Ahead of the EU elections, Liberal candidate for the European Commission Presidency, Guy Verhofstadt, came to Manchester to outline his credentials. Mustafa Cirakli reports that Verhofstadt’s message was clear: we need more Europe.
National media across the EU have focused on the rise of Eurosceptics such as UKIP in the UK and France’s National Front. But there is another political debate raging ahead of this month’s European Elections – who will be the next President of the European Commission?
Under the Lisbon Treaty, the European Parliament will elect the next Commission President on the basis of a proposal by the European Council (comprising the member states’ heads of state or government), taking into account the results of the direct Europe-wide elections for the European Parliament. This will apply for the first time in this month’s elections.
Guy Verhofstadt, a prominent contender in the race, delivered the annual Manchester Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence (JMCE) lecture. The former Belgian prime minister (from 1999 to 2008) and incumbent President of the Liberal Alliance at the European Parliament (ALDE), Verhofstadt is one of the staunchest European federalists – a position avidly advocated in his book The United States of Europe, but also within the Spinelli group that he has since co-founded.
Speaking to a packed audience, Verhofstadt began by asserting that Europe continued to grapple with endemic economic recession and risked lagging behind in the global competition against the growing economies of China, Brazil and the US, and also behind Japan. “This is all because we don’t have enough Europe”, said Verhofstadt.
Few would disagree with Verhofstadt that Europe remains in deep economic recession. Despite the welcome news that the initial Eurozone crisis is now receding, many European economies continue to experience marginal growth that is insufficient to turn around the very high rate of unemployment across the Eurozone, currently standing at 11.9 percent.
It has been the lack of robust leadership and vision that undermined the prospects of economic recovery Verhofstadt argued, adding that further integration is needed if Europe is to fully benefit from its single market and so become more competitive.
The future of European economic governance presents the EU with the ultimate litmus test, requiring an ambitious agenda that extends beyond internal market regulation to introduce the effective macroeconomic policies a stronger Europe needs.
In this vein, Verhofstadt fiercely criticised the timidity of EU leadership – and the European Commission in particular – for not tackling the financial crisis with robust policies geared towards fiscal convergence. He warned of prolonged recession marked by marginal economic growth and continuing levels of high unemployment.
Verhofstadt responded to claims that more integration would inevitably mean a ‘superstate’ with a large and cumbersome bureaucracy. He asserted that the EU should not concern itself with such trivial matters as the “olive oil in restaurant tables”, but focus on pressing policy issues. He called for more efficient common policies on economic governance (especially in the banking sector) and energy, but also on foreign and defence policy – backed by effective instruments to ensure implementation.
Many would agree with Verhofstadt in principle that further integration is needed to make the EU more efficient, while also becoming stronger to sustain its economic and political clout in the region. It is also true that only the federal Europe that he keenly supports would have a strong presence on the world stage in the future.
To pursue such an ambitious agenda however, requires a political vision that can mobilise popular support across the continent. To devise the fiscal policies to make the European economy more competitive while also tackling transnational challenges such as climate change, energy, human trafficking and, not least, regional security will require visionary leadership and public re-engagement.
As Verhofstadt highlighted, many Europeans are disillusioned with the EU and are left with little reason to see their future in the continent. In the meantime, the nationalists and the populists have been swift to capitalise on such anti-EU sentiment, evoking popular fears to effectively hijack the debate on Europe. Verhofstadt also recognises that the blame lies with the European political elite. “After all, it is the task of the political parties and politicians to develop their vision of Europe and seek public support [for the EU project],” he said.
What Europe desperately needs now is a vision that will restore faith in the European institutions and tackle the nationalist and populist narratives head on. Anti-EU parties taking control of the European Parliament in May would not only undermine the functioning of the EU further, but also pose perhaps the biggest ever challenge to its fundamental norms and values.
At a time when Euro-scepticism is rife across the continent, the bold commitment and passion displayed by Guy Verhofstadt and others towards the idea of a ‘great leap forward’ into a more cohesive, federal Europe displays the courage needed to reinvent the European Union that will work better for its citizens and maintain its global influence in a fast-changing world.