The eve of 2014 witnessed crucial changes in the European leadership – preceded by the European elections in May, on 1 November Jean-Claude Juncker’s Commission took office, followed by the election of the new President of the Council, Donald Tusk. The top EU leaders took their formal oath facing many challenges for the European project, overwhelmed by the question how to revive the European spirit.
The crisis of trust and confidence in the European Union was painfully exposed during the European Elections 2014, with a striking shortage of young voters from which 72% decided to abstain, as revealed by the post-election survey conducted by the European Parliament. The electorate has ceased to believe that the Institutions can solve the concerns and real needs of European citizens, who keep striving for social and economic reconstruction of the EU. The challenges the new Commission and the entire EU are facing in the decisive year 2015 will determine the public vote of confidence for the whole College of Commissioners in this legislature. The faith of citizens’ in the European project can only be restored, if Juncker’s team manages to embrace the momentum to overcome the current state of economic crisis and launch a new period of growth, innovation and job creation.
The union of 2015 must be a union more relevant for its citizens. This goal can only be achieved through an active enhancement of the dialogue with civil society, whose role still remains underestimated. The civic voice should be included in the political debate by talking in a common language and coming back to the core European values. More emphasis, funds and appreciation for civil society is urgently needed, so that it can play an active role in the formation of European reality. Civil society is not an anonymous mass, as a majority of politicians tends to think, but diverse groups whose needs have to be addressed respectively. The strong concern of citizens for sustainable policies must be heard and responded to with courage and vision.
Solidarity is key
The priority of the Juncker-Commission is to address the economic standstill Europe has been facing since 2007. Jean-Claude Juncker’s investment plan, announced in late November, stands for €315bn to restart and kickstart the economy. The project was met with a wave of criticism, stating that the Eurozone needs real investment, not yet another austerity measures and relocation of funds. Indeed, the allocated resources might not suffice to raise Europe from its knees. The European Union and its Member States cannot miss the opportunity and thus should respond with a well designed, mission-oriented public investment, creating markets in health, energy and climate.
Citizens’ will only accept the European Union as their union, if it is more than a single market for goods and capital. Europe has to be visible and active in tackling the concerns and problems Europeans are facing in their daily life. Member States have to move beyond a pure rhetoric of solidarity and show that Europe is indeed a common civic, political and economic area, where burdens are shared and challenges are met collectively as much as successes are enjoyed and celebrated together. No country in Europe can shine if it’s dark around it. The Eurozone urgently needs an instrument to counter macro-economic imbalances and to mitigate the social effects of structural reforms. A common European unemployment scheme is a promising approach in this regard: it would provide economic assistance for areas hit by high unemployment and show the citizens’ the added value of the EU, since they would profit directly from EU support.
The spirit of solidarity also has to prevail through the establishment of a European asylum policy – solidarity not only between EU Member States but also with the refugees, who left everything behind and risk their lives just for the vague promise of a more secure future in Europe. Just a few days ago, the UN Refugee Agency announced that the Mediterranean Sea is now the deadliest route for refugees on earth. In 2014 already 207.000 people attempted the dangerous crossing, leaving 3419 women, man and children dead in the sea. Of course, everything has to be done to enhance the conditions in the countries of origin, but as long as numerous crisis and conflicts are raging in Europe’s neighbourhood, refugees will keep trying to reach European shores. The EU has to react with decency and a clear strategy. Refugees have to be distributed to the Member States according to their capabilities to host them and southern Member States need support in controlling the boarders, including the Mediterranean Sea, in order to fight criminal trafficking and conduct sea rescue operations.
Europe in the world
2015 is also a crucial year for Europe as a global actor. EU High Representative Federica Mogherini and the Member States need to find an answer to the deteriorating crisis in Ukraine and establish a new paradigm of relations with Russia. In this context, revitalization of the Eastern Partnerships project seems crucial taking into consideration the geopolitical landscape. More decisive steps in security and energy policy frameworks are urgently needed to safeguard the European citizens’ future for the decades to come.
EU-transatlantic relations are likely to be determined by the precedential Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership Agreement, set to be concluded at the end of the year. A successful TTIP is a promise of massive boost to the European economy, but this “transatlantic renaissance” can only be achieved as a result of transparent multi-stakeholder dialogue. Consequently, the waves of civic doubts which have arisen around the substance of the negotiation process should be addressed and taken into consideration at the negotiation table in the first place.
The EU has shown a great commitment to achieve the Millennium Development Goals in 2015. The European Year of Development 2015 will be a milestone opportunity to increase awareness of development across Europe, and to assess achievements in this field four years after the adoption of the Agenda for Change. However, a historical momentum will be marked not only at the Sustainable Development Goals summit, looking at the international accomplishments in the development policies; December 2015 will witness the Paris climate negotiations, foundations of which have been just recently set at the Lima conference for the climate package. The decisions made in Paris will determine sustainable course for the global economy, tackling climate change and solutions to the environmental issues the world is facing nowadays. Energy efficiency is one of the key matters to be addressed, in order to lead to the transition from the fossil fuel based energy system to a cleaner, more diverse and secure one.
As 2015 approaches, we look at its immense potential to become a historical European Year of Change. The question remains, if the new European leadership will embrace the momentum to reclaim Europe, bridge the democratic gap and build an innovative, economically growing and secure Union relevant for its citizens.