Special Event – The future of the European Union: long-term objectives vs. short term challenges?

Speakers: Hardeman Hilde, Engel Frank, Incerti Marco
Moderator: Paemen Hugo

On Tuesday, 17th of November 2015 PubAffairs Bruxelles hosted a discussion on the theme of “the future of the European Union: long-term objectives vs. short term challenges?” with Mrs Hilde Hardeman, Deputy head of Cabinet Vice-President KatainenMr Frank Engel, MEP(EPP/LU)Member of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs and Vice-Chair of the Delegation for relations with the People’s Republic of China and Mr Marco Incerti, Research Fellow & Head of Communications at CEPS. The event was moderated by Mr Hugo Paemen, Former Ambassador of the European Union to the US.


In the first part of the debate, Mr Paemen introduced the speakers, the theme of the debate and the main topics which the discussion would touch upon. During his comprehensive introduction, Mr Paemen elaborated on the relationship between short and long term challenges by naming as short term primary concerns on the European economic growth, the coordination of economic policies, the Ukrainian crisis, the persistence of the Greek crisis, the Brexit question, as well as the refugee crisis. Concerning long term challenges, he highlighted the absence of member states convergence, as well as the European economy competitiveness. Furthermore, the deepening of the European Economic and Monetary Union, the Banking Union, Capital Markets Union, the Energy Union and the Fiscal Union were mentioned as policy efforts through which the EU is trying to curb negative trends. Mr Paemen continued his introduction by stating that there are new elements of the EU institutional and political setting which have the potential to give a new impetus to the EU integration process. However, by quoting Former German Minister of Foreign Affairs Joschka Fisher and First Vice President Frans Timmermans, who both expressed a certain degree of concern with regard to the future of the EU, he recalled the current negative perception of the EU capacity of taking effective actions. Finally, Mr Paemen gave the floor to the discussants who could proceed to give their statements and to discuss the issues at stake.

Mr Engel MEP started his intervention by emphasising that the EU is notably in a very difficult situation since the constitutional project ran ashore. According to Mr Engel, the European Union has unfortunately gone through a series of crisis, although, in economic terms, Europe is slowly beginning to recover. In this regard, he stressed the fact that none of the Commission’s initiatives mentioned by Mr Paemen will have the chance to function properly unless, as the founding fathers of the EU already remarked, the European Monetary Union will be grounded upon a budget of at least 5% to 10% of its GDP. Mr Engel MEP underlined that the annual struggle between  the 28 member states, the Council, the European Commission and the European Parliament on an EU budget which consists only of four billion euros is a record which speaks for itself. He further touched upon the topic of the refugee crisis and underlined that so far the EU managed to resettle a small fraction of refugees amongst member states and many others are on the way to Europe, while several member states are planning to close their borders. He continued by stressing that the problem is not the EU itself, as a real Union does not exist, but that the EU is still led by 28 member states which often have internal political constrains which hamper  effective cooperation. Regarding a possible Brexit, the speaker emphasised that the EU should not engage in negotiations with the UK. He stated that by accepting the British demands, President Juncker may have paved the way to others member states’ claim for a “fairer deal”, a fact which would put the very EU existence at serious risk. In his opinion, it is naturally up to the UK citizens to decide, however, without the EU trying to appease the British requests. Mr Engel MEP  concluded his intervention by stressing that Europe is no longer the continent full of hope it used to be in the previous century and that, in his opinion, member states should move forward to an effective supranational organisation in order to restore the confidence in the EU project.

Mrs Hardeman started by stressing that European citizens have a living standard which would be possible in very few other parts of the world as Commissioner Georgeva recently recalled. She continued by acknowledging that Europe is no longer the serene continent which, with the exception of the Yugoslav war, used to be during the last decades. In fact, Europe is currently dealing with several challenges, such as the refugee crisis, the conflict in Ukraine and a possible Brexit, all of which were nearly unimaginable ten years ago. However, she also stressed that the EU is attempting to tackle these issues by taking a series of actions in different domains such as the fostering of economic growth, the fight against climate change, the battle against inequality and intolerance, the instability of the EU neighbourhood and the threat of terrorism. She pointed at the European Commission’s Working Programme as a demonstration that European institutions are aware that this is not the time for a “business as usual” attitude. She also stated that, notwithstanding its burdens, the EU is continuing its innovation processes via proposals such as the one on Digital Single Market, the Banking Union initiatives, the set up of a Capital Markets Union, or the proposal for a reform of border management. Mrs Hardeman also underlined that security concerns will gain more attention within EU policy making and are likely to have tangible consequences for our daily lives. According to Mrs Hardeman, realism, confidence and determination are needed to foster the EU project and to continue to bring about valuable advantages to European citizens. For these reasons, she remarked that the EU needs to look back to the basics and regain pride for its achievements enshrined in the Treaties, such as human dignity, rule of law and democracy. The speaker also remarked that these challenges will not be overcome in the short term, although it is imperative to overcome the current situation successfully and as soon as possible. Mrs Hardeman concluded by highlighting that, despite the difficulty of taking on short and long term challenges at the same time, it is important to notice that European institutions are aware of the current trends and they do not assume failure as an option.

Mr Incerti started his intervention by stating that he had become more pessimistic about the future of the EU. The European Union is still at the same crossroad already mentioned in the opening line of the Laeken Declaration of 2001, which notably established the Convention on the Future of Europe. He added that the EU would need to start acting more swiftly and coherently in order to cope with the fast-moving geopolitical context. Mr Incerti also stated that the EU needs to deliver both to retain the support of its citizens and to ensure its continued existence. According to the speaker, if the contrary happens, there is a risk of putting the European project in serious danger, as the Foreign Minister of Luxembourg recently affirmed. Mr Incerti agreed with Mr Paemen that short-term and long term tests are interchangeable and added that swift action is required. Mr Incerti then focused on the long term objectives, stressing that stakeholders often share the view that the EU is not properly equipped to deal with the challenges it is confronted with. In fact, according to him, many of the crucial long term issues are not even on the radar screen of EU decision makers as divergences between national governments often represent a hurdle. However, Mr Incerti noted that there is still the possibility that some key European politicians will be prompted to take bold steps in the near future for fear that inward-looking policies may endanger their legacy as public figures. Mr Incerti further elaborated on short term challenges saying that he was sceptic on the achievement of any substantial far-reaching changes to the EU budget during the upcoming mid-term review of the latter. Nevertheless, as some CEPS researchers suggested, it would be wise  to gather together all the different EU funds available, such as the EFSI, in order to create a sort of “parallel budget” more in tune with the priorities of a 21st century EU. Concerning the issue of governance, Mr Incerti expected the Dutch Presidency to make the Rule of Law a central point of its work. Whereas, regarding the threat of terrorism, he criticised the fact that member states have not been able to work together more closely as they still consider this domain a national competence on the strength of the wording of article four of the Treaty. Concerning the Brexit issue, the speaker considered that several of the proposals put forward over the years by UK to improve the functioning of the European Union should be regarded as constructive. However, with specific regard to the ongoing negotiations for a new arrangement, Mr Incerti deemed most of the requests presented by Prime Minister Cameron as “cosmetic” rather than substantial, with the exception of the suspension of welfare benefits for EU citizens during the first four years of residence. He concluded his intervention on this last issue by underlining that the European Commission has already identified it as problematic.

A first point of the discussion concerned the democratic deficit of the EU and the relations between national parliaments and European Institutions.

On these issues, Mr Engel underlined that the EU has to go back to its roots. He also referred to the draft Treaty of the European Political Community as an example of institutional setting without a Council. He emphasised the fact that the EU was conceived to become a supranational organisation, while the creation of a Council of member states was forecasted already by the founding fathers to become the powerhouse of the defence national interests. Concerning the democratic deficit, Mr Engel highlighted that the intergovernmental EU institutional settings can be antithetic to a common European policy as they often constitute an impediment for further integration advancements. In addition, Mr Engel recalled that the European Parliament lacks of basic parliamentary powers such as the possibility to propose legislation and an operational budget. The MEP concluded his intervention by stating that the only viable long term solution is a shifting of powers from member states to the Parliament towards a constitutional process. On the same matters, Mr Incerti emphasised the fact that openness and transparency of the EU have increased over the last years. He added that the European Parliament has gained more powers and it is continuing to expand the limits of its competences. Notably, by incrementally building on the existing treaty articles, it has since 2004 gained a de facto authority to accept or reject members of the European Commission. According to the speaker, another crucial question is also whether a European demos exists. In this respect, he brought the example of the Greek crisis to argue that the interconnections and interdependence of member states, especially those that are members of the Eurozone, have become stronger, and more visible also to the public opinion. Concerning the role of national parliaments, Mr Incerti pointed out that national parliaments already have the possibility to be more involved in decision-making at the EU level, through the so-called “yellow card procedure”, a tool which is however rarely used. He concluded by stating that national parliaments should be more proactive and amend their internal procedures to make better use of the powers already at their disposal. Mrs Hardeman responded to this question by agreeing that national parliaments have several instruments, but are not utilising them often. In addition, she stated that member states should also consider to propose a procedure which binds governments to discuss in advance with national assemblies their positions at the EU Council as, for example, in the case of Denmark. According to Mrs Hardeman, this internal constitutional setting would help national parliaments to gain more ownership of the EU decision-making process.

A second point of discussion focused on the refugee crisis and on how the EU should react.

On this topic, Mr Engel remarked that both sides of the Atlantic need to take some responsibility. In his opinion, the United States have contributed to the creation of several conflicts in the Middle East which triggered the refugee crisis in Europe. Concerning exclusively the position of the EU, he remarked that the EU is not responding appropriately to the refugee crisis by threatening to build fences and walls as a response. Mr Engel continued by emphasising that refugees will however continue to come to Europe, as a result, the EU needs to develop a comprehensive strategy for refugees and offer them an integration perspective. However, the speaker also underlined that it is  important to make clear to refugees that they might be transferred to a member state which is not their first choice. He continued by staying that unfortunately member states are currently not cooperating, while they are trying to minimise the impacts of the crisis on their own territory. Mr Engel concluded by underlining that such an approach will only benefit populist parties and will increase their support. Mr Incerti further elaborated on the comments by Mr Engel and addressed the issue of leadership and the role of Chancellor Merkel in responding to the refugee crisis. According to Mr Incerti, Chancellor Merkel deserves credit because of two reasons: firstly, the Chancellor highlighted the fact that many refugees want to come to Europe because of its high living standard and the perspective that the EU can offer to them. Secondly, by deciding to keep Germany’s borders open, Mrs Merkel generated a positive feeling among the German population as they felt encouraged to have an open approach to the refugee crisis. In this regard, Mrs Hardeman stressed that, when dealing with the refugee crisis, the EU and its citizens have to remember their own history, whereby over the past decades, our parents and grandparents had in many cases been refugees themselves, and had survived thanks to a culture of support for people in need.

The final part of the debate and the Q&A session also covered the following issues: the role of civil society, Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of Regions; the communication strategy of European institutions with citizens; the contrast between the long term objectives and the short-term challenges; the TTIP as a tool of economic growth, the parallel between the European and the American political system; how to promote the European identity, data protection, the Spitzen Candidaten system, the question of the democratic deficit and the yellow card procedure

Do you want to go further into the issues discussed in our debate? Check our list of selected sources which we have provided for you 

State of the Union 2015 – Address by President Juncker: Time for Honesty, Unity and Solidarity- European Commission

Work Programme 2016 – No time for business as usual – European Commission

Frank Engel MEP – Website

Frank Engel MEP – Social Media

Frank Engel MEP on the key role of the member states in the management of migration – Video

Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) – Publications

Never mind the Spitzenkandidaten: It’s all about politics – Commentary – Centre for European
Policy Studies (CEPS)

Implementing the Lisbon Treaty: Improving the Functioning of the EU on Justice and Home Affairs Externally published research – Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS)

Can Schengen survive? – Commentary – Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS)

What caused the eurozone crisis? Commentary – Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS)

The Role of National Parliaments in the European Union – EU Committee – House of Lords

Britain in the EU – Section – Center for European Reform (CER)

UK’s EU Referendum – Section – Financial Times