The Rome summit on 25 March will be largely about self-congratulation; we don’t expect much discussion on reform, let alone any agreement on what is needed or how to do it. In this post we look at some of the issues they won’t face up to at the event, or elsewhere.
Reviewing our reading in the run-up to the summit, we came across this article on the website EUobserver.
The article opens with the following line:
“Referendums are dangerous for the EU. In recent years, almost all popular votes on EU matters ended up with the same answer: No.”
Not surprisingly, Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, is not a fan:
“I’m fundamentally not a big friend of referendums,” he said.
In an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung he was more frank:
“One always breaks out in a sweat when someone dares to ask the opinion of the people“.
Well, yes, unless we can manage people’s opinions it’s better not to know what they are.
The EUobserver article says that this lack of confidence is reciprocated and offers some examples of what shows up when “the people” are consulted. According to a recent Eurobarometer survey only 33% of those consulted trust the EU and no more than 34% have a positive image of it.
The article continues in this vein:
“In 2016, opposition to policies like the eurozone’s austerity push developed into a broader critique of the EU’s role in issues, including the refugee crisis and free trade.”
“After the much talked about democratic deficit of the 1990s and 2000s, the EU seems now to suffer from a legitimacy deficit.”
A former president of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy, argues that, “Europe is the weakest level of power of all, because European identity is so weak“. And, “The lack of trust is so profound that we cannot expect to overcome it in a few years“.
The EUobserver is usually supportive of the EU project but neither it nor present and past EU leaders want to make the connection between their reluctance to consult its citizens and the lack of trust in the project shown by those citizens. Of course this may be a chicken-and-egg issue: which comes first, the lack of trust or the reluctance to ask what people think? It may be too late but showing trust in citizens is more likely to stimulate a return of trust than is blaming the people for not trusting ‘us’. At present we are witnessing a downward spiral, with lack of trust reinforcing lack of trust; destructive positive feedback.
The EU leaders may acknowledge their predicament but they seem unable to understand it, let alone manage their way out of it. Their version of a solution is to pump out a tasteless mix of whining about lack of support and propaganda about how successful the EU is. We expect Rome to produce a lot more of both. Put simply, the EU is not successful for too many of its citizens, which is why they don’t trust it – or ‘them’.
This may be at the heart of our argument that the EU project is set for failure; and all that follows from that prediction of failure.
It is possible that EU leaders, and the leaders of member states that continue to believe in the project, could agree on reforms and a plan to save the Union, but few would offer even a small bet that the Rome summit will deliver anything resembling such a plan.
National leaders are reacting to the Commission’s recent White Paper as if it contains such a plan, but it doesn’t touch on the fundamental issue of trust. Here is Jean-Claude Juncker, in the White Paper, with his mind split irreconcilably:
“Now is the time to reflect with pride on our achievements and to remind ourselves of the values that bind us together. … The European Union has changed our lives for the better.” And:
“…many Europeans consider the Union as either too distant or too interfering in their day-to-day lives. Others question its added-value and ask how Europe improves their standard of living. And for too many, the EU fell short of their expectations.”
He appears to believe his own spin and so cannot understand why Europeans should feel as they do. His ‘answer’ is to demand more of the same; more integration, more convergence, more Union.
J-C on the introduction of the euro: “We decide on something, leave it lying around, and wait and see what happens. If no one kicks up a fuss, because most people don’t understand what has been decided, we continue step by step until there is no turning back.”
Probably the only people who could break through this self-deception are the leaders of the major Member States but they too want to press on with the project, although they acknowledge that this may have to be done at different speeds, given that there is insufficient agreement on what integration means in practice.
In summary, the EU faces many crises currently but the one that will bring it down is the one that its leaders and lead supporters are not even willing to acknowledge: that the lack of trust in the EU is increasing towards breaking point.
After the summit we expect to read much about bickering and disunity, but mostly self-congratulatory fluff about how great the EU is and will continue to be, if only ‘we’ can stop bickering and integrate.