Speak Up for Europe and Win17 May 2017 | 15:42 | The New York Times
With the Brexit vote and Mr. Trump’s election, one happening a few months after the other, it seemed that a trend had been born. Clearly, that is not the case. Every thesis breeds the antithesis, and in a world that lives at the pace of social media algorithms, the antithesis does not take years to develop. Brexit was followed by the Dutch general election in March, in which two strongly pro-European parties, Green Left and the progressive D66, together received more than a third more votes than the anti-European party of Geert Wilders.
The best illustration of the antithesis, though, was the Austrian presidential elections. A month before Britain’s referendum on membership in the European Union last year, Austria’s first poll was annulled on technical grounds. Nevertheless, the result was made public: The pro-European candidate, Alexander Van der Bellen, got just over 50.3 percent of the vote, while the extreme-right, anti-European candidate, Norbert Hofer, obtained nearly 49.7 percent — the narrowest of victories, albeit canceled.
The second, successful round of voting was held six months after Brexit. The result was quite remarkable: Mr. Van der Bellen’s margin over Mr. Hofer rose to nearly 350,000 from 31,000 votes. This time, he won with 53.8 percent. The reason for this major shift was Mr. Hofer’s slip of the tongue: By the time of the second election, he not only appeared to be euroskeptic but also seemed to offer a referendum on whether Austria should quit the union altogether. Many Austrians might be critical of the way the European Union is currently run, but did they want an actual “Auxit”? No, thank you.
This might all seem good news for those of us in the pro-European camp, but we should be aware that the root causes of euroskepticism are far from resolved. As wrong as the nationalists are about their solutions, they are right in their criticism. The European Union we have right now is very skilled at over-regulating the internal market and especially tying up small businesses in red tape. At the same time, the union is very bad at taking political steps to reboot Europe’s economy and solve its internal and external security troubles, like homegrown terrorism and the refugee problem caused by the Syrian civil war.
I’d go further. What we call the European Union is not, in fact, a union. It is still what it was a half-century ago: a loose confederation of nation-states whose coordinated actions are based on the principle of unanimity. As a result, its actions are always too little, too late.
An even greater worry for us pro-Europeans is that if the antithesis of euroskepticism was born so fast, then time is fast ticking away for us, too. After the German elections in September of this year, we have to start reforming the union — not by papering over the cracks, but with deep reforms. That means fixing the eurozone, strengthening the union’s foreign policy and border protection measures, creating a European defense force and establishing a continentwide security service. All of this needs to go hand in hand with deep changes to our institutions. The key challenges are to replace the bloated European Commission with a smaller government and to eradicate once and for all the unanimity rule.
In our smartphone-free past, Europe could take its time to transform. If we didn’t get it right the first time, there was always a second or even a third attempt. The European Constitution, for example, was voted down by France and the Netherlands in 2005; so, two years later, we repackaged it as the Lisbon Treaty. The Irish voted twice on two European treaties: the Nice Treaty in 2001 and 2002, and the Lisbon in 2008 and 2009.
Such a process is unthinkable today. President-elect Macron succeeds two one-term presidents, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande. One-term presidencies, once the exception, have become the rule. The French people will give Mr. Macron, also, only one chance to get it right.
The last thing the political center in Europe should do is revert to business as usual. The ruling Socialist Party was wiped out in France’s election; it had become the wobbly party, unsure of what to do. It wanted to bring in reforms, but also clung to an outdated and overgenerous welfare system. It wanted to be pro-European, but was also the first to criticize Europe’s single market, unjustifiably, as “neo-liberal.” The French Socialists were unable to overcome these internal contradictions and synthesize them into something new. The result was political inertia and a total loss of credibility with the voters.
The Labour Party in Britain has exactly the same problem. The Remain campaign last year reduced itself to serial scaremongering — one report of Brexit’s potential economic horror after another. There was scarcely a single positive argument in favor of the union. Trembling before Britain’s powerful tabloid newspapers, no politician of left or right strongly advocated membership in the European Union. And now, Britain’s Labour Party, which first equivocated under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn during the Brexit vote, proposes a soft Brexit. The party faces an electoral drubbing. Hardly a surprise.
The lesson from Mr. Macron’s victory is that the ideals of the European Union are still very much alive. But this can be only the beginning of something new, not the conclusion. The hard work starts now. Europe’s citizens are inspired to vote for politicians who stand up for Europe, but they will extend our mandate only if we deliver. And fast, please.
Author: Guy Verhofstadt
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