The European Union needs a new vision – and a leader.
Solving the economic crisis no longer holds the centre stage in EU decision-making; room has been made for new beginnings to old debates.
“One recurring theme is the Common Security and Defence Policy which is one of the main topics of the European Council meeting in December,” says Professor Hanna Ojanen, Director of the Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence on European Politics and European-Russian Relations at the University of Tampere.
Ojanen believes that the difficult question of the EU Battlegroups will return to the agenda.
“The EU Battlegroups were founded several years ago but they are yet to see military action. It is quite justified to ask why the EU should continue to maintain these forces. Perhaps someone somewhere already has an answer to this question,” Ojanen says.
Another big issue in defence policy is regional cooperation, a well-known topic in Finland thanks to Nordic cooperation. Boosting the European defence industry will also be discussed in the Council meeting.
“The member states want to improve the competitiveness of the European defence industry. They are also looking for more cooperation with which they hope to achieve economies of scale.”
Professor Hanna Ojanen’s research topics include defence policy and the external relations of the European Union. She is currently investigating and writing a book about the power relations between the European Union, NATO and the United Nations.
A Union without a leader
This could be the time for new openings in the EU, but so far no one has been willing to step up to the plate.
“We easily forget that the EU is able to function regardless of the economic crisis. It has resources and a decision-making apparatus that can be put to use to achieve all sorts of things.”
However, Ojanen thinks that the fact that the EU is able to work is not visible to the citizens of Europe, or, at the very least, the Union is unable to convey such a message. It is also possible that the EU lacks vision.
“The leader’s position is now open on several issues,” Ojanen says.
“But no one country, not even Germany, is able to make progress all by itself.”
It is more important than ever for member states to find cooperation partners. This demands a new kind of culture from Finland, too, and this culture is gradually developing.
“Finland is at its most efficient when it acts together with the other countries.”
Ojanen says that Sweden is a good example of efficient cooperation.
“Sweden has launched initiatives with Poland, for example, and its image is that of a dynamic country in control of the game. Finland could act in that way, too.”
Intensified cooperation, no enlargement
There is a hiatus in the enlargement of the EU as there are no eager countries willing to follow in the footsteps of Croatia, the last country to join. On the other hand, the European Union has also found that continuous enlargement is hard work.
“Icelanders have started to back away from the idea of joining the EU and it is difficult to take concrete steps forward with Turkey,” Ojanen says.
Ojanen thinks that enlargement has always been the motor that has kept the European Union going.
“I think that the appeal of the EU is waning for the first time in history. That could be bad news for the whole Union.”
Instead, the integration of the EU has deepened as economic policy measures in particular have intensified. There is now talk about a banking union, and regulations are being drafted that would enable the EU to monitor the budgets of its member states.
“Not long ago, this kind of control would have been totally unheard of.”
Economic problems have not disappeared
The economic crisis is still here, even if it is not as acute as it used to be.
Nevertheless, ordinary people in southern Europe continue to have a hard time. The crisis could also strike anew from an unexpected angle.
“Even if we were to happily declare that the worst is over, personal recovery for the ordinary people who found themselves in the eye of the storm will still take a long time. For example, it is not so easy to find a new job or a new home,” Ojanen says.
On the other hand, Ojanen believes that some good will come to the Union from sorting out the difficult issues. Because of the crisis, all actors in the European Union have had to get to know each other.
“The institutions and decision-makers of the European Union have had to try to understand what has been going on in the member states and to judge whether they have been given correct information,” Ojanen says.
At times, the public debate has been fierce as citizens from northern Europe have blamed the people in the south, and vice versa. The crisis has at least made people talk, and Ojanen observes that there is a new awareness of what life is like in the different parts of the Union.
“We must have this awareness if we really want to have a Union in which we can solve problems together.”
Critics are expected to win the European Parliament elections
Possibly the most interesting European Parliament elections ever will be held next May. Euroscepticism has gained ground in many member states, and, some predict that a very critical European Parliament will be elected.
“The status of the Parliament has strengthened and, unlike about ten years ago, it really is doing a significant job now,” says Ojanen.
“It will be interesting to see what follows from a eurosceptic Parliament. Will it mean greater changes to European Union policies?”
The fact that the eurosceptics are gaining ground could lead to the counter effect of rallying supporters of the EU, as they are now fully aware that they may lose the elections. This in turn could raise the voter turnout, which is always low in European Parliament elections.
In Finland, European Union issues also became visible in the last municipal and general elections.
“The elections to the European Parliament have never interested people very much. Perhaps the heightened debate will lead to an increase in the voter turnout.”
Text: Tiina Lankinen
Photograph: Jonne Renvall
Translation: Laura Tohka