Home / Opinion / Tony Blair | A manifesto for European change

Interpreting election results, especially when turnout is not high, is always a risky business. And, in the case of the recent European Parliament election, the results were not uniform. The most spectacular result was in Italy, where a pro-reform, pro-Europe party led by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi won more than 40% of the vote. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats won in Germany and there was a strong vote for the Social Democrats there also. In some cases, the vote simply tracked domestic politics.

But the victories of the United Kingdom Independence Party and the National Front in France and the success of anti-status quo parties across the continent cannot be ignored. They point to a deep anxiety, distrust, and alienation from Europe’s core philosophy.

So now EU must think carefully about where it goes from here, how it reconnects with its citizens’ concerns, and how it can better realize its ideals in a changing world. Complacency about the far right’s showing, on the grounds that there remains a pro-European majority, is dangerous. Even ardent supporters of Europe think there must be change.

Many factors have combined to increase the number and complexity of challenges facing Europe, along with uncertainty and unpredictability about Europe’s ability to meet them. There has been the vast ambition of the single currency, with its intrinsic design flaws; the agony of the financial crisis and its aftermath; and the link between the two in the sovereign debt crisis. There has also been EU’s enlargement from 15 member states to 28, in a decade of rapid change in technology, trade, and geopolitics.

Within the euro zone, EU suddenly went from being merely important to determining bluntly countries’ future budgets and other economic policies. Indeed, given the pain of expenditure cuts without the flexibility of exchange-rate adjustment, the surprise is that the outcry hasn’t been greater.

In a multi-polar world, in which GDP and population will increasingly be correlated, the rationale for Europe is stronger than ever. Together, Europe’s peoples can wield genuine influence. Alone, they will over time decline in relative importance. The 21st century world order will be dramatically different from that of the 20th century. The rationale for Europe today is not peace but power.

If we are to realize EU’s potential, and avoid a retreat by Britain to its sidelines, the balance between EU and its member states will have to be re-addressed from first principles, with European institutions redesigned to make them truly more accountable and closer to those that they govern.

Understandably, fragile national governments struggling against economic malaise have no desire at the moment for such a root-and-branch debate. So we must distinguish between long-term and immediate action. The immediate challenge is to obtain the most change possible within the existing framework of European institutions and treaties. Meeting it requires a new approach.

The new approach should begin with the European Council asserting its responsibility to give Europe direction by setting a clear, focused, and convincing platform of change that connects with European citizens’ concerns and transforms the view of what Europe can actively, not reactively, achieve. The Council must match EU’s policy ambitions with a set of proposals to realize them, and then task the incoming European Commission in specific terms with implementing the platform.

The European Parliament will have to debate the necessary measures and legislate accordingly. Here, the Council and the Commission must work in unison, adopting a method of engagement with Parliament that does not leave individual Commissioners swinging in the wind when they come under attack.

The agenda for reform should address the overarching issues that EU’s member states are unable to advance in their interests. Within the euro zone, this means an explicit arrangement by which, in exchange for member states’ continuation and deepening of structural reform, there will be greater fiscal flexibility and monetary-policy action to allow stronger growth and avoid deflation.

For the Union as a whole, progress on consolidating the single market is needed, especially in the service sector; and policymakers should push for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Moreover, the best ideas concerning infrastructure and a European jobs programme should be incorporated into the agenda for change.

Likewise, energy policy is vital, not only for Europe’s competitiveness, but also as a result of events in Eastern Europe and Ukraine. EU has never pursued a common energy policy with the vigour that it requires; yet its impact would be transformative. A common energy policy and integrated energy markets would reduce Europe’s dependence on foreign supplies. Finally, if Europe wants to exercise power commensurate with its economic weight, it must have the capacity to play its part both in military operations and security-sector building in potential partners emerging from turmoil or conflict.

I want to be clear about what I mean about this reform agenda for Europe. I do not mean the normal Council conclusions put together at the last minute of a packed and routine meeting. I mean a proper and precise programme—call it a manifesto for change—that tells the Commission exactly what it is supposed to do and gives the Commissioners the support they need to do it. ©2014/PROJECT SYNDICATE

Tony Blair, prime minister of the UK from 1997 to 2007, is special envoy for the Middle East Quartet.

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