Courage required to meet Europe’s challenges

Courage required to meet Europe’s challenges


Not far from my Brussels office, there is a large fresco with the inscription, “The Future Is Europe.” Once a deeply held truth among most Europeans, this belief is being increasingly challenged today.

Of course, pessimism comes easy nowadays. While the damaging effects of climate change are playing out before our eyes, the US’ choice of unilateralism, the rise of China, and escalating geopolitical tensions elsewhere are posing new challenges to European prosperity and security.

Yet this is not the time for defeatism. Now more than ever, we Europeans need collective action in defense of our values and a rules-based international order. This could be Europe’s moment, based on a more robust and decisive EU, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently called for. To achieve this, Europeans will have to come together to tackle the challenges to our sovereignty, and to ensure responsive governance. That means asserting both national and European sovereignty in trade, defense, and the digital sector, lest China and the US end up imposing their own rules on us. And it means bringing national governments and EU institutions closer to European citizens. As Brexit and the “Yellow Vest” protests have shown, the fault lines cutting across European societies can no longer be ignored.

To seize the moment in 2019, European leaders should focus on four key priorities. The first is to build a “Green Europe.” A comprehensive response to the climate challenge should use all available policy levers, from supporting green finance to reducing waste and discouraging planned obsolescence on the part of producers. Europe could be the global leader in developing a circular economy, and in becoming the first fully electric continent by 2030 based on clean transport and electric vehicles.

Meeting Europe’s challenges will require political courage at both the national and EU levels.

Michel Barnier


The second priority is to build an economy that serves everyone. As matters stand, there are still around 17 million unemployed people in Europe, including 35 percent or more of young people in Italy, Greece, and Spain. With incomes in many EU member states failing to catch up with the EU average, economic convergence has stalled.

In a world of increasing geo-economic competition, we must consolidate our foundations if we are to preserve our social market model. That means deepening the single market and ensuring that there are no double standards in how citizens and companies across the EU are treated. Beyond that, we must further strengthen the European Monetary Union, bolster the international role of the euro, and direct massive shared investments toward strategic technologies, particularly in the digital sector.

Managing globalization means that nobody should be left behind without economic opportunities or access to public services.

The third priority is to control our borders and deal with the challenges of migration. Our response cannot be based on fears and myths, but nor can we ignore national debates and identities. We should focus on the mechanisms that actually work. In addition to consolidating the EU’s Frontex border management system and creating common hotspots at our external borders and beyond, we must also harmonize national-level migration and asylum policies as much as possible.

Equally important, we need to reinforce solidarity mechanisms and compensate member states that are relatively more exposed to the effects of migration or do more than others. And we must work with our partners outside the EU, not least by developing a comprehensive partnership with Africa on economic development and managed migration.

Last but not least, Europe can no longer afford to outsource its security. All told, Europe is second only to the US in terms of defense spending. But our investments are piecemeal. For example, we produce 17 different models of tank, whereas the US relies primarily on just one. This kind of military duplication costs Europe €20 billion ($23 billion) per year.

Nobody will do for us what we will not do for ourselves. Fortunately, under the leadership of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, we have already made progress toward jointly producing equipment and technologies through the European Defense Fund, ending the competition between the EU and NATO, and stimulating cooperation among national defense industries. We must build on these initiatives and go further by reinforcing our crisis management tools and developing a common strategic culture based on joint forces and pooled national capabilities.

Meeting Europe’s challenges will require political courage at both the national and EU levels. But it will also require transparency, debates on the ground (and not just in capital cities), effective and accountable leadership, and new ways of engaging citizens. Only then will people truly believe that Europe is the future, not just wishful thinking.

• Michel Barnier is a former vice president of the European Commission and French Minister of Foreign Affairs. He is currently EU chief negotiator for Brexit. 

© Project Syndicate

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