EU needs leadership that 'inspires trust' and 'promotes prosperity'

The EU is also losing the hearts and minds of its citizens through a combination of legislating in too many areas that could be left to the national level and by a failure to explain or justify its continued EU needs leadership that ‘inspires trust’ and 'promotes prosperity'.

By Guy Verhofstadt

15 Apr 2014

Ever since the financial crisis broke out following the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 and the scale of the Greek debt burden became apparent the following year, European leaders have failed to grasp the urgency of the situation. They must recognise the need for a clear, decisive and united response to restore market confidence, stabilise the banks and repair the broken transmission between central bank lending to national banking institutions and then onto the real economy. Conservative and socialist governments, in power in 90 per cent of EU countries must share equal blame for this failure to act and for prolonging the crisis.

We are now slowly emerging from the most dangerous moments of the crisis, but we are not yet out of the woods and the half-hearted measures to establish a common bank resolution mechanism and fund remain too small to cope with more than a moderately-sized bank insolvency. The first priority of the next commission must be to strengthen these measures and table broader proposals for economic governance that were already outlined over a year ago in a blueprint for economic governance.

"Since the beginning of the crisis, I have been calling for a twin-track approach - fiscal discipline coupled with a vision for investment in economic growth through the EU"

Austerity alone would destroy any hope of growth in the medium-term, while increasing the level of debt would send us straight back to where we were at the start of the crisis by burdening member states with insurmountable debts that require servicing by international bondholders at exorbitant interest rates. Since the beginning of the crisis, I have been calling for a twin-track approach - fiscal discipline coupled with a vision for investment in economic growth through the EU. Fiscal discipline cannot be avoided, but it must be seen in conjunction with a plan for growth. The EU should be seen as the vehicle for generating some of that growth potential by completing the internal market in digital services, rolling out high speed broadband, building an integrated energy infrastructure and reducing our dependence on Russia.

Third, we must finally put in place a Europe-wide migration policy that was first announced at an EU summit in Tampere, Finland, in 1999. A decade and a half later, we still do not have an active EU migration policy like that of the US, Canada or Australia. The EU currently has four million job vacancies, yet we also have youth unemployment levels in excess of 50 per cent in Greece and Spain. The EU should be encouraging labour mobility, more than it is to fill the skills gaps where they arise. Where this is not possible via other EU nationals, the EU should actively seek skilled non-EU labour. Only when we have a policy for legal migration can we seriously tackle the problem of illegal migration.

The EU is also losing the hearts and minds of its citizens through a combination of legislating in too many areas that could be left to the national level and by a failure to explain or justify its continued raison d'être to all those born after the second world war and for whom it is but a distant memory and insufficient reason to justify closer integration.

"We want a Europe with authority on the world stage, a Europe that boosts the economy and creates jobs, a Europe that is more transparent and accountable"

What is at stake is a reform of the EU to make it stronger, simpler and more democratic. We need to give it the tools to tackle global challenges, such as the economic crisis, global warming and international terrorism, yet resist the temptation to solve every hiccup in the working of the internal market. We need to give it the instruments to play a decisive role in our own backyard, from Belarus to Ukraine and even further afield.

European Liberals and Democrats are committed to building a stronger Europe to defend our common interests and stand up for our values. We want a Europe with authority on the world stage, a Europe that boosts the economy and creates jobs, a Europe that is more transparent and accountable, a Europe that protects the safety and security of its citizens, a Europe of tolerance and equality, with strong civil rights and liberties, a Europe that takes the lead in fighting climate change. We want a Europe that inspires trust, not fear and one which promotes prosperity and unity, not division.

Some member states are openly calling for a renegotiation of their membership, while others wish to reconsider the transfer of competences to EU institutions. We should not shy away from this debate, but it should be a common undertaking. That is why we need to rethink the treaties soon after the elections, to reform the EU, to give it the legal competences to strengthen economic governance, democratic legitimacy and accountability.

Populists always gain ground in times of economic recession. They are quick to criticise but have no plausible answers of their own for responding to the challenges of globalisation, climate change or migration. It is easy to blame foreigners or the common currency for economic ills and deny that our climate is changing, but the truth is different. Years of neglect and poor economic management by national governments have brought us to where we are. The euro, for all its structural faults, has survived intact and provided strength in numbers.

Parts of the populist media and some politicians are also responsible for stoking peoples' fears and spreading myths and falsehoods about the EU which naturally serve to alienate people and push them towards more sceptic or even extremist parties on the far right and far left. Politicians must stand up and be prepared to accept their share of responsibility for the crisis and not look to the EU as the mother of all scapegoats. If we don't speak out and act to save our union, it will slowly disintegrate before our eyes.

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