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Popular views on the European Union

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Getting European societies on board is a sine qua non condition for any major reform in the EU. It is also evident that major reforms are necessary to guarantee Europe’s competitiveness and – in the long run probably – its very existence.

The popular sentiment and political agendas that question the usefulness of European integration and sometimes even the basic European values are on the rise. European institutions and member states suffer to counter these rising anti-European and in some cases anti-democratic tendencies that will pose significant risks to European integration in the medium-term. One major factor of popular disenchantment is that people know very little about the Union and the role it plays in their life.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is said to have quipped once that to understand how the European Union works, you have to be either a genius – or French. The central administrative structure of the EU has indeed claims to be the world’s most complicated bureaucracy, bearing all the hallmarks of the French administrative system. The signs of (though fading) French influence are unmistakable in its symbolism and its management structures, as well as in its organizational mentality (the meetings of the college of Commissioners take place on Wednesday mornings, just like those of the French government; all three seats of the EU are in a French-speaking country; and the competition one must pass to become an EU civil servant bears an eerie resemblance to the tests used by French public authorities). The EU is simply incomprehensible to the man in the street; being too distant, it is lost in the mists of obscurity and lack of interest. This opacity was aptly demonstrated by the Irish referendum in 2008. The new EU Treaty would legalize abortion and homosexual marriage, opponents alleged, introduce compulsory service in a European army and raise taxes; it was on the grounds of such silly fallacies that a sizeable portion of the Irish electorate voted against the watered down European Constitution in summer 2008. An even larger percentage of voters had no idea what they were deciding and, to be on the safe side, opted for maintaining the status quo and cast their ballots against the Treaty.

Three years earlier, the referenda in France and the Netherlands failed in a similar fashion: the French were scared of losing their beloved welfare state (remember the perennial bogeyman, the Polish plumber, who will come and take the jobs of honest French workers?), the Dutch — frustrated by the swelling tide of Muslim immigrants — were looking to punish the government and let the world know in no uncertain terms that they did not want closer European integration. There is a sea of literature out there on the hypocritical nature and destructive impact of referenda. Let us simply admit that it is not just dictators and shifty financial investors who derail countries and regions — the electorate can do the same if the elite mishandles crucial issues. If such matters must be decided by a referendum and they indeed should, let us hold one in all member states at the same time. If the Irish (or for that matter the citizens of any other member state) see that the Danes, Spaniards, Germans and Hungarians are all voting, the referendum will assume a pan-European nature and shed the stuffy air of navel-gazing domestic politics. Another important issue is that “Europe”, unlike its member states, lacks appealing faces that people can identify with and the way its institutions work is too complicated for the average person to grasp. The European Commission, Parliament and Council do not correspond as equivalents to the traditional national political institutions which makes their functions and relevance incomprehensible.

Europeans know very little about the EU’s policies and its 150 billion euro budget. One in four citizens is convinced that the bulk of the EU budget is spent on running its own administration. When asked what areas the EU should focus its expenditure on, the environment came first with 40% of the respondents ticking the box, and immigration, energy and social policy second with 30% each. Strangely, these are all areas that the EU has little budgetary clout. In brief, people have no idea what the EU spends its budget on, and clearly, what it does spend it on are not the areas that people consider most important. And by the way, the EU does not spend its budget on issues that are meaningful to their citizens. Nonetheless, it is worth noting how closely the public’s wish list (sustainable environment, immigration, energy supply and social protection) maps the key challenges that the EU must face. In reality, however, as I just said the EU continues to spend a little on a lot of things [1]

Of course, I would seriously oversimplify things if I were to blame public ignorance for the failure to adopt a new European constitutional framework; the fear of losing national sovereignty was an important factor as well. Which brings us to one of Europe’s greatest dilemmas: what is more important to Europe’s peoples – preserving their national sovereignty at all costs or maintaining Europe’s competitiveness, and thereby its prosperity and geostrategic role, by ever closer integration? This is a question that the elite has the habit of asking but which eludes the public at large. Eurobarometer tested people’s knowledge with three yes-or-no questions i) Does the EU have 15 member states? ii) Are members of the European Parliament elected directly? iii) Does your country have a European Commissioner? Only 1 out of 5 respondents could answer all three correctly (The answers, incidentally, are (i) No, it has 28; (ii) Yes, and have been since 1979; (iii) Yes, they all do, at the moment).

People do not think much of the EU’s communication skills: 4 out of 5 think that EU institutions do not inform them properly. As a result, two thirds claim they understand domestic politics but only one third how the EU works. To make things worse, views on European affairs are largely influenced by the atmosphere of national politics. The fears of the crisis, job losses and lately immigration are present all around Europe and therefore polls tend to produce sobering results. Citizens are right this time: the communication of the European Union is very inefficient.

Due to the EU’s failure to respond to growing societal fears, it is not surprising that the image of the Union has lost its shine in recent years. Less than half of its population holds a positive opinion of the EU, while every third citizen has an expressly negative view of it. Curiously, there seems to be widespread support for a common European foreign policy (65 to 70% of respondents polled in favor) and a political Union (60%), as well as for the single European currency, although the latter’s acceptance rate is dwindling. The EU Constitution was rejected by referendum, the bitter bickering over the common budget (a measly 1% of GDP) dragged on and on, fears of globalization and the social and security threats of enlargement grew, the European idea started to weaken.

Europe has achieved an awful lot over the course of the last two decades: the single market, the single currency, the reunification of Europe, the accession of twelve new poor member states and above all peace, stability and wealth. One source of the problem is that the European project has always been characterized by a top-down approach and has never managed to entice much interest from the media. Even though the Brussels press corps number several thousands, most correspondents report European affairs through a national prism. Election campaigns for the European Parliament focus almost exclusively on domestic issues. The political elites of member states concentrated on domestic issues even when communicating European policies, and just because the same questions interest the public in most countries does not mean that there is a European approach or even as much as a European public opinion. Euroscepticism flourishes all over Europe; chauvinism, efforts to protect prosperity, the democratic deficit, the incomprehensible nature of the European project and the lack of a true European identity have all contributed. Nevertheless, the majority — though only just — of Europeans approve of integration; mainstream political forces are to some degree or other pro-European in all member states.

What then do people expect from the EU? According to Eurobarometer, people consider the following should be the Union’s core tasks: reducing unemployment, eradicating poverty, safeguarding peace and security, fighting organized crime and combating terrorism. As this list reveals, Europeans have precious little information on what the European Union can and cannot do: in these areas “Brussels” has a limited or no remit. They remain a predominantly national competence. This, of course, does not stop the public in countries like Finland, where there are few social and employment problems, from rating the EU’s employment and social policy highly. The French, however, who have had their fair share of social trouble, take a dim view of European social policy, which is yet another example of projecting domestic problems onto Brussels. Clearly, the average citizen does not understand the Union, which translates into uncertainty concerning its future.

Members of the European Parliament have been elected directly since 1979. Turnover in the EP elections has been declining steadily for the last thirty years all over Europe. In 2009, fewer than one third of the 375 million eligible voters cast a ballot, 2014 did not a show improvement, and in some new member states turnout was shockingly low. Ten years earlier over 40% voted on average. This should be a warning sign to Europe’s political elite: fewer and fewer people believe – contrary to the reality that it does so more and more – that the European Parliament — or for that matter the European Union — plays an important role in their lives. In sum, the EU simply does not make it into people’s living rooms.

The EU therefore should overhaul its communication and open up to a much wider public debate and participation. In this respect Europe’s new “Erasmus generation” can be a decisive factor.

[1] For a Eurosceptic and one-sided take on EU spending you can visit: www.openeurope.org.uk/research/hardsell.pdf

Hungarian economist, PhD in international relations. Based in Brussels for fourteen years as diplomat and member of EU commissioners’ cabinets. Two times visiting fellow of Wilson Center in Washington DC. University professor and author of books on EU affairs and geopolitics. Head of department, National University of Public Administration, Budapest.

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Europe

Nurturing Sino-EU Ties through Multilateralism

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Considering the fact that relations between China and the EU are shifting, they will continue since China’s position as a crucial economic powerhouse for the EU cannot be understated, especially as the EU confronts a real and technical economic downturn. In the Eurozone, countries such as the Czech Republic, Lithuania, and Germany are experiencing a deceleration in economic growth, which requires immediate consideration. The primary reason for this is the industry-related crisis caused by the collapse of export operations on both domestic and global markets due to a lack of purchasing power.

If this mild downturn becomes a full-blown crisis, the economies of both the European Union and the United States could stagnate. Because of these challenges, the European Union (EU) must strike a fine balance between resolving the current crisis and accommodating U.S. demands. The recent summit of European Union leaders holds great importance as the EU determined its policy towards China. The EU’s economic prospects are highly dependent on developing strong ties with China.

When combined with China’s growing consumer market and massive expenditures in infrastructure, the European Union’s economy has a once-in-a-generation chance to rebound and thrive. The European Union (EU) stands to gain from closer economic connections with China due to the opportunities it presents for increased collaboration, broader trade, and the infusion of much-needed Chinese investment into the EU’s flagging industrial sectors.

Recognizing this undeniable potential, the EU must priorities capitalizing on the benefits of its partnership with China, whilst likewise making sure that the relationship remains mutually beneficial and sustainable. The path towards achieving such equilibrium, however, is fraught with obstacles, mainly due to external pressures from the United States. Notably, the United States has imposed tariffs and trade restrictions on a number of European products, creating financial challenges for European companies. These actions are frequently used as pressure to influence Europe’s approach to China.

The EU is in a precarious position, compelled to navigate an environment where financial goals, geopolitical issues, and common values intersect. Maintaining a delicate equilibrium is essential. The pressure exerted by the United States highlights the necessity for Europe to assert its own interests and independence in international affairs. It is essential that the EU devise an independent and principled strategy that protects its own interests while approaching China with a productive discussion.

European Council President Charles Michel’s recent statement that it is in the EU’s best interest to maintain “stable and constructive” ties with China has, in a sense, confirmed the continuation of EU-China relations. In a latest commentary, Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, pointed to how the EU could modify its policy towards China. However, he advocated for “vigorous engagement” between the EU and Beijing.

Under the weight of US pressure, maintaining a delicate balance in EU-China relations requires careful handling. European leaders will have the opportunity to define the EU’s position on China at the upcoming EU summit, ushering in a future of balanced, constructive, and mutually beneficial engagement. It is essential that European leaders seize this opportunity and set a course that protects their economic interests and fundamental values. In this manner, the EU can promote stability, resilience, and sustainable growth in the face of changing global dynamics.

At this critical juncture, leaders must engage in exhaustive dialogues that incorporate the many facets of the EU’s relationship with China. The promotion of human rights should be coupled with economic considerations. Considerations such as trade disparities, rights to intellectual property protection, and the development of equitable market practices must be addressed in an open discussion. This strategy will ensure an equitable playing field for EU and Chinese businesses, fostering an environment conducive to healthy competition and long-term economic growth.

The foundation of Sino-EU relations should base on mutual interest and respect, multilateralism, and economic exchanges, and they should be exempt from illicit US interference and pressures. By navigating these complexities and forging a path that safeguards economic interests and fundamental values, the EU can promote stability, resilience, and sustainable growth in the face of changing global dynamics.

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China-Germany Win-Win Cooperation

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photo:Yao Dawei / Xinhua

The China-Germany cooperation exemplifies the transformative potential of collaboration based on mutual regard, shared objectives, and complementary strengths. This exceptional partnership has spawned a domino effect that extends beyond bilateral relations, inspiring other nations to pursue similarly mutually beneficial partnerships.

 As the world becomes more interconnected, countries can learn from the China-Germany model of cooperation, which fosters economic development, technological advancement, environmental stewardship, and cultural exchange. By adhering to the principles of win-win cooperation, nations can construct a more prosperous, sustainable, and harmonious global community.

China and Germany’s dynamic and mutually beneficial cooperation is a shining example of win-win collaboration on the global stage. Both nations have nurtured strong economic and diplomatic ties over the years, resulting in enormous advances and benefits for their respective societies.

Strong and coordinated global action is needed immediately to combat climate change and advance sustainable development. There is still a lot to be done, but China and Germany have already shown their dedication to environmentally friendly and low-carbon development. By aligning their strategies and exchanging best practices, they can expedite the transition to a low-carbon, sustainable economy.

China’s pledge to peak carbon emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060 shows its commitment to a deep low-carbon transformation of its economy and society. Through the International Climate Initiative (IKI) administered by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, the German Federal Government supports Sino-German climate change cooperation.

 Collaboration in areas such as energy efficiency, renewable energy, the circular economy, and sustainable transportation can lead the way for a greener future, mitigating the effects of climate change and nurturing ecological equilibrium.

China and Germany have established a strong economic partnership that has benefited both countries significantly. Germany’s main commercial partner is China, and vice versa, and this strong bilateral commerce has led to significant economic growth and employment creation. This collaboration has given German businesses access to the sizable Chinese market.

Notably, the exchange of products, services, and knowledge between the two nations has fostered innovation, productivity, and economic resiliency, thereby laying the groundwork for long-term cooperation. This commitment to cooperation has yielded an array of beneficial effects, strengthening the conviction that win-win partnerships can drive progress and prosperity in an interdependent world.

The dynamic economic partnership that has grown between the two nations is one of the pillars of China-Germany cooperation. Germany, known for its scientific prowess, inventiveness, and precision engineering, found a favourable market in China, with its enormous customer base and rapidly expanding economy.

On the other hand, China’s manufacturing expertise and devotion to infrastructure development have presented German businesses with incredible possibilities to expand their operations and enter new markets. Entrepreneurs from both nations could keep pursuing openness, inclusiveness, and win-win cooperation, as well as keep the stability of industrial and supply chains with high-level practical cooperation. This symbiotic relationship has allowed both nations to capitalize on their respective strengths, resulting in economic expansion and job creation for both countries.

China and Germany have also established cooperation in the fields of innovation and research, recognizing that advancements in these fields are crucial agents of economic and societal progress. Through joint research initiatives, academic exchanges, and institution-to-institution collaboration, both nations have been able to pool their intellectual resources, foster innovation, and address global challenges. This cooperation has not only led to revolutionary scientific discoveries, but it has also set the groundwork for future innovations in technology that will benefit all of humanity.

China and Germany have fostered cultural exchange and people-to-people diplomacy in addition to their economic and technological cooperation. By encouraging education exchanges, cultural events, and intercultural dialogue, both countries have built bridges of appreciation, understanding, and friendship. Not only do these interactions enrich the lives of individuals, but they also strengthen the bilateral relationship as a whole. They facilitate dialogue, eliminate preconceived notions, and set the groundwork for mutually beneficial relationships and respect.

By expanding on these accomplishments and upholding a spirit of mutual respect and shared objectives, the China-Germany partnership can continue to advance progress and inspire global collaboration.

The China-Germany model of win-win cooperation provides valuable lessons for nations seeking to forge prosperous partnerships. It emphasizes the significance of mutual respect, trust, and open communication as the foundations for productive collaboration. It also emphasizes the importance of recognizing and capitalizing on balance in strengths and resources, which allows nations to maximize the positive effects of cooperation.

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The Eurasian Zeitenwende: Germany and Japan at the Crossroads

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Image source: X @Bundeskanzler

Russia’s decision to invade in Ukraine in February of last year has been nothing short of a critical juncture in recent history—sending reverberations across the entirety of Eurasia. Seldom have events on one end of the continent been so consequential on the other. Russia’s invasion has shattered the prime directive underpinning the long peace after the Great Wars—the inviolable right to sovereignty has been shattered, as mass armed aggression has reared its head once again. Nowhere is this sweeping change felt than in Berlin and Tokyo—to capitals separated by over 12,453 kilometers of land and sea.

German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz spoke to the Bundestag just three days after Russia’s invasion, on the ‘historic turning point’, the Zeitenwende this moment presented. Not a year later, on December 16, after much negotiation Japan finally released their first National Security Strategy in almost a decade. Ukraine provided for both governments the impetus to shed decades of consensus on defense policy. Berlin and Tokyo were once partners in the greatest conflict wrought on mankind, and today they are once again on the same page—but this time arming in the name of global peace.

The postwar consensus

With 1945 came the crashing down of the German and Japanese imperial ambitions that underwrote the explosions of violence from 1914 to 1945. The first half of the twentieth century saw successive orders predicated the passing of power; the imperialist order long preceded the turn of the century, and came crashing with the First World War. From there, a brief liberal interlude of the Washington Conference was doomed to fail given Anglo-American isolationism, and from that chaos was born—a return to imperialism. With these passing orders, German and Japanese leaders debated and sought to reinvent themselves in response to changing tides across the globe.

In fact, twice in the last century, during Twenty-five Years Crisis, Wilhelmine and Nazi imperialism exploded in the European theater. For the Japanese, a slow roll to imperial domination in Asia began much before the war and exploded in the 1930s. This imperial flame was extinguished almost as soon as it was ignited—bringing with it the deaths of millions through genocide and war, and the destruction of much of the world’s industrial capacity. In the wake of it, a similar thinking overtook both Berlin and Tokyo. In the wake of the horrors of war, both peoples came to a similar conclusion that militarism ought be eschewed—with Japan going as far as enshrining its anti-militarist urge in the constitution’s article 9. Though it must be noted, the Germans accepted their guilt—the Japanese continue to engage in denialism and apologia.

For decades, under the guise of guilt in Germany, and occupation-enforced constitutional limits for Japan, both countries eschewed providing for their own national defense needs—instead relying on the all-powerful U.S. security guarantee.

A new look in a new environment

This change that has occurred here has happened within the context of what Dr. Kent Calder described in The New Continentalism: Energy and Twenty-First Century Geopolitics, and Supercontinent: the Logic of Eurasian Integration, as ‘proto-continentalism’—the modern stirrings of transcontinental integration. The continent was transformed by China’s Four Modernizations, the Oil Shock, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union—all requiring readjustments on the continent. Continental integration followed the integration and modernization within China, the Oil Shock highlighted the need for energy-driven interconnection, and the collapse of the Soviet Union meant no more Cold War political antagonisms. These changes meant that there were suddenly lower costs for trade across the continent—one rife with great complementaries. Like some geographic providence, the world’s largest energy producers in the Middle East, sat between the world’s biggest consumers in Europe and Asia.

Of course, this integration isn’t just relegated to the economic realm—but also the defense sector. Whereas integration was predicated by the near-collapse of mass interstate conflict, the War in Ukraine would seem to threaten just that. But in fact, integration ensures the costs associated with this conflict are felt from one end of the continent to the other. This inherently ties the most far-flung countries on matters of defense—exactly what ties Berlin and Tokyo, and their similar responses to the war in Ukraine. This integration doesn’t just tie Berlin and Tokyo, but also Seoul and Warsaw, both of which have seen deepened defense cooperation not limited to the production of South Korean tanks and artillery in Poland. Furthermore, Japan has sought out increased cooperation with NATO.

The mutually-reinforcing loop

Russia’s invasion has been an unmitigated tragedy for the people of Ukraine—but a boon for solidarity in the ‘Western’ security architecture, including the West’s numerous Asian allies and partners, and Eurasian integration writ large. In fact, the mutual economic ties that have fostered closer defense ties across the region, will continue to reinforce each other. Integration between these partners, across various sectors is the greatest mitigator of future conflict—an idea that underpins the great postwar peace, and one that will continue to endure.

Today, Germany and Japan, once imperial menaces to the international system, now make a proactive contribution to global peace—in deciding to behave like normal countries, and arm amidst a threatening global environment. Their contribution to the peace is in the solidification of transcontinental defense ties—ones predicated on deep economic integration.

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