Former Greek Prime Minster George Papandreou delivered the Manchester Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence’s Annual Lecture, accompanied by two formidable looking bodyguards. Ewan Munro heard him affirm his commitment to the European Project and decry the lack of visionary leadership at the national level.
While the Eurozone crisis may have slipped from the front pages and the prospects for the EU appear to have recovered – if marginally – over recent months, huge challenges still remain.
Papandreou opened to a packed lecture theatre by asserting that now is the time, not to avoid the greater and more divisive issues that Europe faces, but to address these challenges head on.
“Europe has been so consumed with its internal problems in recent years, so busy focussing on our shortcomings and differences that we forget to look at the bigger picture.”
Few would argue that Europe has found itself increasingly divided and a little lost in ‘the midst of…[its] deepest recession since the 1930s’ (Marco Buti, Economic and Financial Affairs DG); and it is not surprising that the continent is witnessing the same forces of “resurgent nationalism” that blighted that tragic period of its history.
However, it is the deficit in leadership, along with the corresponding growth of populist anti-European sentiment, which poses the greatest risk to the long term prospects for the ‘European project’. All the while, this is happening at same time as a major shift in the centres of political and economic influence across the world.
“It is obvious that we are witnessing a re-balancing of global power. And this may become a struggle for global supremacy,” said Papandreou.
For him – and in my opinion – this challenge extends way beyond the traditional dynamics of hard power, reaching the issues of who ‘we’ are and how we ‘govern’ ourselves.
He added: “This struggle may not be a violent clash of civilizations, but it will be one of competing models of governance. And what may be more important than who is more powerful, is what values will characterise or dominate our global community?”
The gulf between elite and public involvement in the EU has long undermined the prospects for any European sense of identity, or loyalty (of the sort readily granted to member states) to the European Union. This all too evident gulf in participation, has contributed to the continual attacks on the democratic deficit of the Union
These questions regarding democratic credentials have “been compounded by the imposition of blanket austerity, and the impact on national sovereignty”, according to our speaker.
As Papandreou highlighted, these shortcomings have been fuel to the already ascendant forces of the extreme right and nationalism. Whether we consider “spectacular rise of UKIP…the Golden Dawn…[or the] openly racist Jobbik party…now Hungary’s third largest party” to mention just a few, the trend is very concerning.
It is all the more alarming that at a time when the future direction of Europe is so finely balanced, these movements at the extremities of the political spectrum are proving so influential on the language and terms on which policy is debated by mainstream parties.
Papandreou stated: “It is alarming that many conservative parties have been playing into the hands of far-right movements – desperate to win back votes.”
Given the levels of apathy, and corresponding low turn outs in European elections, there is a growing risk that, not only is discussion regarding Europe’s future framed by those most opposed to it, but anti-European parties will take increasing control of the EU’s elected body – The European Parliament (EP).
At a time when European is in need of coherence and vision, the EP will be increasingly populated by MEPs, if not displaying distain and disinterest in its operation (see this FT report for a British example), actively seeking to undermine its functioning.
The immigration debate is the strongest example of a debate where polemic and populism have long since derailed the prospects for any reasoned discussion (see Barroso speech in London for evidence based assessment). The UK has been only too guilty of catering to the lowest common denominator.
“David Cameron has recently been drumming up anxiety over a wave of incoming Bulgarians and Romanians. As if migrants were to blame for all our economic and social problems,” argued Papandreou.
What Europe desperately needs is for those that have driven the project from the safety of their closed corridors of power, to do so in the public forum and display the courage to provide vision and explanation.
Through such courage, the debate could be drawn away from the introspective and narrow framework in which it now finds itself.
As Papandreou asserted, what Europe is missing is “visionary leadership at the national level and… a coordinated strategy at the European level… This is undermining our European identity, which by definition is characterised by diversity.”
Only if the leaders of the member states recognise the need for this leadership, and display the conviction to re-assert the terms on which this debate is conducted – will a popular re-engagement with Europe be possible.
Only with this vision and engagement, will Europe be able to continue to hold global influence in terms of values, and structures of governance.
Without this, the European crisis will not mark a period of history that will have – at some juncture – finality, but rather the beginning of the continent’s decline in global affairs.
The final word belongs to Papandreou: “Europe stands for something greater than the sum of its parts”.