Rebuilding Trust in the European Union

Faced with challenges posed by Brexit, an unprecedented influx of migrants, and feeble economies, the European Union must work hard to rebuild confidence among European publics, Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák said at the Atlantic Council on October 6.

“Our main focus now is bringing the European Union closer to Europeans,” said Lajčák. Slovakia holds the rotating presidency of the European Union.

“We need to restore confidence and show that the Union works and makes the lives of ordinary people safer and better,” he added.

Lajčák delivered the keynote address at the Atlantic Council’s conference: “Stronger with Allies: The Future of Europe After Brexit.” He acknowledged that “times are obviously not easy, but Europe must and will find strength to overcome these challenges.”

Rebuilding public trust was high on the agenda at the EU summit in Bratislava, Slovakia, in September. The summit demonstrated the commitment to building a Europe that is “strong, stable, and competitive,” said Lajčák. However, it is important to offer the right solutions to the problems, and “invest more into preventions and tackling the root causes,” he added.


Defending Europe

Defense spending has been a sore topic among NATO allies. In the United States, Donald Trump, the Republican Party’s presidential nominee, has complained that the United States’ European allies in NATO are “not paying their fair share” for defense. The United States is one of five nations in the twenty-eight-nation bloc that actually meets the recommendation to spend 2 percent of its GDP on defense.

In the context of such concerns, Lajčák said Europe is uncertain about a US commitment to the Continent. “We have long considered [this commitment] guaranteed, but we are no longer so sure,” he said.

These concerns could “undermine” European resolve to face common challenges and make it less likely that further European integration will “preserve complementarity” with NATO.

“It might be hard to make the case for complementarity if our biggest and strongest ally shows less interest in the Alliance,” he added.

‘Balancing growth and fiscal responsibility’

Besides defense spending, there is also concern about Europe’s fiscal growth rules, said Pierre Moscovici, the commissioner for economic and financial affairs, taxation and customs for the European Commission.

Moscovici described such concerns as legitimate and mirrored in Europe, where many countries consider augmenting growth to be a top priority. “[B]alancing growth and fiscal responsibility today in Europe is a challenge, but not one we are shying from,” he said. The positions taken in Bratislava constituted a recommitment to the European project in favor of a fiscal stance and stronger governance of the Eurozone, he added.

Moscovici emphasized the need for flexibility within the Stability and Growth Pact, rules designed to ensure that EU member states pursue sound public finances and coordinate their fiscal policies.

Governments, he said, need to consider expenditures to account for challenges such as the migrant crisis or a terrorist attack, while also paying attention to job creation.

A matter of opinion

Emphasizing the need for political elites to account for public opinion while shaping domestic and foreign policy, Bruce Stokes, the director of global economic attitudes at Pew Research Center, presented data from Pew’s polling in Europe to help ground policy decisions in public opinion.

The survey touched on populist issues. “What happens in the voting booth could upset the grand scheme of transatlantic elites” more than was previously believed possible, said Stokes.

Polling shows support for the EU has dropped since 2015, and dissatisfaction largely correlates to the EU’s handling of the economy and the migrant crisis, as well as the centralization of power in Brussels.

On October 2, voters in Hungary rejected the migrant quotas set by the EU for its member states. Pew’s polling shows that in countries such as Hungary, Greece, and Poland, nativist sentiments tend to align with populist movements.

Meanwhile, Brexit—the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union—appears symptomatic of greater rifts within the EU, according to Ashlee Godwin, a specialist on the foreign affairs committee in the UK House of Commons.

“The problem with in/out, yes/no votes, you get a single answer, but it hides an absolute multitude of motivations,” said Godwin. She said Britons had multiple motivations for wanting to leave the EU, largely tied to a desire for greater social and economic security.

Godwin joined Paula Dobriansky, a senior fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University; Rasislav Káčer, Slovakia’s ambassador to Hungary; and Benjamin Haddad, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute, to discuss the challenges facing Europe as well as the need for public engagement and strong leadership. Laure Mandeville, a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative, moderated the discussion.

According to Haddad, there are striking similarities between the debates in the United States and Europe. The US presidential rhetoric, for example, has been dominated by questions on globalization, border control, national identity, and multiculturalism, said Haddad, the same issues challenging European policymakers. “The challenge for pro-European liberals is not to be afraid of these issues, but to reclaim them,” he added.

Dobriansky, who also serves on the Atlantic Council’s board, said the way institutions handle these challenges needs to be modified.

“In many countries in Europe, the political structure and political parties are starting to reorganize themselves according to this,” said Haddad.

According to Dobriansky, the need to address these concerns, in both the United States and Europe, is an issue of moral leadership. Asserting the importance of institutions and alliances, namely the EU, she said: “There has to be a political desire for activism, unity of purpose, and strength in numbers. There has to be…an articulation of the very values that united and brought us forward.” Dobriansky said defenders of the EU model in Europe need leaders to step up and address the issues that matter to the people.

“Leadership matters and I don’t think we’re seeing a clear articulation of what we’re about, what we’ve been about, and how you bring people in,” said Dobriansky. However, Godwin asserted, “if we’re going to have that moral leadership, we need first to listen.”

The Russia challenge

The need for communication between policymakers and the public has become more pressing in light of Russia’s misinformation campaign throughout Europe, which Káčer called the “merchandise of doubt.”

Amidst the challenges threatening the unity of the EU, “[Russian President] Vladimir Putin is portraying himself as the rampart of the Christian West and moral values,” said Godwin.

Káčer described how, as demonstrated by Hungary’s referendum and Serbia’s proposal to further tighten border security, Europeans have strong national ties and view outsiders as a threat. Consequently, he claimed, people are drawn to Putin and his claims that he can protect against unwanted change.

Godwin asserted that, in the wake of Brexit, Russian soft power appears to be a symptom, rather than a cause of rising populism. However, she added, it is a threat to be taken seriously.

“There’s the question of populism and some of the domestic policies,” said Dobriansky. “At the same time there’s also the challenges going on that are more broad-based, more strategic coming from Moscow because they’re exploiting the situation.”

The threat from the east is demonstrative of the need to focus on necessary change based on unity of purpose. “People are dissatisfied in Europe with the broader institutions. Looking at our alliances…there are issues that matter greatly today and that we need to be united on,” said Dobriansky.

Lajčák asserted in his opening remarks: “I hope the European Union will come out of these times stronger and better once again, because we do not have any better alternative.”

Rachel Ansley is an editorial assistant at the Atlantic Council.


Image: “Our main focus now is bringing the European Union closer to Europeans,” Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák said at the Atlantic Council on October 6. Slovakia currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union. (Atlantic Council/Victoria Langton)