President of the European Economic and Social Committee
Secretary-General of the European Economic and Social Committee
Falling public support for an ever more necessary EU requires full use of the Lisbon treaty.
In December 2001, the EU's leaders agreed among themselves at Laeken that the EU was dangerously out of touch with its citizens. In their final declaration they declared that the gap had to be bridged, and fast.
It took eight long years and setbacks in referendums in France, the Netherlands and Ireland before these intentions were turned into the Lisbon treaty, finally implemented last December. But that dangerous gap between Europe's leaders and its citizens is still there and in many member states is even widening. A Eurobarometer poll of public opinion in May (published in August) shows that support among Europeans for membership of the EU has fallen to 49% – four points lower than last autumn and close to the lowest levels recorded in the past decade. The proportion of Europeans who consider their country's membership a bad thing now stands at 18% – up from 15% in autumn 2009.
And yet Europe's citizens badly need more, not less, ‘Europe'. Many of the challenges that Europe faces today – from climate change through to the economic and financial crisis – require a continent-wide response, at the very least. In a world where the economic powerhouses of Brazil, India, Russia and China loom ever larger, it is an illusion to imagine that anything other than a concerted approach will enable Europe to keep its head above water. So declining popular support for the European project is a paradox; we need Europe, but we do not want it.
And the paradox cuts both ways. Take, for example, the EU's much vaunted 2000-10 strategy for growth and jobs (the Lisbon Strategy), which was designed to be Europe's response to the challenges of globalisation and had the aim of turning Europe into the world's most competitive economy. While the strategy was by no means an abject failure, it is clear that we did not live up to our ambitions. Clearly, the financial crisis did not help, but one of the reasons for falling short was surely that we did not sufficiently involve and motivate the people and organisations – businesses, trades unions, small and medium-sized enterprises, and so on – that should have been both an integral part of the strategy and enthusiastic supporters of it.
The EU has now revised and renewed its overall strategic response to globalisation. Adopted by Europe's leaders in June, Europe 2020 is, as they declared, a “strategy for jobs and smart, sustainable and inclusive growth” and a “coherent framework for the Union to mobilise all of its instruments and policies, and for the member states to take enhanced co-ordinated action”.
It is vitally important. Over the past two years we have faced the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, leaving millions unemployed. At present, one in ten is unemployed within the EU. Much of the progress made since 2000 has been reversed and we will have to live with a burden of debt for many years.
Working together, we can overcome these challenges and meet globalisation head-on. Europe 2020 is a 21st century vision of Europe's social market economy. But we cannot make a success of it unless we involve those whom the strategy is designed to serve. In his ‘State of the Union' address to the European Parliament on 7 September, José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, declared “everything we do is for the citizens of Europe”. But do Europe's citizens know that?
Despite all the efforts made by the Commission and the other institutions, the Eurobarometer poll suggests that they do not. Now, more than ever, we need to bridge the yawning gap between our policies and popular support.
Fortunately, the Lisbon treaty has provided the EU with new tools as well as sharpening existing ones.
First and foremost, the European Parliament's role and powers have been considerably strengthened.
Secondly, national parliaments have been given an explicit role to play. Granting increased oversight and legislative powers to Europe's directly elected representatives will strengthen popular understanding among Europe's voters.
Thirdly, Europe's citizens have now been granted an innovatory and direct power: if the signatures of a million citizens can be collected then European citizens can ask the Commission to consider taking legislative action. The implementing legislation for this provision will very soon be in place and it will be interesting to see the first ‘citizens' initiatives' and how the EU responds to them.
Fourthly, the treaty provides that EU institutions should give citizens and representative associations “the opportunity to make known and publicly exchange their views in all areas of Union action”.
Last but not least, the treaty imposes an obligation on all EU institutions to maintain “an open, transparent and regular dialogue with representative associations and civil society”, while the Commission is urged to carry out “broad consultations” to ensure that the EU's actions are coherent and transparent.
What the treaty's draftsmen seem to be saying is that in something as complex as the EU, with so many different cultures and so many different layers of governance, representative democracy, though vital, must be complemented and flanked by other forms of democracy; direct (the citizens' initiative) and participatory (structured dialogue with civil society).
If we do all of this, then we will go a long way towards bridging the gap that Europe's leaders identified in Laeken in 2001. We must enable our citizens to grasp for themselves the importance of Europe 2020. Stakeholders must be involved at a local, regional and national level and civil-society organisations of every sort must be given a sense of ownership.
Europe 2020 is the best guarantee of Europe's future, but it will only work if Europe's citizens understand that.