© 2019 SCER
The Scottish Centre on European Relations, in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation UK and Ireland, and the University of Glasgow held two events in Glasgow on Europe Day, 9 May 2019. These events focused on the key issues and challenges concerning the future of Europe – and brought together German and Scottish experts to consider and debate EU, German and Scottish strategies and interests. SCER also launched its new Future of Europe report at the events.
The first event was a high level policy roundtable held under the Chatham House rule. It brought together an expert audience from a range of backgrounds including academics, think tanks, NGOs, business, government officials and diplomats. There were two panels. The first panel addressed the questions of ‘Democracy, Integration and Fragmentation’, while the second panel focused on ‘The Future of Europe in an Era of Change: Economy, Identity and Geopolitics’. The second, public event heard from a panel of four speakers, followed by discussion and Q&A, and focused on Scottish and German interests and strategies in the Future of Europe.
Key Challenges and Issues
There was a wide-ranging discussion throughout both events of the range of issues and challenges that faces the European Union today as it goes into a new five year cycle with a new European Parliament and, by the autumn, new presidents of the European Commission and European Council. There were both many concerns and many ideas for positive and constructive routes ahead for the European Union.
Amongst the biggest issues identified were developing an effective and appropriate EU migration policy, rule of law questions and the growth of support for populism in some member states within the Union. Other major issues included reform of the eurozone, inequality and social cohesion, industrial strategy and innovation, and the continuing challenge of Brexit.
It was recognised that in some areas, including responding to migration and refugee flows, there had not been enough solidarity across the EU. Furthermore, human rights and legal issues came up in how the EU had attempted (and was still trying) to forge an effective common migration and asylum policy. Agreements with Turkey and Libya did not look in line with the EU’s commitments to human rights or international law potentially. Nor did the EU need to build a fortress Europe, not least at a time when demographics suggested a more open migration policy should be considered.
There were also concerns that, for some with a populist agenda, the tradition of compromise at European level was becoming weaker. The EU’s toolbox for tackling rule of law issues – notably given concerns at government actions in some areas in Hungary and Poland – were not sufficient and needed further development. The EU had to defend and stand up for its own values and human rights internally if it was to promote these values internationally at a time when global power shifts and instability were raising major questions and challenges.
The need to ensure the EU and its member states become more inclusive, tackle inequality and find ways to have a genuine two-way dialogue and debate with EU citizens was also emphasised together with questions of learning to understand more how EU and European identity is for most citizens one of multiple identities. A top-down EU communication strategy was no longer relevant, if it had ever been. New, shared narratives were needed as well as a genuine role for civil society in shaping not just debating policy. As part of this, it was important to recognise how younger people, in particular, see themselves as global citizens not only European citizens.
A part of the discussion considered whether flexible integration and differentiation could provide a way forward for the EU if there was not complete agreement in particular policy areas. The idea of an avant garde or concentric circles is not a new one in EU debates and could be part of creative strategic thinking – as long as it created dynamism and a strategic path ahead which others could follow rather than being a tool to muddle through or a path that risked increasing fragmentation.
Eurozone reform was discussed at some length. The need for a more centralised fiscal function was thought, by some, to be vital to ensure flexibility in the face of any future crises. But this was politically difficult at EU level and across and within different member states. There was also a range of views of how the Franco-German relationship was currently functioning which was also vital for any further eurozone reform. Some were concerned that there were substantial differences between France and Germany and that the relationship was relatively weak at the moment. Others pointed to the recent joint Franco-German initiative on developing a 21st century industrial strategy as an example of positive momentum.
Smaller states were also forming new alliances within the EU. The Hanseatic league is one particular example of this, formed in part in response to the debates within the eurozone but also with the UK’s intended departure from the EU meaning those emphasising a more neo-liberal, free market approach had lost one ally.
Looking outwards to global challenges, the EU’s common foreign and security policy was seen as having strengths and weaknesses. The requirement for unanimity has made it difficult to develop a strong CFSP, especially at a time when there is considerable diversity across member states on how to deal with some of the big global players – notably the US, China and Russia. However, when the EU did come together on a common policy – as it had done on Iran – it was seen to be effective. However, if Brexit did go ahead, the EU would need to reconsider its defence policies and look at how to forge a positive relationship between the UK and EU on defence and security issues. Climate change is another central issue where the EU needs to find an ambitious, common policy if it is to influence global developments but where it currently is not, some thought, ambitious or cohesive enough.
Germany and Scotland were seen as having many interests in common including on protecting and developing the EU’s single market, developing a more effective EU climate change strategy and a 21st century industrial strategy and ensuring the EU defended and promoted human rights. While Scotland, within the UK, was not in the Schengen zone and had not therefore taken in large numbers of asylum-seekers, the Scottish government had been doing its best both to provide political leadership on why migration was important and beneficial to Scotland and looking to implement best practice on integrating migrants. Germany, since 2015, has accepted large numbers of migrants and asylum-seekers with considerable experience of integration. Unlike the rest of the UK (and the majority vote for Brexit in England and Wales), right wing populism was not an obvious problem in Scotland. And in Germany (as subsequently shown by the results of the European elections) the eurosceptic AfD party, despite gaining significant votes, did not make a breakthrough as expected in those elections.
There was also some discussion of the idea of citizens’ assemblies which allow a representative group of citizens to take evidence on key policies and strategies and recommend a route ahead. This can be a more powerful way to engage with civil society than simple policy debates. There was support for potentially using citizens’ assemblies in member states and at EU level to create a more open, innovative policy development process and debate.
Overall, these two events provided a lively, wide-ranging as well as in-depth discussion of many of the biggest EU issues of the day. There was full recognition of the challenges but also much positive thinking about what the EU was getting right and how it could move ahead successfully and strategically.
The panel discussion at The Lighthouse is pictured above