The EU needs a brave leader

The European Union will soon have to discipline its unruly member states.
Professor Hanna Ojanen from the University of Tampere calls for strong leadership and believes in multi-speed integration.

Last year, two major world events shocked many in the West. The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States and Britain’s decision to leave the European Union indicated that nationalism is on the rise.
These events raised concerns about the preservation of democracy and fundamental values and rights, but they have also been seen as signifying an increase in protectionism and a collapse in intergovernmental cooperation.

Trump’s key promises have been to put Americans first and to break away from several international agreements. The British voted for Brexit because those who opposed the EU succeeded in portraying it as a distant, profligate and undemocratic institution responsible for uncontrolled immigration into the country.
Shortly after the election of Trump, elections were held in three EU countries in which nationalists faced off against representatives of liberal, EU-positive values. Huge relief was felt by many when the liberals took the lead first in Austria, then in the Netherlands and lastly in France in May.

The new French President, Emmanuel Macron, has emerged as a clear opponent to Trump, while predictions suggested that if his adversary Marine Le Pen had won the election, the result could even have meant the end of the EU.

Although nationalist parties have gained power in many EU countries, it is more important for the future of the Union to look at the common development of the EU as a whole. Jean Monnet Chair Hanna Ojanen from the University of Tampere sees two crucial issues that the Union must resolve in the near future.

“There is now talk about Poland, i.e. what should be done with a member state that does not comply with the EU’s fundamental principles. It will soon be time to send them a letter saying that enough is enough and that sanctions will be imposed,” Ojanen says.

In recent years, the nationalist ruling Law and Justice party has pushed the Polish government in a direction some fear is undemocratic. A legislative reform is underway that would undermine the independence of the judiciary and, among other things, give the government the power to appoint Supreme Court judges. The reform would be contrary to the EU’s rule of law principles.

The Treaty of Lisbon defines the consequences member states must face in the case of such rule violations. According to the Treaty, Poland risks losing its voting rights, and EU subsidies could be stopped.

“It is not possible to wait indefinitely to see how the Poles will respond to the developments in their country. On the other hand, what will happen if punitive measures are actually taken? That could feed nationalism, because the government could point the finger of blame at the EU. In nationalistic populism, evil always comes from the outside,” Ojanen explains.

If Poland were to lose voting rights in the Union, it would not necessarily have any reason to remain a member.

Earlier this year, the EU initiated infringement proceedings against Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, as the countries did not accept asylum seekers in accordance with the joint EU resettlement programme.
Another issue on which the fate of the Union hangs is the lack of general leadership. Currently, the EU does not have a leader who could see the Union as a whole and start developing it in a clearly defined direction.

“The leadership is not very strategic and there are no candidates for the post of leader who could change the EU’s direction. Driving a broad European solution would require courage, and no easy victory can be achieved. This problem is a reflection of national thinking. On the other hand, taking care of unexpected, acute problems such as the issue of refugees and financial problems have not left enough room for long-term development,” Ojanen adds.

Ojanen calls for a leader who would be able to relieve the tension between the EU as a whole and the interests of the member states. Such a leader should be able to demonstrate that the Union is promoting issues important to its members. Solving the Polish case could serve as a good example of a Union that defends citizens and the rule of law regardless of the government in the country.

“Finland could also have some ideas regarding the direction in which the EU should develop. We will hold the EU Presidency in 2019, so now would be a good time to talk about our views,” Ojanen says.

Finding leadership is also crucial to the way in which the Union prepares for and takes a stance on larger developments.

“No one knows for sure how the climate will change or how the migratory movements of displaced people will evolve, but both are likely to take place faster than previously thought. One can try to solve these issues nationally or one at a time – looking at next year or the year after that – or one can try to see the big, long-term picture and attempt to influence it. The EU is a slow actor and therefore it would be appropriate to have it create and maintain policies for the longer term,” Ojanen says.

The development of the EU means that the member states are no longer separate from one another. People have noticed that what happens in one country may have a bearing on what happens in others. According to Ojanen, the way the media dealt with the elections in Austria, the Netherlands and France is one example of this.

“It is an interesting and stimulating new thing that the political situation in other countries gives people a reason to vote in a particular way in our own elections,” Ojanen says.

For this reason, Brexit may turn out to be beneficial for the EU if the outcome is the discovery that it is not in the interests of the United Kingdom to leave the Union and that the country does not even really want to go.

“Other countries are now carefully contemplating what to say about EU policies, and even people who are vocal in their opposition to the Union do not want to encourage citizens to think that it would be a good idea to leave it,” Ojanen points out.

According to Ojanen, a multi-speed EU is a likely scenario. In the future, the member states could have more options to choose which issues they want to cooperate on more closely and which they do not wish to get involved in at all.

“In a way this is nothing new. Not all countries have the euro as their currency or apply similar rules concerning the Schengen Agreement. In the future, such flexibility might increase and have more of an effect on the EU,” Ojanen adds.

So far, all countries have largely got what they wanted from the EU, and therefore it suits them to keep their options open. On the other hand, in the future there may be closer cooperation on economic and security and defence policy, for example.

“In the area of economic policy, stricter budget control and a tighter integration of national budgets are a possibility,” Ojanen says.

Cooperation on defence issues could be symbolically important, even though it has thus far only occurred among small groups of like-minded member states, but this in itself would not change the status quo in the EU in a significant way.

Ojanen does not believe there will be a break-up of the EU, but neither does she foresee the deepening of wide scale integration in all policy areas.

“The European Union could have clear tiers, with the core and outer tiers on different levels. Countries could move between these tiers over time and according to areas of cooperation. The outer tiers could also include more distant countries, such as Israel, Australia and Canada,” Ojanen says.

Geography could thus be beside the point when the cooperation of states is reformed and furthered to respond to the new global situation.

Text: Sanna Sevänen
Picture: Jonne Renvall