Editorial, The New York Times, 02.07.2016
Far-right politicians in Britain, France and other European countries blame the European Union for all the real and perceived problems of their countries. Many of their arguments are wildly off base, but there is also good evidence that the union urgently needs reform.
The complaints against the E.U. are somewhat different in each of its 28 member nations, but they reflect similar frustrations. Many Britons voted to leave the union because they wanted to restrict immigration from other European countries and to get rid of E.U. regulations. The Five Star Movement in Italy wants the country to leave the euro currency and return to the lira to revive a weak economy. And the French nationalist politician Marine Le Pen said in March that the E.U. was “the death of our economy, our social welfare system and our identity.”
Ms. Le Pen and her ilk have found a receptive audience for their nativist and isolationist views because many people have lost faith that the E.U. and its officials can deliver the stability and prosperity that was the purpose of the European project. In recent years, the failure to find a unified response to the flow of refugees from Syria, Africa and elsewhere has further damaged the E.U.’s reputation. Whether or not Britain ultimately leaves the union, it is now up to leaders like Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, President François Hollande of France and Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy to reform the E.U. or watch its credibility and effectiveness drain away further.
One of the most basic critiques of the union is that it is not democratic. This is an exaggeration, but it includes a kernel of truth. Of the E.U.’s three main institutions, the most powerful is the European Council, which is made up of 28 national governments. Its decisions, which are subject to political compromise, rarely reflect the pure preferences of the people of any of its member nations.
Then there is the European Commission, which negotiates trade agreements, enforces antitrust rules and proposes legislation. Voters do not directly elect the commission’s president; instead, the president is selected by the European Parliament. While voters in every member nation do elect the 751-member Parliament, its members cannot introduce legislation and have limited control over the union’s budget. As a result, the Parliament is weak and doesn’t actually dictate the union’s direction.
Reforms to this opaque structure could include making the Parliament more central in decision-making. Another improvement would be to let Europeans directly elect the president of the commission, which would make that office more accountable to the union’s citizens.
Though nationalists are sure to rail against greater European unity, addressing Europe’s big challenges — like the refugee crisis — will require just that. The E.U.’s current leadership made that crisis worse by leaving Italy and Greece to handle it on their own with little assistance. And the E.U. policy requiring refugees to seek asylum in the country where they first arrive has created further disruptions by encouraging people to travel across the continent in an effort to get to the country of their choice.
Recently, the union agreed to create a long overdue European border and coast guard operation, which will help manage migration and security. Officials need to go further by centralizing the registration and screening of refugees and resettling them based on the capacity of countries to accept them. This means that E.U. members will have to share more resources and intelligence.
Another big challenge is Europe’s weakened economy, now made even more unstable by the uncertainty surrounding Britain’s departure. Some countries, like Greece and Spain, have suffered such a steep decline in living standards that a full recovery could take decades. Even in better-off countries, like France and Italy, unemployment rates are still above their pre-financial-crisis levels. In Britain, which does not use the euro and where the government has done more to revive the economy, median wages surpassed their precrisis level only last year.
The E.U. could strengthen the European economy by restructuring the debt of weaker countries. It could increase public spending to stimulate private investment and boost consumer demand. Another important idea, creating a European deposit insurance system to protect savers, was proposed years ago but has not yet happened.
From its earliest days, European integration was built on the idea that it would guarantee peace and, with a single market, ensure greater prosperity across the continent. In many ways, it has achieved those goals. But it is alarming that Brexit and its fallout have emboldened those who seek to dissolve this union.