Europe: challenges ahead

June 2024
By Elena Valenciano*

After the elections to the European Parliament, held between 6 and 9 May, and before the new legislature gets underway, it is worth reflecting on the immediate future of the European Union, a shared common space and the best example of coexistence among European citizens in our troubled history. Coexistence, prosperity, freedom, justice and peace such that do not exist in any other geopolitical space in the world.

I will not dwell on the achievements of the last 65 years, which are well known.

The purpose of this short opinion column is rather addressing the immediate challenges that the EU will face in the next ten years.

My first assertion is that the world has changed, although I will refer here only to the Western Euro area.

Since 2008, first in the wake of the financial crisis and then the economic and social crises, politics and geopolitics have also been transformed. The slow exit from that crisis with millions of impoverished households, companies and countries showed the weaknesses and imbalances of the EU, especially in Southern countries.

While the US governed the crisis with public investment plans, the EU applied budget cuts and an austerity policy that proved negative for millions of businesses and households.

Let us recall some of the relevant event that have impacted our social and political environment in the last year:

• In 2014, Russia invades Crimea, without seeing a consistent European reaction.
• In 2015, we witnessed the crisis of refugees trying to reach Europe. Europe proved ineffective and cruel to the rest of the world.
• In 2018, Trump is elected President of the USA. We were faced with an EU adversary in the White House.
• In 2019-2020 came Brexit.
• 2020 saw the health pandemic originating in China. The world economy grinds to a halt, thus causing enormous human suffering and fear.
• On 24 February 2022, Russia invades Ukraine, blowing up all the principles of international law.

If there is one thing the EU has realised, after navigating through all these crises, it is its deficit of autonomy in key areas of citizens’ well-being. These are some of the issues we are faced with:

• Our energy depends on Russia.
• Trade depends on China with its dominance of the commodities of the future.
• Security is underpinned by the United States.
• And we have the serious problem of an ageing society.

The pro-European approach, then, consists of building greater autonomy in strategic sectors through more Europe, more integration and more investment without abandoning the axis of open trade (this is essential since over 50% of European GDP depends on imports and exports) and a commitment to reindustrialisation and multilateralism.

Meanwhile, in many Member States, and in a large part of European society, we are witnessing the resurgence of an identity populism that draws on the sources of disappointment, marginalisation, precariousness and fear of the future that has taken root in large segments of society.

The European Parliament that has emerged from these elections is the one with the largest number of breakaway forces in its history: real Trojan Horses for the EU.

My second assertion is that we are at a historic crossroads. The EU will have to decide whether to continue and strengthen its path of integration and unity or to change course towards a nationalist retreat and thus less Europe.

We need to decide whether, in the end, we want to tackle the enormous challenges of the present and the immediate future by building a solid economic, fiscal, commercial, political and social unity that carries weight on the global stage, or whether we are going to settle for market unity and nations entrenched within their own borders in the face of a complex, competitive and uncertain world.

My third assertion is that the centre, pro-European majority, made up of popular, social democrats, liberals and, occasionally, environmentalists, who have built the EU as we know it today, is at risk from the rise of far-right forces that lack a European project (but for its shrinking).

We can see that the EU of which the founding fathers dreamed has never had so many external and internal enemies, nor can we ignore the fact that we are facing a highly inflammable geostrategic juncture.

The political polarisation in many Member States, the isolationist tendency of the USA, China’s aggressive trade policy, Putin’s imperial dream, instability in the Middle East, and all those political expressions that point to Brussels and immigration as the great evils of our time, are moving forward and we are not knowing how to stop them.

It is true that we have the advantage of having weathered with reasonable success the two –or three if we count the UK’s exit– crises that have tested us over the past five years.

In the first half of the period, we saw the COVID outbreak: Europe was able to respond both in combating the virus and in rebuilding our post-COVID economies.

In the second half of the period: the invasion of Ukraine by Russia found a common response despite obvious difficulties and differences within the EU. But the Union has amply demonstrated its commitment to Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty and has sanctioned and distanced itself from Putin’s government.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said in the Israeli-Palestinian war, where we have not made any progress.

However, if the EU is not to lose the economic and technological race (on which Europe’s prosperity and even welfare state will depend) to China and the United States, it needs a real investment shock in the coming years, huge amounts of money.

The green transition remains one of the main challenges that must not be abandoned in any case, but there are others that are much more urgent. I am referring to our security, to the defence of our integrity, which is at the same time the defence of our model of freedom and prosperity.

We must develop a much more ambitious security and defence policy than we have had so far. This requires a truly cohesive foreign policy so that the world hears the EU speak with one voice on the world stage.

The primary sector of our economy, which suffers from strong foreign competition and a bureaucratic jungle in Brussels that makes it difficult to access the aid and benefits contained in the CAP, will have to be taken care of.

It will also be necessary to solve the problems of regulation, which we Europeans defend but represents is a serious handicap in the race for innovation in the face of the technological giants that are overtaking us: USA, China and Canada.

It will also be necessary to devise an effective and supportive reception policy for all the immigrants and refugees who will not stop arriving and whom we need in Europe. In the next five years more than 80 million Europeans will retire!

We must begin to see immigration as a mutual benefit, for the newcomer and for those of us who are here. If we do not resolutely combat racist and xenophobic discourse, it is the European Union itself that will end up paying for it through the surge of extremist political forces that do NOT believe in European integration (as we have seen in these elections).

There are many other challenges. Those I have mentioned in this article are just a sample of the urgent need for Europeans to work together, to design inclusive but also competitive and sustainable policies.

There is an erosion of the liberal model and of democratic systems. We are witnessing a questioning of the rule of law and international rules. Much of the world challenges the universality of human rights, within and beyond our borders.

This time it is not just about moving forward. The challenge is to make the European model survive without abandoning our commitment to a more just and peaceful world.

* Former socialist MEP – Spain