ and ‘austerity’

The EU should constitute a fund that buys all state-owned enterprises that indebted member states want to sell. For example, the European Investment Bank could buy the 14 regional airports that Greece must sell to meet its creditors wishes.

If all these state owned assets were bought at once (Europeanised rather than nationalised), and not sold piecemeal at fire-sale prices, the member states concerned would receive a massive injection of funds to cut the debt (€50bn in Greece alone, according to the OECD ). And the rich nations who otherwise complain that their money disappears into a black hole, would actually be buying tangible assets with their money.

Then a “Treuhand” like institution could be created on the model of the agency established to privatise industries in former East Germany, which helps turn the companies around (removing the ability of states to use such companies for patronage), and can progressively inject private capital in the fund, or privatise the individual enterprises.

Make the EU a world leader in transparency

All EU lobbying and conflicts of interest should become absolutely crystal clear for everybody. A first symbolic step could be to make the meeting calendar of every EU official public, especially indicating who is being met when, and what events/conferences they are invited to.

Ultimately every meeting between a lobbyist and officials/parliamentarians/ministers should be recorded, and the register of interests should cover every decision maker and lobbyist. Some steps are already under way, but there is a need to go even further than the current proposals.

Kill the image of a regulatory monster

From now on, every regulation/directive/recommendation should contain an automatic sunset clause that this legislation is only valid for a fixed period of time – say 10 years. If it needs to be renewed, it must be discussed again at that time.

Moreover, for all legislation adopted more than 10 years ago, the commission should propose that member states are allowed to change the legislation if they can prove to the commission first that the change will not hinder the single market.

Have President Trump invest in Europe

On the strategic level, the EU needs to win over the Trump administration (which in turn can win over the president) from its Farage-influenced view of the world.

The EU should pitch a Transatlantic Investment Pact. Note, unlike in the current TTIP project, there is no second “T for Trade” in this. Trade is Trump’s bugbear, but investments are the core of what makes the transatlantic economic relationship special (in 2015 the EU accounted for 80 percent of global Foreign Direct Investment flows into the US).

In the process, the negotiations, which were in any case almost at a halt, can be revived as a swathe of problems will be removed (e.g. on harmonisation of laws).

By concentrating only on investment, both President Trump and the EU can come out as “winners” by pointing out how investments bring jobs to local economies rather than sucking them out.

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About the author

Adrian Taylor works as a consultant for companies in the chemicals, energy, telecoms and transport or environment sectors.

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