Think tank dialogue
Barroso: Europe still lacks a public space
By Gaspard Sebag | Tuesday 25 January 2011
Various Brussels-based think tanks got together, on 25 January, to hold a debate about the future challenges for the European Union with European Commission President José Manuel Barroso. Three major themes emerged from the discussions: the democratic deficit in the EU; the lack of credibility of the Union both with regard to its own citizens and the rest of the world; and the urgent need to solve the banking crisis.
Philippe Herzog, founding president of Confrontations Europe, placed the emphasis on the “democratic deficit” in member states and the need to “build a European civil society,” which would serve to spur on political will in the Union. “We still don’t have a public space in Europe,” admitted Barroso.
“It is important that the public opinion understands what they gain from integration,” said the Commission president. “What is important is ownership at national level of issues […] we need leadership at all levels to explaining why we need Europe more than ever.” He claimed to be the “first to be unhappy about the current level of communication,” but at the same time shied from giving any suggestions as to how the EU itself can create a public space to debate European issues so that these can compete with national interests.
Giles Merritt, secretary-general of Friends of Europe, believes Brussels is too “polite” and criticised the fact that “the Commission does not name and shame, nor do the EU institutions ever admit error”. “We have to embarrass the European decision makers,” he said. Nicolas Véron, a senior fellow at Bruegel, pointed out for his part that “one of the things we don’t have in Brussels is the partisan divide”. He highlighted the integrationist predominance within the EU’s intellectual and decision making circles.
“The only one challenge is credibility,” said Philippe De Schoutheete, member of the board of Egmont, in reference to the role of the EU as a global player. Quoting Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of the EU, Véron claimed it is a question of scale: “Our countries have become too small for today’s world”. De Schoutheete, who favours slimming down national diplomacies, was strongly critical of the “minimalist interpretation of the Lisbon Treaty,” which calls for a budget-neutral European External Action Service and therefore a continuation of the status quo.
RESOLVING BANKING CRISIS
Véron feels that as long as the banking crisis has not been solved the achievements of the EU are bound to remain moot. “To do it in an effective way you have to do it in a central way,” he claimed. Wishing to “keep the momentum” of reforms, the Commission president recalled that “when there is no pressure there is a tendency for procrastination at national level but even more at European level”. Barroso is keen to restore confidence step by step and make sure the EU does not fall behind the curve in the future. Herzog pointed out that too much focus on financial stability should not be to the detriment of the Union’s growth potential, which he said for now is “walking on one leg”.