Just when you thought that most European politicians had become hopelessly entangled in party politics, deaf and blind to the ghosts of tragedies past walking in our midst, some are finally waking up and starting to hit back at the toxic Eurosceptics, xenophobes and Far Right politicians who have so far dominated – nay, dictated – the EU agenda.
And the passion, clash and angry exchanges between the pro-Europeans and those who are working to undermine European values and interests – from within and from outside – are making Europe exciting again.
Take the recent acrimonious exchanges between Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini and Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn on African migrants.
And the “Little Mussolinis” comment made by Pierre Moscovici, the EU’s Economics Affairs Commissioner, to describe the Far Right politicians strutting across the European stage.
Take also the unprecedented European Parliament censure of the Hungarian government for its assault on civil liberties, judicial independence, educational freedom and media plurality.
After years of humming and hawing, procrastinating, just over two-thirds of MEPs voted last week in favour of a motion declaring that Hungary is at risk of breaching the EU’s core values.
The vote triggered the Article 7 disciplinary process that could in theory see Budapest stripped of its EU voting rights.
That probably won’t happen.
Poland, itself currently facing Article 7 proceedings launched by the European Commission, clearly isn’t going to say yes to any such decision against Hungary in the EU Council. Still, the political importance of the Parliamentary vote shouldn’t be under-estimated.
It proves, for one thing, that there is no hiding place. The intra-EU divide over values including democracy, rule of law and human rights is out in the open, visible to the world.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban made clear in Strasbourg that he won’t back down in his pursuit of an “illiberal democracy”. Others won’t step back either from reaffirming their commitment to what the EU’s founding fathers believed in.
Now three questions dominate: Will the European Peoples Party move to expel Orban’s Fidesz? EPP leader Manfred Weber, who is also running for the European Commission presidency voted for the motion against Hungary. But other members of his Christian Social Union did not.
So, will EU governments agree – as France has suggested – that distribution of funds under the EU budget should be conditional on countries’ respect for democratic norms? And how can the EU ensure that Hungarians and Polish citizens are still kept in the fold even as their governments are chastised?
Also, the European Parliament may have triggered Article 7 for the first time, but that won’t make populism disappear. In fact, let’s get used to it: European populism, nationalism, illiberalism is back. Across the continent, it is now a part of the EU political landscape.
As the recent elections in Sweden have illustrated, Far Right parties, with nasty histories but modern, preppy leaders who cloak their racist xenophobic views behind measured “reasonable” tones are gaining in strength. But they are by no means the dominant political players.
Ahead of the European Parliament elections in May next year, the challenge facing mainstream politicians is to take back ownership of the European narrative from the Eurosceptics and populists.
They can only do this if they stop embracing and thereby amplifying the populists’ toxic views. European citizens want to hear another more positive drumbeat about Europe. Negative narratives are debilitating, untrue and soul-destroying.
European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker is therefore right to condemn “unchecked nationalism” as “riddled with both poison and deceit” in his State of the Union address to the European Parliament. But a speech to the EU assembly is not enough.
If he really does believe that “Europe is a continent of openness and tolerance”, Juncker and his colleagues in the Commission should use the next few months in power to engage and connect with Europeans on controversial questions such as immigration and asylum, telling them some inconvenient truths about Europe’s need for foreign workers, talent and drive – and making sure that more of them come out to vote in May next year.
Certainly, as America retreats from its international obligations, China rises and Russia meddles, Global Europe, with its focus on a rules-based multilateral order, is more needed than ever before. The good news is that the EU is actively driving conversations on security, trade and climate change with partners in Asia.
Juncker’s reference to Africa as “Europe’s twin continent” is significant as is his comment that Africa needs a new Alliance for Sustainable Investment and Jobs and a continent-to-continent European African trade pact.
The challenge will be to walk the talk and ensure a true opening up of European markets to African trade. And to ensure that this new focus on Africa is not just about keeping migrants out of Europe.
Europe has hurtled from crisis to crisis in recent years. Not surprisingly, the narrative on Europe is largely negative and pessimistic. Internal attacks on EU rule of law provisions have muted the impact of Europe’s global voice on questions of human rights.
A season of excitement and reaffirmation of European values by European politicians does not signal a new beginning. But it is encouraging. So let’s savour the moment – and keep up the passionate exchanges on the future of Europe.