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Opinion 14 August 2019

The European Union: charting a course for the future

An op-ed piece by José Manuel González-Páramo, BBVA executive director and Head of Global Economics and Public Affairs, published in the Spanish daily newspaper, ABC, on August 14.

Europe is a historical success. Peace, prosperity, and freedom are the hallmarks of this shared project. Although Brexit seems a foregone conclusion, populist and nationalist candidates in other European countries have retreated from their eagerness to follow the U.K. example. In the context of globalization and fast-paced disruptive change, would any isolated European country stand a chance at being a relevant player on the international geopolitical stage, competing with behemoths like the U.S. and China? A strong, creative, united and committed EU creates the necessary conditions for a better future for all Europeans. But there is still a long way to go. Europe is at a crossroads and cannot stand still. Europe – Europeans – must move forward, charting a course for the future, deciding what direction we want to go, and setting our sights on a beacon.
The European Union’s first challenge is the preservation of its unity and receptiveness to the world. It must stand united against populist and nationalist attacks, united in the refusal to compromise its principles in the Brexit negotiations, and united to prevent further attacks on the common currency, a central element of European integration. It would behoove the European Union to agree a common fiscal policy, in addition to completing the banking union.

Although Brexit seems a foregone conclusion, populist and nationalist candidates in other European countries have retreated from their eagerness to follow the U.K. example

Furthermore, Europe, a major economic power and the largest internal market in the world, will have to continue developing its free trade agreement policy. This relationship goes beyond mere economics; we implicitly export our standards when we dictate the conditions that must apply when negotiating with the EU: conditions related to the environment, foodstuffs, diversity, society. In other words, we share our values and vision of the world with our trading partners.

In addition, Europe must be firmly committed to multilateralism: it is crucial that mechanisms are in place that facilitate cooperation on questions like international trade, climate change, biodiversity, and the regulation of new technologies. International organizations (the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, etc.) can provide the forums where Europe leads the debate on these issues, shares information, and advocates for common solutions.

Immigration is another factor related to EU receptiveness. The immigration crisis in Europe has challenged its sense of solidarity and cohesion. Increased immigration in Europe – even the idea of it – has caused a backlash among nationalist sympathizers. Nevertheless, in light of the EU’s aging population, only an organized approach to immigration will help us tackle our demographic problem.

The immigration crisis in Europe has challenged its sense of solidarity and cohesion

A second significant challenge facing Europe is that it needs to become a power that can defend itself. The EU will have to assert its independence without dropping out of NATO, which will continue to be a central element of the European defense strategy. Europeans must overcome a pervasive fear of the idea of Europe as a military power – starting with Germany, due to its role in history. It will be particularly important to work on creating both a traditional and cybersecurity defense force for Europe.

Europe’s third great challenge is the improvement of its decision-making mechanisms. In a world in the midst of transformation, Europe needs to cultivate agility. Doing so necessitates a review of its system of governance. Steps have already been taken to achieve this objective: the president-elect of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has called for a change to how EU foreign policy is set. She champions policymaking by qualified majority rather than unanimous agreement. This concept should extend to other European domains: those countries that want to work more closely should be able to increase their cooperation on specific issues, without being held back by non-participating countries or by those countries who are dominated by nationalists bent on hampering EU development from within.

Europe needs to cultivate agility. Doing so necessitates a review of its system of governance

The fourth challenge arises in response to populist and nationalist threats: Europe needs to convince ordinary people of the virtue of the European project and mobilize the silent majority in support of European integration, in defiance of protectionist and separatist minorities. The Europe of the past 70 years has been characterized by the strength of its middle class. Nevertheless, in many advanced societies, globalization and technological change are undermining this group. There is uncertainty about how to align transformation with social programs and appropriate education and training. What’s more, with the emergence of robots and artificial intelligence, many middle-class employees will find that their jobs have been made obsolete. It is imperative that Europe embraces its digital future as soon as possible and supports its citizens as they adapt to inevitable change. The EU must place the age of opportunity within reach of all its citizens.

Europe is at a crossroads; if it doesn’t stand up as the master of its own destiny, there is a very real risk that it will fall into irrelevance and become dependent on the superpowers that define their roles in this new world for themselves. An ambitious Europe that is willing to assume its role as a world power will be able to build on its promising project, loyal to its democratic ideals, espousing the rule of law and respect for individual liberties – expression and free-movement – it will promote acceptance of the world and stay alert to inequality. It will focus on the individual and promises to create a sustainable future. There is no time to lose. Reflection must manifest itself in action, just as muses become art.

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