The European Union has always been both a topic and the subject of polarisation. On the one hand is the supposedly idealistic pro-EU camp, on the other the supposedly egoistic Eurosceptics. For sixty years, thus have we framed the debate — a debate which has ironically led to even further, deeper polarisation and ultimately to underperformance on the part of all stakeholders, national as well as European, in times of crisis.
After more than twenty years living and breathing this European debate, I am convinced we must change the narrative. The EU is not a matter of either love or hate; it exists because we need it. We needed it after the Second World War; and we need it today, more than ever. I might be Spanish, but the stereotype of being overly emotional does not apply in my case. In these crucial days for the European project, what makes me advocate even more enthusiastically for the EU is reason. Make no mistake: I am no devil’s advocate. Just a humble pragmatist.
I see the traditional enemies of the European project being joined today by a new group of critics in a spiral of attacks against a weak and imperfect Union. Because democracy, since the times of the Athenians or the downfall of the Roman Republic, has always been weak and imperfect. Weak against the propaganda machine of autocrats, imperfect vis-à-vis the ostensible promises of messianic rule: an easy target for egocentric politicians able to accede to leadership but unable to actually lead, and in constant need of a scapegoat.
I do not blame colleagues who, amidst the current crisis, suggest that China or Russia are showing greater solidarity than the EU itself. They suffer from the stress created by this pandemic, and from the lack of European leadership in comparison with the concrete actions, however insidious, which we are witnessing in other corners of the world. Let’s face the uncomfortable truth: the only way for democracy to survive is for leaders to step up in times of need. Unfortunately I do not see today a Pericles, Churchill or de Gaulle.
“So then what?” an anxious Twitter follower might ask. Now enters the pragmatist (not to be confused with the bureaucrat!): someone who deep in his heart knows, like millions of other Europeans, that this imperfect Union, this artificial construct created by its Founders and still in ever-evolving process of creation, is the only shield protecting us from having Putin or the idolised leader of the Chinese Communist Party held aloft as a paragon of perfection. So what can we do to protect and promote our democracies and our European Union?
First, we must humbly admit our mistakes. Looking back, we can detect two recent warning signs. The first was the refusal, by a significant number of European citizens, of the European Constitution; the second is the bad blood which has remained in many parts of our society after the financial crisis. I am convinced that European citizens want us to concentrate on solving their real problems rather than fixate on the details of a possible European senate or whether or when the EU might become a happy federation. Let’s leave these big dreams to the next generation — a generation I am confident will be capable of achieving them — and concentrate instead, in the here and now, on filling the fissures in the very hull of our ship. We all know there are many of them, the lack of coordination in health emergencies being one of the most tragic and prominent examples. (Ah! Had Member States only listened to Michel Barnier in 2006 when he proposed a European initiative to response to emergencies such as pandemics . . .)
Secondly, we must be ambitious in real and concrete things. Like many others in the EU institutions, I am often weary of the reality that so many of our citizens are unaware of the good work we are doing. This is because the European Council, the EU’s only non-transparent body, is the one really calling the shots. I am tired of secret meetings by the EU’s real power players — i.e. our national governments: meetings in which bad decisions are blamed on the EU while good ones result in praise for visionary national leaders who in turn fail to ever mention the EU in their subsequent ’’war reports’’ to the press. Enough of this! When a new bridge is built in a small town, when EU citizens are no longer burdened by roaming fees, or when funds arrive to relieve the consequences of a critical pandemic: all this is thanks to the EU. But the fact is not recognised by some governments, interested only in convincing their electorates of their own ability to defend the national interest against imaginary usurpation and racketeering taking place in Brussels.
Thirdly, we must be transparent and accountable. Those European countries which will be transparent in managing the coronavirus pandemic will also be the first to overcome the economic and social crisis ahead. In 1918 it was American soldiers who brought the so-called ‘’Spanish flu’’ to the battlefields of Europe, causing millions of deaths worldwide. Why did it come to be known as Spanish flu? Because Spain, a neutral country at the time, was alone in not counting deaths from the disease as casualties of war. The transparency that spawned such an ironic misnomer also gave to Spain a credibility it took other countries some time to regain.
In our current context, it is not European institutions which must be more transparent in their approach — they already are. Where transparency is lacking is on the part of some Member State governments. The deficiency therefore lies among members of the Council, a body which has not received a mandate on behalf of the entire European population. This is why we must again insist on a discussion of the Spitzenkandidat: a directly elected European leader, directly accountable to all European citizens. A leader who can take decisions at European level — and therefore a leader who is responsible for taking the lead and who can thus be held accountable for his or her actions. A leader elected by and for the European people.
We must surely focus now on the immediate crisis at hand. But it will soon be time to return our attention to the future of Europe. To what kind of Europe we want and need. For though the EU is imperfect, make no mistake: it is a necessity. And it will be this crucial discussion which will allow us to overcome the current problems of transparency, accountability and coordination, and which will enable us to more efficiently prepare for future crises. But this is just the view of a pragmatist.